Page last updated at 20:23 GMT, Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Ministers win vote on gay hatred

Parliament
The Lib Dems said there had to be extra guidance on the law's use

An attempt to insert a defence of "free speech" into a bill designed to criminalise incitement to hatred over sexual orientation has failed.

Campaigners had said the Coroners and Justice Bill would limit expression - some comedians claimed the proposals could leave them open to prosecution.

But ministers said the "free speech proviso" would have provided a loophole for those wishing to incite hatred.

The government defeated the attempt to amend the bill by 154 votes.

The cross-party bid to insert the amendment was led by Labour's David Taylor.

'Discussion'

The controversy stems from last year's Criminal Justice and Immigration Act when Tory former home secretary Lord Waddington succeeded in amending the legislation dealing with inciting hatred on grounds of sexual orientation to allow for "discussion or criticism" of sexual practices.

The government was unable to remove the amendment last year due to a lack of parliamentary time but is now using the Coroners and Justice Bill to scrap it.

Mr Taylor, MP for Leicestershire North West, said his proposal simply made "clear that discussion or criticism of sexual conduct is not caught by the homophobia law".

High-profile critics of the government's approach have included Blackadder star Rowan Atkinson, who claimed it could stifle creativity for writers and comedians.

Shadow justice secretary Dominic Grieve said that, on balance, he was in favour of an amendment.

'Latched onto'

He added: "It will provide comfort and reassurance to people that they can continue to express their views.

"Messages get sent out from this place which get latched onto by pressure groups wishing to stop other people expressing legitimate views - even if those legitimate views are in fact nonsensical.

"We cannot have a working democracy without the underpinning of freedom of speech, which also requires the tolerance of the opinions of individuals who we may think are either bonkers or which we dislike."

Liberal Democrat justice spokesman David Howarth supported the government's intention of scrapping the "Waddington amendment", which he said was "either useless or dangerous".

But he said ministers should introduce a requirement to provide guidance to prosecutors and police on use of the new law.

Justice minister Bridget Prentice said it was important to protect victims of threatening behaviour which was intended to stir up hatred but it was also important to protect the freedoms of those who wanted to express concerns about certain sexual behaviour in a reasonable way.

"They do not need to fear that they will be caught by the criminal law," she said.

Existing laws had a "very high threshold" with sufficient safeguards, Ms Prentice said, and Lord Waddington's amendment had never been needed.

She added that it had been opposed by the Commons last year.

Mr Taylor's amendment failed by 328 votes to 174.



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