A potential candidate for Prime Minister has criticised government ministers for delaying new equality legislation.

John McDonnell, who earlier this year declared his intention to stand for the Labour party leadership when Tony Blair relinquishes the post, expressed alarm at reports that government figures such as the Prime Minister and Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly were caving into pressure from Christian groups to allow exemptions in the new Sexual Orientation Regulations.

The Observer reported last weekend that a battle had emerged between the government’s ‘Catholic tendency,’ with Prime Minister Tony Blair known to be concerned about offending faith schools and religious based adoption agencies.

While Ms Kelly has previously been criticised for her membership of Catholic group Opus Dei who proscribe using Christian values in daily and work life.

The new Equality Act, which has now been delayed until April, aims to outlaw discrimination in the provision of goods and services for the LGBT community, but protests from Christian groups appear to have led to a delay.

Writing on his blog, Mr McDonnell, who has a good voting record on gay rights compared to other candidates for the leadership, said there should be no objections to the legislation, “This is a very basic and overdue simple piece of legislation which removes a remaining discriminatory practice. No fair minded person living in a civilised society should have any objection to this measure.”

The MP for Hayes and Harlington harked back to his former role as a councillor in the Greater London Council in the 1980s when the authority was criticised for funding a gay counselling service, he said the politicians stuck to their beliefs and ignored protests then and should do the same now.

The Department for Communities and Local Government which is in charge of implementation of the bill along with the Women and Equality Unit, insist the delay is due to the large number of responses to the consultation a spokesperson said: “We do not recognise this story. It is nonsense to claim we are blocking regulations. We are absolutely committed to bringing forward proposals that provide effective protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

“The delay is purely a result of the huge response to the consultation with over 3000 responses received. This is a complex area so it is only right that we take the time to consider them fully and carefully to make sure our proposals are workable and provide effective protection from discrimination.”

Junior Women and Equality Minister Meg Munn, whose remit involves representing the gay community, reassured PinkNews.co.uk that the government would be keeping its promises on the guidelines, she said the reports of exemptions are unfounded, ?We were on a tight timescale, the consultation closed in June and we had a much higher number of responses than we expected.

“We have kept in touch with all interested parties on this issue.”