The Government last night succeeded in deleting a free speech protection from its proposed homophobic hatred offence. But the House of Lords has another chance to reinsert one tonight.
MPs in the House of Commons backed a Government motion to delete the free speech amendment. They voted 338 to 136.
The Government will attempt to address concerns by tabling a different amendment in the Lords tonight which would require the Government to publish statutory guidance on the new law.
But critics say this falls short of the protection which would be offered by a specific free speech protection written into the Bill. The Lords will have an opportunity to reinsert the free speech protection tonight.
The protection seeks to make it clear that criticising homosexual practice or urging people to refrain from such conduct will not, in itself, be a crime.
The amendment says, “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.”
But the Government says the amendment is not necessary because the law has a high threshold which only catches threatening words or behaviour intended to stir up hatred.
Opponents disagree. They say that a free speech clause is needed because overzealous police officers have misapplied laws in the past and investigated incidents that are not criminal.
Andrew Selous MP warned of overzealous police action.
Speaking in last night’s Commons debate, Conservative MP Andrew Selous said: “An elderly pensioner couple, a bishop of the Church of England, a Roman Catholic archbishop, a leading Muslim figure and a leading author have been investigated by the police, and when that happens people worry about the nature of our society.”
The Government claims that people need not worry becasue the Attorney General must approve prosecutions and will have a duty to consider European Convention rights on free speech and religious liberty.
However, Ann Widdecombe MP pointed out: “The cases cited by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) did not reach the Attorney-General. They did not come under her discretion, and the convention on human rights did not apply, as they were dealt with at a much lower level, by the police.
“One reason to put something explicit on the face of the Bill is to ensure that the need to have regard for religious freedom and freedom of conscience is taken into account at all levels.”
Ann Widdecombe MP said free speech needs to be taken into account at all levels.
Minister of State, Maria Eagle said: “We have looked carefully at some of the examples cited in which the police have allegedly been over-zealous in investigating incidents; the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) referred to some of them.
“I think that we would all agree that those cases involve a delicate balance, and the police need to act sensitively and proportionately. That is a matter for training, guidance and awareness, rather than a matter of putting words in the Bill that do not make the offence clearer.”