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One of the beliefs that unites Conservatives and Liberal Democrats is that the past 13 years of Labour Government saw a squeeze on civil liberties. The Leader of the Opposition admitted that the Labour Government were
“too draconian on aspects of our civil liberties”.
He is right. That is why the Bill is so welcome, trimming away, as it does, some of the vast undergrowth of legislation that has undermined our traditional liberties. DNA retention, CCTV, wheel clamping, vetting and barring have all become synonyms for the erosion of freedoms, and most people will be glad to see the Bill tackle them head on. However, there is something else that concerns a wide cross-section of the general public and, sadly, has not been addressed in the Bill: the way freedom of speech has been undermined by what we might call over-enthusiastic policing. It is often generated by the pressures of political correctness and causes officers to overreact to situations when no harm is being caused.
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 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.