Peers defeat Blunkett's scheme for offence of inciting religious hatred

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Indy Politics

The Government's anti-terror legislation was thrown into renewed chaos last night when peers inflicted two further defeats on the Bill ­ bringing the total number of defeats in the Lords to nine ­ despite a series of concessions.

The first defeat for the Government came when peers backed an opposition amendment throwing out proposals to create a new offence of incitement to religious hatred by 240 to 141, a majority of 99.

Then they successfully imposed a limit on the lifetime of the new law, voting by a majority of 72 to allow controversial clauses in the Bill to lapse in one, two or five years.

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, had diluted the proposals to create the new offence of incitement to religious hatred, but peers lined up to criticise the plans, arguing that they needed further debate.

Last night Mr Blunkett offered a further concession on the lifetime of the law, allowing the emergency legislation to be reviewed by a committee of Privy Councillors two years after becoming law.

MPs have been warned to expect an all-night sitting on Thursday after peers inflicted seven defeats last week during a detailed report stage debate on the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill, introduced after the 11 September attacks on the United States.

The Government averted one defeat when peers passed clauses allowing ministers to implement European anti-terrorist measures without a vote after Mr Blunkett agreed to make them subject to debate in Parliament.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill, a leading Liberal Democrat lawyer, criticised Mr Blunkett's decision to create a new offence of incitement to religious hatred while failing to reform the broader blasphemy law.

He told peers: "There is no evidence before Parliament that there is any case or pressing social need to justify creating this new offence in such extraordinary circumstances without dealing with the underlying anomaly in law."

Lord Alton of Liverpool called for a fresh Bill to cover the whole issue of religious discrimination.

He said: "There are worthy issues which deserve proper debate in a proper Bill worthy of careful consideration. This is not the way to do it."

Lord Dixon-Smith, Conservative home affairs spokesman in the Lords, said existing law could cope with religiously motivated offences.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean, a Foreign Office minister, insisted that ministers were not trying to use the Bill as a "Christmas tree" to bring in a raft of new police powers.

"The one thing we have learnt from 11 September is that we have a great deal more to do often in areas that do not appear immediately obvious to combat terrorism.

"We need to break down barriers that terrorists hide behind, bureaucratic delays in executing court orders, procedural barriers that stop effective police co-operation."

She said the powers would not "remain on the statute book indefinitely. Rather the powers will be used for a strictly limited period of time to implement a strictly limited series of measures."

Lord Strathclyde, the Conservative leader in the Lords, welcomed the concessions. He said: "If it had not been for the Lords ... then these unprecedented powers would today be in the hands of Tony Blair's ministers.

"This was nothing to do with opposing terrorism. It was everything to do with bypassing Parliament."

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