The lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans campaign group within the Labour party has said that the small group of party MPs who voted in favour of weakening a new law protecting gay people should be “disgraced by their actions.”
The Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill passed the Commons last night.
It contains a new offence of incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation.
Similar proposals to protect trans people were added to the Bill.
Katie Hanson, Co-Chair of LGBT Labour said: “Jack Straw and his team need to be applauded for delivering for the LGBT community on an issue that goes beyond the many manifesto commitments Labour made on LGBT issues.
“This legislation goes hand-in-hand with the work being done by Labour to tackle homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools and wider society.”
She had strong words for the rebel Labour MPs who defied a three-line whip from their own party to vote for an amendment that would have weakened the homophobic incitement proposal:
“The 12 Labour MP who voted against should be seen as they are – a small irrelevant fringe who should be disgraced by their actions,” said Ms Hanson.
“LGBT Labour will be writing to all of these MPs to demand answers and the chair of their local labour parties to express our sincere disappointment.
“This Labour Government has achieved more for LGBT people than any other government and that should not be forgotten.”
The amendment, introduced by Labour MP Jim Dobbin, would have allowed criticism of and expression of antipathy towards conduct relating to a particular sexual orientation, or urging persons of a particular sexual orientation to refrain from or modify conduct according to that orientation.
All the Tory MPs who voted bar five were in favour of the amendment along with the 12 Labour rebels, five DUP MPs and four Lib Dems.
The Conservative Shadow Justice Secretary Nick Herbert voted for the amendment along with the party’s equality spokesman Theresa May.
“The LGBT community should be careful not to sleep walk into a Tory Government who yet again show themselves to be against LGBT equality,” said Ms Hanson.
“Cameron says his party has changed but this – yet again – shows they are still the same old Tories.”
Concerns that the new offence of homophobic incitement might impinge on free speech have been expressed by some leading gay commentators.
Writing in The Times Mathew Parris said that if homophobic insults were to become unlawful, “why should we remain free to sneer, in ways inciting hatred, at a person’s being Welsh, or Irish?
“Lines of absolute principle are hard to draw,” he added, “but some groups may be so weak and fragile as to need the law’s protection from hateful speech. I’d like to think we gays are no longer among them.”
In The Independent, Johann Hari added that while the views of Richard Littlejohn and Sir Iqbal Sacranie were the kind that might “encourage thugs who are likely to bottle somebody on a Saturday night,” it was better to meet their views in open debate.
“Gay people need to be confident enough to know that our arguments are so strong that they will win in any free, open exchange of views,” he said.
What is needed, however, Mr Hari argued, is a cultural change within the police force to enforce the laws already in place which make it a crime to incite violence or murder on the grounds of sexuality.
Peter Tatchell, writing on The Guardian website, agreed.
“Introducing legislation prohibiting the incitement of homophobic hatred seems a bit amiss when already-existing laws are not being enforced.
“All incitements to hatred should be treated with the same zero tolerance. But not, in my opinion, by means of criminal sanctions,” he added.
Gay equality organisation Stonewall and the Equality and Human Rights Commission back the new law.
Trevor Phillips, Chair of the EHRC, said:
“Incitement of homophobic hatred goes beyond mere criticism or what some consider offensive.
“It’s about stopping the vile words that prompt violence.
“No one is suggesting we should lock up comics whose jokes offend or curb criticism from the pulpit.
“This is about song lyrics that urge others to kill or websites and publications that falsely peddle inflammatory myths as fact.
“It’s essential we balance freedom of speech against any need for anti-incitement legislation.
“Having looked at the government’s proposals we think they have struck the right balance, the Commission is persuaded the proposals are fair and needed.”