By Jonathan Isaby
Yesterday saw the Second Reading of the Protections of Freedom Bill, which – in the words of the Homes Secretary, Theresa May, "gives us a chance to roll back the creeping intrusion of the state into our everyday lives, and to return individual freedoms to the heart of our legislation."
Among other things, the Bill will:
But in their speeches during the debate, two Conservative MPs expressed their desire to see the Bill go further in terms of enshrining freedom of speech, relating to restrictions introduced by the Public Order Act 1986.
"Section 5 of the 1986 Act outlaws "threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour" if they are likely to cause "harassment, alarm or distress". The proposal that I wish to make, which I and the Liberals supported before, is the deletion of the lowest threshold of that offence, which is the word "insulting". That would still leave the two higher thresholds of "threatening" and "abusive".
"The 1986 Act was brought in to replace the Public Order Act 1936, which had worked very well in dealing with the blackshirts and all that. The 1986 Act does not define the terms "threats" and "abuse", but we all know them when we see them. The courts have often said that. Threat is obvious, is it not? It is when someone is in your face and there is a fear of violence, and abuse is when someone uses obscene language. Insult, however, is clearly something less serious and more subjective, and that is the problem. I believe that removing the word "insulting" would be enough to stop section 5 being misused and generating a chilling effect on free speech."
"Section 5 of the 1986 Act is a classic example of a law that was brought in for a fair reason, to deal with a particular state of affairs long ago, but has been used in practice for something quite different. It was brought in to tackle hooliganism, but it is increasingly used by police to silence peaceful protestors and street preachers.
"I shall give a couple of examples of how section 5 has been used, to show what has been going on. It has been used to prosecute a couple of hotel owners, Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang, who had a breakfast-table dispute with a Muslim guest. I do not comment one way or the other on their views, but they said that Mohammed was a warlord and that Islamic dress oppressed women. For that breakfast-table dispute, they were prosecuted. True, the judge threw the case out and apparently hinted that the police should have handled it differently, but the point is that for some reason, Merseyside police thought that section 5 applied to theological debates over breakfast. Even though the couple were acquitted, their business went to the wall. It is not enough to say, "Well, we don't need to worry, because they were not convicted". We should worry, because people are increasingly worried about expressing strong opinions.
"There are other examples. In 2008, a 16-year-old protestor was issued a summons by police under section 5 of the 1986 Act for holding a placard outside a scientology centre that read, "Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult", which is something that many people agree with. City of London police referred the allegation that the sign was abusive or insulting to the Crown Prosecution Service. I am glad to say that Liberty, which is supporting the campaign for the change, intervened and the case was finally dropped. However, it shows the problem that exists.
"Then there were the animal rights protestors in Worcester, who were threatened with arrest and seizure of property under section 5 for protesting against seal culling using toy seals coloured with red dye. Police told them that the toys were deemed distressing by two members of the public and ordered them to move on.
"The last and most ridiculous case is that of Kyle Little. After being warned by the police for using bad language, he was arrested and prosecuted under section 5 for a daft little growl and woof aimed towards two Labrador dogs. I have a dog, my own dearly beloved William, and I am sure he has never felt insulted by anything that I have ever said to him. But this poor Kyle Little, for growling at a dog, was detained for five hours, despite the dog owners not wanting any prosecution, at a cost of £8,000 to the taxpayer. Unbelievably, Newcastle Crown court finally had to acquit Little of the charge. We can see what is going on. [Hon. Members: "It's barking."] The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and others are right. We need to bring it to an end.
"We should all worry about this. There is something wrong with a law when the police think that it requires them to regulate debate. As I have said, the 1986 Act was introduced to replace the 1936 Act during a period of football hooliganism, as people might remember. At the time, a White Paper identified the mischief at which the Act was aimed-hooligans on housing estates throwing things down stairs and banging on doors, and groups of youth persistently shouting abuse and obscenities. Section 5 was a fairly reasonable response to that. The then Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd, told the House that it would not undermine civil liberties, but 25 years later, we see a major difference between what was intended and what has happened since. We therefore need to examine the wording. I cannot act very easily as a Back Bencher, but Ministers can do so very easily."
