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Protection of Freedoms Bill

Part of Resource Extraction (Transparency and Reporting) – in the House of Commons at 6:47 pm on 1st March 2011.

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Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough 6:47 pm, 1st March 2011

Good, I am very glad. That just shows that there is support for that from all over the House, and indeed from outside.

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!”] 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 youths 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.

Liberty has argued that we should use the Bill to repeal section 5 of the 1986 Act in its entirety. That may be going too far for Ministers, and I do not follow Liberty as far as that, but in a classic triangulation exercise, why cannot we just remove the word “insulting” and leave the higher grades? I have support from our own Joint Committee on Human Rights, which heard evidence that section 5 was being used to suppress free speech and made representations to the previous Government, which were resisted. That Government rejected the advice of our own Committee on human rights.

I say to the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend James Brokenshire—please will he listen for a moment, as the responsible Minister?—that it appears that civil servants at the Home Office are still using, almost verbatim in correspondence signed by him, the arguments used by the last Government against amending section 5. I wonder whether he knows that the letters that he is sending out use exactly the same language as was used by the Labour Government to resist what our own JCHR suggested.

In response to the JCHR recommendations, the previous Government said that they believed that problems with section 5 could be addressed by “guidance”, which is a classic cop-out for civil servants. It is true that the Association of Chief Police Officers recently produced new guidance on breach of the peace, which covers section 5. However, that still encourages police to pursue insulting words or behaviour, because of course, that is what the law tells them to do. If we tell the police that it is wrong for people to use insulting language, they will pursue them. It is up to us to make the law clear so that the police can operate in an entirely sensible fashion. Frankly, it is not good enough for Ministers to say, “We can solve this with guidance,” especially when there is a Protection of Freedoms Bill on the stocks. In any case, an issue as serious and significant as civil liberties should not be left to mere guidance. It is for MPs to make such decisions.

The previous Government used another argument that is still used by Ministers in correspondence. They say that if the word “insulting” is removed from section 5, the police will not have sufficient power to protect the public, but that is not the case. Neil Addison, a barrister who spent 10 years prosecuting cases in Newcastle, has suggested that the “threatening” and “abusive” limbs of section 5 will cover all genuine public order cases. He says:

“Looking back on the large number of s5 cases I have either prosecuted or defended over the years I cannot think of any ‘normal’ public order situation which could not be covered by the words ‘threatening and abusive’. Most cases under s5 involve people (often drunk) yelling aggressively and making frequent use of the ‘F’ word and that is the sort of situation that s5 and indeed the entire Public Order Act was supposed to deal with, it was never supposed to deal with the situation where individuals, whether street preachers or otherwise”,

including demonstrators or people we do not like,

“were expressing their personal opinions.”

We use other laws if we get complaints from distressed individuals. The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 criminalises any repeated harassment of an individual, which I support. Therefore, deleting the word “insulting” from the Public Order Act 1986 would not leave police and prosecutors without powers to deal with low-level public disorder.

One of the silliest arguments used to defend that part of section 5 is that removing the word “insulting” would mean that the courts would have to adjudicate on the difference between abuse, which is criminal, and insult, which is not—we see that argument in letters from Ministers both of the previous Government and of the current one. However, courts make such adjudications all the time. We could equally say that under section 5, the courts must adjudicate between insult, which is criminal, and incivility, which is not. Criminal courts decide whether an activity is criminal—it is their raison d’être. All the arguments put up by this and the previous Government on why “insulting” cannot be removed from section 5 fall to pieces.

I am sure we all agree that free speech is a bedrock of true democracy. It encompasses the freedom to disagree and to challenge received opinion. We might not like what someone says and we might take offence, but lively debate and a robust exchange of ideas are integral parts of a true democracy. Lord Justice Sedley, in his landmark ruling in the case of Richmond-Bate in 1999, put it better than anybody. He said:

“Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative provided it does not tend to provoke violence. Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having.”

In my view, the criminal law does not exist to protect people from feeling insulted. I urge Ministers to think about addressing section 5 of the 1986 Act in the Bill. They and no one else have the power to do so.

The JCHR, Liberty, Justice, the Christian Institute and Dr Evan Harris are calling on us to do something about section 5. I note the Liberal Democrats specifically referred to reforming the 1986 Act on page 93 of their manifesto last year. It is a Lib Dem idea that we would be wise to adopt. I urge such a measure on the House in the name of that most precious commodity—freedom of speech.