Free speech debated in the House of Lords

Members of the House of Lords last night criticised the Government’s bid to remove a free speech shield from the controversial ‘homophobic hatred’ offence.

The free speech protection makes clear that disagreeing with homosexual practice is not in itself a crime.

It was added to the new offence last May, but the Government and ‘gay rights’ groups want to remove it.

During yesterday’s debate Lord Waddington, the architect of the free speech amendment, pointed out that Christians had already been investigated by the police simply for criticising homosexual practice.

He said: “It is what happened to the Roberts couple from Fleetwood; it is what happened to Lynette Burrows, who dared to question the desirability of gay adoption on the radio.

“There is a real danger that similar scandals will occur in the future, but it is a danger that the free speech clause can help to avoid.”

He added: “They could not pick a worse time to behave in this way. There is, right now in this country, an intolerance of Christians of a sort that I never thought I would see.

“Street preachers are threatened and Christians expressing mainstream orthodox views on sexual behaviour are harassed and abused. A marriage registrar is bullied at work for asking to be excused from civil partnership duties; a housing charity worker is suspended for discussing with a colleague his beliefs about same-sex relationships.

“I fear that, if the Government get their way, not only will this intolerance grow, and those bent on silencing all who disagree with them gain new strength, but many will take the revocation of the safeguard as a signal that voicing views on morality—even making jokes about homosexuality—could attract the attention of the police and that they would be wise to keep quiet.”

Many peers spoke in support of Lord Waddington, raising concerns about the Government’s failure to protect free speech.

Lord Moran said: “It seems extraordinary that the Government should put this forward, so showing an apparent indifference to the preservation of free speech.

“It is interesting that leading homosexuals such as Peter Tatchell and Matthew Parris should support a free speech clause.”

Peers also questioned the Government’s behaviour in seeking to repeal a law which was only added to the statute books eleven months ago.

Lord Neill of Bladen said that “there seems to be no new evidence of any relevance whatever in relation to it; what seems to matter is just how we feel about the section”.

Lord Henley added that it was “just plain shoddy” to repeal a measure so recently approved by Parliament.

The Government minister, Lord Bach, told the house: “The offence of inciting hatred on grounds of sexual orientation has a very high threshold.

“The offence will be made out only where a person uses threatening words or behaviour with the intention of inciting hatred.

“There are no circumstances in which the right to freedom of speech should justify such behaviour. The additional provision inserted ‘for the avoidance of doubt’ is unnecessary and could serve to cause confusion about the ambit of the offence. In our view it should be removed.”

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