A candidate for the leadership of the Liberal Democrat party has told PinkNews.co.uk that he is “absolutely in favour” of a proposed new law to make incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation an offence.

Nick Clegg, who is the party’s home affairs spokesperson, dismissed concerns from some gay commentators that the law is unnecessary, saying there is a “real problem of overt homophobic incitement to violence.”

The party’s 2005 manifesto promised legislation to tackle this issue.

“I passionately believe that there is a real problem,” Mr Clegg said.

“I have become persuaded by the evidence put forward by Stonewall that this is a real issue.

“What we did on the religious hatred bill shows that we can strike the right balance between making sure that hateful crime does not take place but at the same time protecting peoples right to free speech.

“Under my leadership I will make absolutely sure that we are at the forefront of getting the balance right with this legislation.”

In an interview with PinkNews.co.uk the other contender for the leadership, Chris Huhne, was less forthright in his support for a new law.

“I think that incitement to any violence frankly is already illegal. I’m not sure that taking in a further offence adds an awful lot,” he said.

“I wouldn’t want to go so far as to act as an obstacle in the law to freedom of speech but I would want to protect people who are targeted because of race or sexual orientation, anything which is an innate part of their character.”

The government announced last week that it will introduce a new offence of incitement to violence on the grounds of sexual orientation in the new Criminal Justice and immigration Bill.

Transgender and disabled people are to be included in the new law.

The Conservative party said it will “look carefully” at proposals from the government.

Shadow Justice Secretary Nick Herbert told MPs during the second reading of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill last month that the right to free speech must be balanced with protecting gay people from hatred.

Christian and Muslim groups are opposed to the proposed legislation.

The new law will target people who create an “atmosphere or climate” which fosters hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation.

Anyone found guilty could face up to seven years in jail.

The police will decide if a person’s comments or actions are serious enough to warrant prosecution.

Yesterday the Mayor of London Ken Livingstone said he backed the new incitement law.

“It must meet at least the standard set by the 1986 Public Order Act provisions against incitement to racial hatred,” he said.

“Anything that falls short of this, as was unfortunately the case with the Act outlawing incitement to religious hatred, is likely to be ineffective and so bring the law into disrepute.”

Around 65,000 Lib Dem party members are eligible to vote in the election for party leader.

They will be sent ballot papers on November 21st which must be returned by 15th December.

The winner will be announced on Monday 17th December.