MPs last night voted against keeping a free speech protection in the ‘homophobic hatred’ offence by 328 votes to 174.
The matter will pass to the Lords where a much closer battle is expected. The earliest opportunity for a Lords vote will probably be May.
In the Commons last night supporters of free speech included a Labour backbencher who had never voted against the Government before.
A number of homosexual MPs voted in favour of free speech, as did the Conservative Party leader David Cameron.
The result represents a small shift in favour of a free speech clause. When the House of Commons debated the same issue in January 2008 a similar clause was rejected by 338 votes to 169.
Last night’s Commons amendment to keep the free speech protection was tabled by Labour MP David Taylor and had cross-party support.
Insisting that the Government had failed to justify removing the protection, Mr Taylor said: “It simply makes it clear that discussion or criticism of sexual conduct is not caught by the homophobia law.”
“We need free speech about sexual conduct to be put beyond doubt. Joe and Helen Roberts, the Bishop of Chester, Iqbal Sacranie, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow, and Lynette Burrows—I could go on—are all names synonymous with vexatious complaints to the police and with heavy-handed police intervention against people whose actions were not inciting hatred against anyone.”
The Minister responsible for the Bill, Bridget Prentice, insisted that the homophobic hatred law has built in safeguards and that “The additional provision was and still is unnecessary.”
However, other Members were not convinced. Shadow justice secretary Dominic Grieve said: “I believe that [the free speech clause] is sensible. …I can think of no good reason for us to get rid of it on the basis of the arguments that I have heard this afternoon.”
He also referred to “deep anxieties about the erosion of freedom of speech” that have led public figures such as comedian Rowan Atkinson to publicly back the free speech clause.
During the debate former minister Tom Harris MP said: “I am speaking against the Government for the first time since I became a Member in 2001 and face the prospect of voting against the Government on a three-line Whip, which I have never done before.”
Later he explained his decision on his blog: “If it is not the government’s intention that people of faith who criticise homosexual practice should be prosecuted for doing so, why are they insisting on the removal of this phrase?”
He posted a part of his speech that the debate did not allow time for: “If this phrase is removed from the Act tonight, it will be seen as a green light to all those who believe they can silence anyone who disagrees with them.
“There are a great many things in the Bible – the New as well as the Old Testament – which many people would find objectionable if they only bothered to read it.
“If it hasn’t already happened, I can see, in the not too distant future, a complaint being raised with the police because a quote from the book of Leviticus or I Corinthians on a placard outside a church is ‘incitement to homophobic hatred’.”
During the debate, Conservative MP Ann Widdecome said: “Out there in the country, in case Ministers are completely oblivious to it, there is a swelling unease about freedom of speech.
“The religious hatred and sexual orientation laws, and myriad other laws that seek to bring equality, have an oppressive heart. The face may be liberalism, but the heart is oppression.
“We need [the free speech clause] to ensure that the Bill contains the clearest possible explanation—hammered home and spelled out—so that there can be no doubt in the mind of anyone responsible for interpreting and implementing the law that the ordinary exercise of free speech is not caught by it.”