The justice committee of the lower house of the Italian parliament has approved the text of a new bill that will outlaw homophobic crime.

The measure is part of a larger legislative package designed to tackle violence against women, children and old people and gender discrimination.

Yesterday the Minister for Equal Opportunities, Barbara Pollastrini, said: “every year, there are more women dying from violence than from diseases or accidents.”

Details about the provisions on homophobia are sketchy, but AKI news agency reports that “homophobia will be punishable with a prison sentence of up to four years” and “the bill makes it a crime to express ‘reservations’ against individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation.”

The new legislation expands an 1993 anti-racism law.

In February the Italian government agreed to bring forward legislation that will grant legal recognition for gay and lesbian couples for the first time.

The decision was criticised on all sides. Gay campaigners complained that the proposed new “civil pacts of solidarity” are a watered down version of what the coalition government had promised at last year’s election.

Catholic MPs denounced the new bill as an attack on marriage.

However, the cabinet decision will be a relief for Prime Minister Romano Prodi.

His nine-party coalition has spent months tussling over the new bill, with rumours the government could collapse over the issue. It is unclear if the proposed “civil pacts” will be passed by the country’s parliament.