Charles Clarke is expected to amend his plans for a law banning incitement to religious hatred after peers inflicted a huge defeat on the Government last night.
Peers voted by a majority of 149 in favour of an opposition amendment that would drastically change the contents of the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill.
The Home Office said afterwards that it would not accept the Tory and Liberal Democrat proposals, which were also backed by some Labour peers, because they could make it virtually impossible for the courts to secure convictions.
But Lady Scotland of Asthal, the Home Office minister, told peers that the Government was willing to think again. She also said she would give serious consideration to a solution that could attract widespread support.
Ministers are under particular pressure from Muslims to legislate on this issue because they believe it is unfair that they do not enjoy the same protection as Sikhs and Jews, who are covered by the laws banning racial hatred.
But Lord Hunt of Wirral, the Tory former minister, told peers that the Government’s plans would undermine freedom of expression.
“It is the bedrock of any tolerant, liberal and free society that we must all learn to live according to certain first principles,” he said.
“One of the most fundamental of those is that, from time to time, we must tolerate other people expressing sentiments or engaging in activities that we ourselves find unappealing or even distasteful.”
The amendment, which was backed by Lord Carey of Clifton, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, would fulfil Labour’s manifesto promise for legislation banning incitement to religious hatred. But it would make it harder for the law to be applied by forcing the prosecution to prove intent before a conviction could be obtained.
It would also introduce a general “freedom of expression” defence making it clear that exposing a religion to ridicule, insult or abuse should not on its own constitute an offence.
Giving a clear hint that the Home Office would seek to compromise at a later stage, Lady Scotland told peers: “I do not say the Government will not think again, but I do say very clearly I do not have this afternoon amendments or suggestions that I can put before you which you can consider. I may be in a better position to do so by report stage.”
Lord Clinton-Davis, a Labour peer, said the Government had “laudable” aims but that its approach was flawed. “It should be given a further chance to think about it”.