The Upper House confirmed last night (by 179 to 135 votes) its concern that legislation against violence towards gay people must not become prohibition of any criticism of homosexuality.
The former Conservative Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, explained why Lord Waddington's free speech amendment – consistently supported by the Lords but rejected by Labour MPs – was necessary:
"As far as I am concerned, the main thrust of the clause that is in the Bill and remains in the Bill is against any kind of violence against those with a sexual orientation that is in question. The provision is very strong against that. Nothing in the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, detracts from that in the slightest. Over the years, this House has had the responsibility of maintaining the freedoms that have been hard won in our country. I believe that we should not flinch from doing that just because they happen to be attacked more than once, twice, three or four times."
Former Culture Secretary and Labour peer Lord (Chris) Smith explained why he opposed the amendment:
"The point that I was about to make is that legislation, in the signals that it sends to the world outside, can have an impact on behaviour way beyond the actual meaning of the words in the legislation. There is already a huge amount of anxiety and fear among the gay community about the increasing level of attacks. If the signal that the House sends is that it is all right to be intolerant, I fear that we will end up seeing more violence and more attacks and more difficulty for people simply because of their sexual orientation. That is why I feel so passionately. If this House stands up for free speech, as it so often has to, on this particular matter, it is at risk of sending the wrong signal to the wrong people outside."
The Bishop of Winchester attempted to address the points made by Lord Smith:
"I say to the noble Lord, Lord Smith, that signals matter, and they do. I share with him a horror of the fact that people are attacked, beaten up and killed because others believe them to be homosexual or because they are homosexual. That is manifestly wrong and wicked. But, as the noble Lord said, many others live increasingly in anxiety and fear. There is a very strong sense across quite a wide swathe not only of Christian opinion but of other opinion that the rights of those who hold the kind of views that this law would defend are seen as second-class. That is even there in the language of the noble Lord, Lord Smith. He said that it will be taken that it is all right to be intolerant. That is a particular kind of judgment on those who take the view that this amendment in defence of a piece of law seeks to sustain. Notwithstanding an unargued assumption of the Government that they must carry on in this way, it is most important that people of all sorts can be assured that, whether they are on street corners, in mosques, churches or synagogues, or be they journalists, academics, comedians or whatever, they are free to express views with which others may strongly disagree and which question the currently dominant political orthodoxy in these matters."