The Conservative party has said it will “look carefully” at proposals from the government to introduce a new offence of inciting hate against gay, lesbian and bisexual people.
Shadow Justice Secretary Nick Herbert told MPs during the second reading of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill that the right to free speech must be balanced with protecting gay people from hatred.
The Liberal Democrats welcomed the proposed new offence, which will be added to the bill as an amendment in committee stage.
Evan Harris MP pointed out that a homophobic incitement law was a manifesto commitment for the Lib Dems.
“As one who was involved in the wording of the religious hatred provisions that now exist, may I commend to him the wording on which the House settled in that context?” he told Justice Secretary Jack Straw.
“I believe that, on the whole, it strikes the right balance between freedom of speech, ensuring that the offence must be intentional, and covering threatening language only.”
Mr Herbert, the MP for Arundel and South Downs, was appointed to the Shadow Justice role in July.
“We will look carefully at the proposed offence of inciting homophobic hatred because clearly there are important considerations in terms of the right balance between protecting free speech and a desire to protect gay people from hatred,” he told the House.
“We will debate the provisions in committee once we have seen them.”
At a gay fringe meeting at the Tory party conference last week, Mr Herbert said that the “centre of gravity” in the party was changing with regard to gay issues.
He said he was proud of the stance his party took in relation to the Sexual Orientation Regulations passed earlier this year, which protect gay, lesbian and bisexual people from discrimination in goods and services.
Party leader David Cameron and 28 other modernisers did vote for the legislation, but over 80 voted against.
Some Tory MPs expressed concern about the proposed incitement law in the Commons yesterday.
John Redwood, a former Cabinet Minister under John Major, expressed doubts yesterday about the government’s plans to outlaw homophobic incitement.
“In my constituency I am receiving a number of representations from the Christian community, as, I am sure, are other Members.
“Will the right honourable Gentleman (Justice Secretary Jack Straw) reassure the House that he will take full account of the wish to preserve freedom of speech for those expressing Christian views?”
The Justice Secretary said that they must be “extremely careful to ensure that the law strikes a proper balance” and that MPs and the House of Lords would examine the proposed legislation carefully.
Des Turner, Labour MP for Brighton Kemptown, praised the proposal and pointed out that an offence of incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexuality already exists in Northern Ireland.
“It has incurred virtually no controversy nor has it led to a rash of frivolous prosecutions,” he told MPs.
“In other words, it has been accepted and understood, and we should extend that offence to the rest of the UK.
“It is only right that the protection that we already afford to potential victims of hatred because of their race should be extended to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals who are as unable to choose their sexual identity as they are to choose their race.
“I note with sadness that the honourable Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), who spoke on behalf of the Opposition, did not tell us what approach they will take to the provision.
“It would be nice to know whether they will support a measure that I hope will have universal agreement in this House.”
Mr Turner referred to Christian activists who protest Pride events, the activities of the BNP and the influence of homophobic rap and reggae artists.
“If anyone still doubts the need for protective legislation, they need only look at what is happening around them.
“Look for instance at some of the allegedly Christian websites in the UK. Christian Voice speaks of “young people who are being drawn into a lifestyle characterised by disease, degradation, death and denial.”
“A site called Gay Conspiracy links homosexuality with paedophilia, which is a dreadful, ignorant libel on a significant section of our community.
“Some reggae groups have published lyrics urging the torture and murder of lesbians and gay men.
“Some record companies and artists have undertaken not to perform such material in future, but others have not and no legal action has yet been taken to prevent the sale of such material in Britain.
“The offence of incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexuality would rightly render such content liable to prosecution. Of course, the dear old British National party has also made homophobia a political campaign and promulgated the specious link between homosexuality and paedophilia.”
Evan Harris MP said that his fellow Lib Dems would balance the need for free speech for groups such as Christian Voice.
He said their comments on homosexuals are offensive but, “criminalising it would create major problems.
“It is far better to debate. I do not believe that people who hear pastors go out and commit violent criminal offences.
“I think that it is often thugs, and people who grow up believing that gay people should not have full rights, who commit those offences.
“I believe that we can find a compromise that will protect the ability of some religious organisations – and we are by no means talking about the majority of Christians, for example – to spout words that I think are horrible nonsense, but that should not be criminalised.”
Yesterday’s debate featured two maiden speeches by new MPs.
Phil Wilson paid fulsome tribute to his predecessor as MP for Sedgefield, Tony Blair, while Virendra Sharma spoke about the hard work of the man he succeeded as MP for Ealing Southall, Piara Singh Khabra.