Lords claim victory in gay free speech battle

By Ian Dunt

The government lost a last-ditch effort to save its law criminalising “homophobic hatred” today, after the Lords rebelled against it last night.

Peers voted to amend the coroners and justice bill to allow criticism of “sexual conduct and practise” with a free speech amendment.

The government only had today to overturn the Lords’ decision, as the parliamentary year comes to an end ahead of next week’s Queen’s Speech. It eventually decided it had run out of time to fight to amendment.

“We are very disappointed that the Lords have voted to reinsert the ‘freedom of expression’ section in relation to the offence of inciting hatred on grounds of sexual orientation,” a Ministry of Justice spokesperson said.

“As this parliamentary session ends today we can no longer delay the passage of this bill.
“It is with considerable disappointment, therefore, that the government has agreed not to remove the ‘freedom of expression’ section.

“We will, naturally, keep the operation of the offence and the saving under review and will return to this issue in the future should it prove necessary to do so in the light of experience.”

Some comedians and free-thinkers, as well as the traditional anti-PC brigade, have opposed the law on the basis it is an intolerable restriction on free speech, in a campaign with overtones of that against the religious hatred law.

Lord Waddington, who spearheaded the campaign for the amendment last night, told peers: “If we are to finish up with a free speech clause in the religious hatred offence but no free speech clause here, we’re simply asking for trouble.”

But gay rights groups say the benchmark for the law is already suitably high. The offence would only have covered words or behaviour that are threatening and intended to stir up hatred.

The free speech amendment was just the latest battle the Commons and Lords have fought over the coroners and justice bill.

Earlier this week, the Lords rejected parts of the bill relating to secret inquests and infidelity as a defence for murder.