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Volume 670: debated on Thursday 17 March 2005

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asked Her Majesty's Government:Further to the Written Answers by the Baroness Scotland of Asthal on 8 February

(WA 98) and 24 February (WA 226), why "the benefits of the new provision against incitement to religious hatred" have any bearing on the Government's review of the blasphemy laws. [HL1542]

Although the issue of blasphemy has arisen throughout recent discussions on incitement, there has never been any suggestion on the part of the Government that the two are linked a priori. Moreover, this has been an important part of our message on the new offence. The Government have been at pains to emphasise that the proposed measure is not an extension of the law on blasphemy—that it is about protecting people, not beliefs.However, it is partly due to the understandable tendency to link the two that the Government have decided to pause before taking a serious look at the blasphemy offences.There has been substantial public debate on the issue of incitement which has, unfortunately, led to some unrealistic expectations. The Government believe that to tackle the issue of blasphemy would lead to confusion. We are keen to wait until the impact of incitement has been assessed and related expectations have been given time to settle.Furthermore, although the Law Commission and the Select Committee on Religious Offences have reflected on the matter in detail, there has not been a wide-ranging consultation on blasphemy, and nor has there been a consensus on what action should be taken. A recent ICM poll shows that public opinion is much more divided on blasphemy than on incitement to religious hatred, 57 per cent of those polled supporting the creation of this offence. Pausing before any further legislation is proposed will give the Government the opportunity to consult more widely.