The House of Lords voted again yesterday to include an amendment protecting ‘free speech’ in a bill designed to protect gays and lesbians from homophobic hatred, although one peer, Lord Smith, warned it could lead to homophobic attacks.
This means that the government will try again to pass the law, in the Coroners and Justice Bill, today before the parliamentary session ends.
Peers say the amendment is necessary to protect the free speech of those who criticise homosexuality or urge gays to turn straight. They voted 179 to 135 to include the amendment.
There have been a number of recent police investigations against people such as street preachers who have criticised Pride marches.
The amendment was added by Lord Waddington and supported by other peers but was rejected 342 votes to 145 by MPs on Tuesday. 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.”
Lord Waddington told peers last night: “If we are to finish up with a free speech clause in the religious hatred offence but no free speech clause here, we’re simply asking for trouble.”
Labour peer Lord Smith, the first MP to come out as gay, said that including the amendment could lead to more anti-gay attacks.
London has seen an 18 per cent rise in homophobic attacks in the last year, while areas such as Manchester have reported even higher levels.
Lord Smith said: “There is already a huge amount of anxiety and fear among the gay community about the increasing level of attacks.
“If the signal that the House sends is that it is all right to be intolerant, I fear that we will end up seeing more violence and more attacks and more difficulty for people simply because of their sexual orientation. That is why I feel so passionately.
“If this House stands up for free speech, as it so often has to, on this particular matter, it is at risk of sending the wrong signal to the wrong people outside.”