The question before us is an important one. The purpose of the offence that we are considering is to protect a group that is targeted for hatred, abuse and even worse, merely on grounds of sexuality. But we also need to protect freedom of speech—as we have made clear from the beginning of the passage of this Bill—where that does not threaten safety and public order. That balance was much in our minds as the Bill was drafted. Before the offence was drafted, I consulted representatives of a wide range of interests on all sides of the argument, and encountered many passionately held views.
The balance between protection from the incitement to hatred for a particular group of people and the protection of freedom of speech was in our minds as we drafted the offence, and has been a constant theme in our consideration of the Bill over these long months. Those who have participated in debates or read Hansard will be able to confirm that.
We debated thoroughly the question of freedom of expression before we sent these offences to the other place for consideration. Across the Chamber, we agreed that we should seek to limit freedom of expression only where this was necessary and proportionate to the aim of public safety and public order. The House concluded that there were substantial safeguards in the system to ensure that the offence as drafted did not overstep the mark and that we had got the balance about right. Not every hon. Member agrees, and those who do not will get their say, but votes of the House have indicated that that was the collective view.