Ministers forced to drop Bill on religious hatred

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Indy Politics

Ministers were resigned to abandoning plans to outlaw incitement to religious hatred after an outcry from comedians and civil liberties campaigners. They fear they will have to sacrifice the proposal for the second time in three years to get a package of measures to clamp down on organised criminals through Parliament before the general election.

Ministers were resigned to abandoning plans to outlaw incitement to religious hatred after an outcry from comedians and civil liberties campaigners. They fear they will have to sacrifice the proposal for the second time in three years to get a package of measures to clamp down on organised criminals through Parliament before the general election.

Critics, including Tories, Liberal Democrats, the comedian Rowan Atkinson and the author Salman Rushdie, said the proposed ban on acts which might incite religious hatred could outlaw jokes poking fun at vicars, and threaten freedom of speech. But the Home Office insists the law is essential to protect Muslims and other groups.

The proposal forms part of the Serious Organised Crime Agency Bill, which will establish a new "British FBI" to tackle international drug-running and mafia-style gangs.

Although the Home Office has mounted a major effort to win over opponents of the new religious-hate law, ministers now concede it is likely to be dropped in the horse-trading between the parties before Parliament is dissolved next month in preparation for the expected 5 May election.

Conservatives and Liberal Democrats remain strongly opposed to the new law and see little prospect of a compromise. One senior Tory official said: "This has hardly changed since the House of Lords threw it out the last time in 2002. It is hardly the sort of thing you can rush through at the last minute." Liberal Democrat sources indicated they were also still unhappy about the measure.

There will be suspicion among opposition parties that Labour could exploit their resistance to the legislation in an effort to win back Muslim voters disillusioned with the Iraq war. David Blunkett, the former home secretary, is already planning to campaign on ID cards, with the legislation bringing in a national identity scheme widely expected to be another casualty when the election is called.

Peers started debate on the ID card Bill yesterday, but senior figures from all three parties expect it to fall when Parliament is dissolved. Mr Blunkett said: "I believe the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in the Lords have given us a major campaigning tool."

Academics from the London School of Economics say that the identity card plan is "too complex, technically unsafe, overly prescriptive and lacks a foundation of public trust and confidence".

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