"To voice one's opinion without fear of punishment or censorship is a fundamental human right. Without it, political action and resistance to injustice and oppression are impossible. It is a precious right, and we must not allow it to be undermined. Several pieces of legislation have been suggested for amendments to improve free speech, but I want to focus, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh), on section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, which outlaws threatening, abusive or insulting words if they are likely to cause distress.
"As we have heard, section 5 has been at the heart of several high-profile cases in recent years. Liberty wisely took up the cause of a 16-year-old protester who was given a court summons by police for holding a placard outside a Scientology centre stating, "Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult". The boy claims that police told him that he could not use the word "cult". City of London police gave him the court summons and confiscated his placard after he refused to take it down. They referred to the Crown Prosecution Service an allegation that the sign was "abusive or insulting". When Liberty took up the issue, there was widespread criticism and the CPS dropped the case. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough has said, the defence of the existing law has been that guidance can be given to the police, but it did not work and has not worked in a number of cases.
"Dale Mcalpine, a Christian street preacher, was arrested in Cumbria for answering a question from a police community support officer about his views on sexual ethics. He said that the Bible described homosexual conduct as a sin. He was arrested and detained by police for nearly eight hours. Even the president of the National Secular Society has said that the police response was ridiculous and over the top. I find myself in agreement with the renowned campaigner, Peter Tatchell, who said: "If offending others is accepted as a basis for prosecution, most of the population of the UK would end up in court." He is quite right.
"In a similar case, another street preacher, Anthony Rollins, was arrested, handcuffed and kept in a police cell for four hours after a passer-by was offended by him reciting a biblical list of those who would not inherit the kingdom of God. I am a Christian, and personally I might not agree with that method of evangelism, but the idea that someone can be arrested for reading from the Bible in public is very worrying. Once again, the guidance from the Association of Chief Police Officers did not work. Mr Rollins got help from a Christian campaign group, the charges against him were dropped and they helped him bring a legal action against the police. The court decided that Mr Rollins' right to freedom of religion and freedom of speech had been breached, that he had been wrongfully arrested, had suffered assault and battery by being handcuffed and had been unlawfully detained. However, the police are appealing against that ruling. Despite everything, West Midlands police think that section 5 of the 1986 Act allows them to arrest street preachers for reciting the Bible. Clearly, the police have difficulty applying the law and the guidance that the Home Office says should deal with the problem.
"As my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough said, some cases are just plain ridiculous, and it is astonishing that the police waste time with them. In 2006, demonstrators in Worcester protested against seal culling by using toy seals coloured with red food dye-a harmless way of making a point. They were, however, threatened with arrest and the seizure of their property under section 5. The police told them that the toys were deemed distressing by two members of the public, and they ordered them to move on. Ridiculous.
"As the grandson of a police officer, I feel sorry for the police. They have to make extremely tough decisions day in, day out, and often under the most extreme pressure. They are criticised by all sides for being too rough, too soft, insensitive or over-sensitive. They just cannot win, and the media rarely give them a break. I do not want to run down the police. I want to focus on what we as legislators can do to avoid putting them in the situation where they have to decide whether a complaint from someone who feels insulted should result in an arrest."
"We have to ask ourselves, "Should the law really criminalise insulting words?" Surely insult is in the eye of the beholder, so how can the police be expected to regulate that? Abusive behaviour is clear cut: we all know it when we see it, and it is right that the law addresses it. Threatening behaviour is absolutely unacceptable, and we need laws to tackle it. But "insulting"? What would debate be like in this Chamber if an hon. Member could be silenced by an allegation from another hon. Member that he felt insulted by what was said?
"In July last year my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister told us that this Bill would "protect hard-won liberties and repeal unnecessary laws". The Government have made a good start, but they should seize the opportunity that the Bill presents to bolster freedom of expression by removing "insulting" from section 5 of the 1986 Act."