A committee of MPs yesterday approved amendments to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill that will make incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation an offence.

None of the Conservative MPs on the committee voted against the proposals.

The Bill will now proceed to a report stage and third reading in the Commons before being sent to the Lords.

Justice minister Maria Eagle told the committee that the proposal is to outlaw only threatening words and behaviour.

“They are aimed not at insulting or abusive words and behaviour.

“In order for the offence to be made, there must be an intention to incite hatred, not a likelihood that hatred will be incited.

“That indicates that the offences are being pitched at the very highest level of intending to incite.

“We hope that this strikes the correct balance between making it clear that inciting hatred of a group, simply on the basis of its sexuality, is criminally wrong, while protecting inadvertent speech that may be taken by others to be inciting hatred.”

Ms Eagle added that the offence is much closer to that of inciting religious hatred than that of inciting racial hatred.

“It should allay the concerns of many who have contacted the government and, no doubt, members of the committee, who are concerned about inadvertently stumbling into committing offences, for example, by preaching religious doctrine or telling jokes, or through playground banter among children, some of which can be cruel but is not criminally wrong.”

Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill, who had previously given evidence to the committee on the need for an offence of homophobic incitement, welcomed yesterday’s decision.

“We are pleased that this step forward has now been taken,” he told PinkNews.co.uk

“We know very well that there will be a lot of work to do to get it through its remaining Commons stages and the Lords, but we regard what we have secured so far as an early Christmas present.”

Tory Justice spokesperson Nick Herbert explained that the party had introduced its own amendment, which stresses the need for free speech but criminalises threatening words and behaviour.

“Hatred towards gay people has no place in a civilised society, and it is right that the criminal law should prohibit threatening acts and words which incite it.

“It is also vital in a democratic society that freedom of expression protected, provided that its purpose is not to cause harm.”