Free speech shield voted down by MPs

The House of Commons voted to remove a free speech shield in the ‘homophobic hatred’ law last night.

MPs voted 342 to 145 in favour of repealing the free speech protection during a debate on Lords amendments in the Coroners and Justice Bill.

The Bill will now ‘ping pong’ back to the House of Lords where it will be voted on by Peers tomorrow.

The free speech protection makes clear that criticising homosexual conduct or encouraging people to refrain from such conduct is not, in itself, a crime.

The Government says the protection is not necessary, insisting that the ‘homophobic hatred’ offence would not catch the expression of such beliefs.

Shadow Justice Secretary Dominic Grieve commented during the debate that similar legislation had already had a “chilling effect” on freedom of expression and spoke in favour of the free speech protection.

He said: “We believe that it is innocuous, that it provides much-needed reassurance in a difficult area and above all—I emphasise this to the Minister—that it will not prevent the successful prosecution of somebody who intends to incite hatred through threats.”

Labour MP David Taylor said: “We need that protection, because there seems to be quite a lot of doubt, and as a result quite a lot of unnecessary investigations. In fact, people seem to make complaints to the police as a tactic to silence opinions that they do not like.”

Mr Taylor mentioned the recent case of Christian grandmother, Pauline Howe, who was investigated by police for objecting to a gay pride parade.

Edward Leigh MP warned the House that it “should be very careful when it attacks free speech”.

Reverend William McCrea MP asked: “Does the Minister realise that, if the Bill is passed, it will become more and more difficult in this United Kingdom for a preacher to express biblical standards?”

He added: “Someone could be perceived to be stirring up hatred if they were simply quoting the Scriptures and preaching from God’s precious word. That is a disgraceful situation.”

Ann Widdecombe also spoke in the debate saying: “We must make it explicit that there is freedom of opinion, freedom of conscience, freedom of religious belief and, above all, freedom of the ability to express any of them.”

But the Government maintained that the free speech clause was unnecessary.

Justice minister Claire Ward said the free speech shield was “an unnecessary, unwanted and potentially harmful saving provision”.

She said the House should send a clear message back to the Lords that the free speech clause “is ill conceived, ill judged and ill advised”.

Yesterday in a letter to the Times newspaper, Lord Waddington, the architect of the clause, and MP David Taylor, expressed concern at the Government’s move to strike out the free speech protection clause.

Their letter said: “The politically motivated trampling of free speech is something that should concern us all.

“It is the duty of Parliament to try to prevent this from continuing to happen.”

To those who wish to remove the clause, they said: “Some might say it is so moderate that it merely states the obvious and is therefore unnecessary. But those who say that are closing their eyes to what is happening.

“Police officers, pressurised by diversity training and furnished with guidance from the Home Office and the Crown Prosecution Service, seem to feel duty bound to come down like a ton of bricks on people who express disagreement with the behaviour of some gay rights activists, and members of the public are left feeling harassed and frightened.”

When the Government introduced a new offence of inciting ‘homophobic hatred’, a free speech shield was tabled by Lord Waddington and accepted by Parliament in May 2008.

In March this year MPs agreed to delete it. However, this was reversed by the House of Lords in July.

The free speech clause 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.”

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