Blair's No-Show Causes Defeat on Hatred Bill

Article excerpt

Tony Blair was humiliated in the Commons last night when he failed to cast the vote that would have saved his Government from defeat over plans to create a new offence of incitement to religious hatred.

Official voting records showed Mr Blair did not enter the voting lobbies as MPs backed a string of safe-guards designed to water down the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill by a majority of just one.

Jubilant opposition MPs cried "resign" as they inflicted the two shock defeats on the Bill, only the second and third time Mr Blair has lost a vote in the Commons.

Records showed that Mr Blair voted in the first of two divisions on Lords amendments to the Bill, only to see the Government lose by 288 to 278, a majority of 10.

But Mr Blair failed to vote in a second division when MPs voted by 283 votes to 282, majority one, to back safeguards inserted by peers. Had he voted, it would have left the division tied, leaving the Speaker to exercise his casting vote, something not seen since 1993.

Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, accepted defeat and said the amended Bill would go on to the statute book. Conservative sjeered as he told MPs: "The Government accepts the decision of the House this evening. We are delighted the Bill is going to its Royal Assent and delighted we have a Bill which deals with incitement against religious hatred."

Under the Lords amendments, only "threatening" behaviour will be illegal, re-moving government attempts to outlaw "abusive or insulting" actions.

Peers had also changed the Bill to ensure that individuals can only be prosecuted if they intended to incite hatred.

The defeat, coming only two months after MPs voted down plans for a 90-day detention period under the Terrorism Bill, took government whips and rebel MPs by surprise.

It has profound implications for Mr Blair's ability to push through his main reforms in areas such as ID cards, which are likely to face huge opposition on the Labour benches.

It came at the end of a day of angry protest inside and outside the Commons, the culmination of a powerful lobbying effort by campaigners, including the comedian Rowan Atkinson, who argued the Government's plans could stifle freedom of speech. …