Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott is often accused of not having much relevance in government, but yesterday he took a stand for gay rights.

Representing Tony Blair at Prime Minister’s questions, Mr Prescott backed the incoming Sexual Orientation Regulations amid criticism from a Northern Ireland MP.

DUP member Jeffrey Donaldson raised the issue of the new laws, which will be introduced first in Northern Ireland in the New Year, highlighting opposition from Christian leaders, he said: “With the sexual orientation regulations, many Christian leaders are speaking out against what the Government are doing in putting the Christian Church under pressure.

“In Northern Ireland, those regulations are being imposed against the wishes of the vast majority of people in that part of the United Kingdom. Is it not time that the Government caught themselves on and started to listen to the majority in this country, who are fed up with being discriminated against as Christians?”

His criticism follows outbursts this week by the Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, Vincent Nichols, and the Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, as well as a controversial advert in the Times by religious groups.

But not one to shy away from confrontation, Mr Prescott launched a robust defence of the law and accused the politician of being intolerant.

He said: “I am not a religious man, but I always understood that religion was about tolerance. There is not much tolerance being shown in what the hon. Gentleman has said.

“It is a pity that we do not show more tolerance to different cultures and different religions. We would be a lot better off for it.”

Recent remarks by religious groups have been criticised by gay rights groups and the government.

Referring to the Times advertisement, which claimed that the legislation will end the concept of “freedom of conscience”, Ben Summerskill, chief executive of gay charity Stonewall, told PinkNews.co.uk: “I think it’s a sign of an increasing desperation that these individuals have had to resort to a string of lies.”

Equality minister Meg Munn has also moved to silence the religious criticism, “It is right that there should be a public debate on these complex and difficult issues, but that debate should be conducted in a calm and measured way rather than through inaccurate and wild speculation,” she said.