01/02/2006

Government suffers defeat for religious hate bill

The government has suffered a shock double defeat for its controversial religious hate legislation.

The government lost two Commons votes to overturn changes made by the House of Lords, losing out in the second vote to a majority of just one vote.

The defeat was made more embarrassing for the government, because of Prime Minister Tony Blair's failure to attend the vote. It was later reported that Chief Whip Hilary Armstrong had told him there was no point in staying for the vote, after apparently misjudging the opposition.

It is Mr Blair's second Commons defeat, following the government's defeat on detention without trial for terror suspects.

He faces further problems in the Commons over proposed education and welfare reforms and identity card legislation.

Yesterday's vote means that the Bill will still become law, but will include the amendments passed by the Lords. These restrict the new offence of inciting religious hatred to cover just "threatening" words and behaviour, rather than the wider definition covering insults and abuse, which had been proposed by ministers.

The amendments also require the offence to be intentional and specified that criticism, insult, abuse and ridicule of religions, beliefs or practices would not be an offence.

In Wednesday, during Prime Minister's Questions, Mr Blair made light of the defeat, saying: "I think for the education vote, it's probably a good idea if I turn up!"

However, Conservatives mocked him, while Tory leader David Cameron singled out Ms Armstrong for criticism for failing to ensure that enough Labour MPs were present to ensure the success of the vote. He said: "She is probably the first chief whip in history to put the prime minister in the frame for losing a key vote, which is an interesting career move to say the least."

This morning, a Downing Street spokesperson dismissed speculation that Ms Armstrong would resign, saying that the Prime Minister still had "enormous respect" for her. The spokesperson said: "Last night was just one of those things which went wrong."

Speaking to the BBC, Northern Ireland Secretary admitted that the defeat was unexpected. However he said: "We have some pretty tough legislation on the statute book - not as tough as we would have liked, but tough nevertheless."

However, Conservative Shadow Attorney General Dominic Grieve said that the government had been "foolish". He said: "They failed completely to read the mood of Parliament and once again showed a tendency to believe that they could simply push it through."

Around 200 people had protested against the legislation outside Parliament yesterday. A number of high-profile campaigners, including comedian Rowan Atkinson, had also spoken out against the legislation, arguing that it would restrict freedom of speech and even lead to religious jokes being outlawed.

Mr Atkinson welcomed the final version of the bill, saying: "With it, it seems to me, everybody wins".

(KMcA)


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