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I won't miss out on any more votes, pledges Blair.

Byline: BY JON SMITH Daily Post Correspondent

PRIME Minister Tony Blair will "make sure" he votes in forthcoming crunch Commons votes on public service reform, Downing Street said last night.

The pledge came after his absence helped the Government to a rare defeat in the Commons last night over its moves to outlaw incitement to religious hatred.

"He will make sure he does vote in future on important votes," said Mr Blair's official spokesman. "This was a one-off."

Ministers were defeated by just one vote on reversing Lords' amendments to the Religious Hatred Bill, having already been defeated by Labour rebels minutes earlier on the same issue.

It was Mr Blair's absence that made the crucial difference on the second vote.

Taunted by Tory leader David Cameron in the Commons about his failure to support the Government, Mr Blair replied: "Put it like this, I think for the education vote it's probably a good idea if I turn up."

The Prime Minister has been consistently criticised for not voting in the Commons in the past, but, with a much smaller majority now, he faces tough tests on his plans for education and welfare reform and ID cards.

Campaigners led by comedian Rowan Atkinson hailed the Government's defeat on its religious hatred Bill but some Muslims warned the new measure set in stone the "inequality" they suffered.

Mr Atkinson said "everybody wins" after ministers were defeated in the Commons in their bid to reverse Lords amendments seen as allowing jokes to be told about other faiths while punishing genuine attempts to stir up hatred.

The Muslim Council of Britain, however, said Islam was to be denied the protection offered to Judaism and the Sikh religion.

The shock Government reversal last night came after the Lords had inflicted a series of defeats on the Bill, in a bid to safeguard freedom of speech, with an amendment restricting the new offence of inciting religious hatred to threatening words and behaviour rather than a wider definition also covering insults and abuse.

They also required the offence to be intentional, and specified that criticism, insult, abuse and ridicule of religion, belief or religious practice would not be an offence.

Despite ministers' efforts, MPs refused to reverse those changes.

Downing Street attempted to shrug off the victory for Labour rebels saying it was "one of those things" and insisting the future of Chief Whip Hilary Armstrong was not in question.

But questions were being asked at Westminster as to whether the Premier and his chief lieutenant in the Commons retained the authority to get the forthcoming controversial business through.

Mr Atkinson said today: "Those who seek to threaten religious communities will know that such behaviour has now been outlawed and those who have sought to retain the right to criticise and ridicule religious beliefs and practices now have those rights enshrined in legislation in a manner never previously achieved."

He added: "Hate legislation, no matter how well intended, is never more than a mechanism to paper over the cracks in society.

"Of course, I would sympathise with anyone who says 'I would rather look at the wallpaper than the cracks' and if such legislation can provide short term comfort to vulnerable communities, that is all to the good.

"But it will never provide any solutions to the ills of society."

Sir Iqbal Sacranie,

Secretary-General of the Muslim Council of Britain, said yesterday: "The Bill had been intended to close a loophole in the law which meant that while some faith groups, such as Jews and Sikhs were rightfully protected against incitement under our existing racial hatred laws, others were not.

"Far right groups have availed themselves of this loophole and have been increasingly and explicitly targeting British Muslims in recent years.

"Unfortunately, the misinformation and mischief-making from popular comedians and some influential sections of the media, supported by certain political groups, has led Parliament to continue to sanction a wholly unjustifiable hierarchy of rights among British citizens."

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Government Chief Whip Hilary Armstrong - her job is still said to be safe' Tony Blair yesterday
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Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Feb 2, 2006
Words:679
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