The Government backed down last night and allowed a free speech protection to be written into its proposed ‘homophobic hatred’ law.
The decision came after the Government was defeated for a second time in the House of Lords. Peers voted 178 to 164 in favour of the protection yesterday evening.
This marks the end of a lengthy battle to make clear that the new criminal offence should not interfere with free speech or religious liberty.
The protection underlines the fact that criticising homosexual practice or urging people to refrain from such conduct will not, in itself, be a crime.
Words or behaviour which are threatening and intended to stir up hatred will be caught by the offence, which carries a maximum seven year prison sentence.
The free speech amendment was tabled by former Home Secretary, Lord Waddington. He was supported by The Christian Institute throughout the campaign.
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.”
In recent years there have been several cases of overzealous police officers wrongly interfering with the right of Christians and others to express the belief that homosexual practice is morally wrong.
Speaking in last night’s debate, Lord Waddington said: “My understanding is that the Government do not wish to see discussion stifled and people harassed, bullied, interrogated and sometimes arrested for expressing their views. However, if that is so, it really is time that they did something about it.”
“When people are harassed, interrogated and arrested as a result of wrongful action by the police as they follow up what is often a malevolent complaint-such as the one against Mr Hurst, who was handing out leaflets inviting people to his church’s Easter service-it is little comfort to know that it is very unlikely that a conviction would have followed,” he added.
Senior judge and ‘gay rights’ sympathiser, Lady Butler-Sloss, agreed that free speech needed protecting. She said: “…there are religious groups, not only Christians, not only bishops, but many Jews and Muslims, which share strong views that they gain from the Bible, the Old Testament in particular, or the Koran. Those people are potentially at risk.”
She continued: “It is those people who will potentially be intimidated; they will certainly be bothered and may go through an extremely unfortunate experience before calmer heads point out that under the new clause, as under older clauses, they have not committed any offence.”
Labour Peer, Lord Clarke, said: “I shall make one comment on the Minister’s reference to the ‘alleged’ evidence of heavy-handed police. There is no allegation about the couple in Fleetwood.
“It was a fact that these two lovely old people, who described themselves as Christian pensioners, suffered 80 minutes of interrogation by two six-foot policemen.
“That was not an allegation, it is a fact, because within 12 months-only 12 months-they got the apology that they deserved. They had committed no crime. There was no reason for what went on. But someone did not understand.”
The Government said the issue could be made clear by publishing guidance instead of inserting a free speech protection into the Bill.
But Lord Clarke said: “If we mean that we are to maintain the principle of free speech, we should make sure that it is in this Bill and not leave it to the interpretation of guidelines, which would become another lawyers’ paradise.”
Following the Lords vote, the Government backed down and the measure was passed by a substantial majority in the Commons. The offence will become law with the free speech protection included.