Homophobic abuse to become an offence

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Gays are to be protected from homophobic abuse by a catch-all equality law that will make it illegal for the first time to shout homophobic insults or discriminate against gay couples. The Government aims to bring in a single equality Act after the election that will ban hotel owners from refusing rooms to gays.

Jacqui Smith, the equality minister, launched a Bill yesterday that will outlaw discrimination on religious grounds. Ms Smith said the law would protect Muslims from abuse, which was particularly necessary in today's climate of Islamophobia. "We do need to reconsider that there is Islamophobia and the need to address that," she said. "That makes this the right time."

The Bill will establish a powerful equality and human rights body that will have the power to "combat prejudice and work to reduce crime affecting particular communities."

The body will promote equality among disabled groups, women, ethnic and religious minorities and gay and lesbian people, but it will not make it illegal for the provider of goods or services, such as shops, restaurants or hotels, to refuse to serve someone if they are gay.

A gay couple from London were refused a double room at a Scottish bed-and-breakfast because the owner said their relationship was "unnatural." Ms Smith told The Independent that extending legal protection to gay people from discrimination would be a priority following the review of equality laws. "There is still a wider remit of sexual discrimination. Would I expect there to be [a change in the law] at the end of it? Yes I would," she said.

A review of all equalities legislation is to be finished next year, and a new single equalities Act drafted at the end of it. The review will look at all equalities legislation, including exemptions for clubs for men only.

Next year, the Government plans a law, to bring the UK in line with EU law, making it illegal to force someone to retire before 65. Employees will also have a right to ask their employer to stay on beyond 65.

Jews and Sikhs are already protected from abuse by the racial discrimination laws but the Bill will make it illegal to discriminate against Christians and Muslims in provision of goods and services. But there will be exemptions for religious schools, organisations and community centres who can refuse jobs to people if they do not share similar religious beliefs.

The Bill will make it a duty on public authorities to promote equality of opportunity between men and women. Ms Smith said a new umbrella body, the Equality and Human Rights Commission would police discrimination against all groups.