The House of Commons voted last night to reject an amendment which would protect free speech in a bill designed to protect gays and lesbians from homophobic hatred.
The amendment was added Lord Waddington and supported by other peers but was rejected 342 votes to 145 by MPs last night. It was the fourth time the Commons had voted on it.
The clause in question reads: “For the avoidance of doubt, the discussion or criticism of sexual conduct or practices or the urging of persons to refrain from or modify such conduct or practices shall not be taken of itself to be threatening or intended to stir up hatred.”
This gives protection to those criticise homosexuality and urge gays to turn straight.
Peers such as Lord Waddington had argued that the amendment was necessary to protect free speech, while public figures including gay actor Christopher Biggins and Rowan Atkinson had expressed concerns it would lead to comedians being prosecuted for risque jokes.
Tory MP for Gainsborough Edward Leigh argued: “Lord Waddington is not trying to stir up hatred. He just wants free speech. If people want to say that Roman Catholicism is wrong, let them. That is free speech, and the House should be very careful when it attacks free speech.”
Justice minister Claire Ward said: “We believe that we have got the balance right without the so-called freedom of expression saving provision. In introducing those new offences to protect victims of that bigotry and hatred, we looked very carefully before we proceeded.”
She continued: “We have set a very high threshold for the offences, which can be prosecuted only with the consent of the Attorney-General . . . The provision does not need to be in the bill, and therefore we must question why those Lords who supported the amendment wanted it made to the Bill. Such freedom of expression already exists.”
Anne Widdecombe, Tory MP for Maidstone and the Weald, countered that those without “parliamentary privilege” had found themselves in trouble with the law for expressing their opinions on homosexuality.
She said: “I have said in this House that I do not believe that homosexual couples should adopt children. No police appeared on my doorstep. When a children’s author gave exactly the same opinion on a radio programme – under questioning; they did not just volunteer it – the police got involved.”
Ward said: “In order to fall foul of the bill, the person’s words would have to be threatening and their behaviour intended to stir up hatred. If they did intend to stir up hatred, I believe, and the government believe, that they should be guilty of the offence – that the threshold should have been reached.
“They may not use threatening words and intend to stir up hatred on the ground of sexual orientation, but that is quite different from the reality of what goes on in churches, mosques and other religious places up and down the country.
David Taylor, Labour and Co-operative MP for North West Leicestershire, cited recent cases of Christians and street preachers coming under police scrutiny.
He argued: “There is a lot of public sympathy for these victims of police heavy-handedness in the area of gay rights, and I think that people would like to see us make provision to try to stop this sort of trampling on people’s civil liberties. The free speech clause does nothing whatever to reduce the level of protection that the government – quite rightly, and with widespread support – aim to give to gay people.”
Justice minister Ward closed the debate, saying: “It is important that we make it clear to the public and to those who have strong religious and moral views that we are in no way fettering their freedom of speech.
“However, we are making it equally clear that those views cannot be used to justify threats or words intended to stir up hatred. The section currently in the legislation is unnecessary. It is appropriate to send a clear message, for the fourth time, back to the other place that this House does not agree with the amendment.”