Friday, December 14, 2012

House of Lords votes to reform Section 5

The vast majority of my posts on this blog are unashamedly "on message." Most of the time this does not present me with any difficulties because although no government or party is pefect, I genuinely agree with most of what the Conservative party stands for.

This article is a rare exception, though I hope that by the time the issue of Section 5 of the Public Order Act comes back to the House of Commons my party will have seen sense and realised that the vote this week by the House of Lords was absolutely 100% right and should be supported by the Commons.

The government has been consulting about whether this clause should be reformed. On Wednesday the House of Lords voted by 150 to 54 in favour of an amendment by  Lord Dear, a former Chief Constable and HM Inspector of Constabulary, which would remove the word "insulting" from this clause.

This would mean that instead of the present situation in which the law says that

"a person is guilty of an offence if he uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour"

if the amendment passed by the Lords successfully changes the law, it will remain possible to prosecute people for abusive or threatening behaviour, but not for saying something which is merely perceived as insulting.

I don't often find myself in vigorous agreement with Peter Tatchell, but he was absolutely right when he said that

"The criminalisation of insults is far too subjective and constitutes a dangerously low prosecution threshold. Anyone who values free speech and robust debate should welcome its removal from section five. The section five ban on insults has been abused to variously arrest people protesting peacefully against abortion and campaigning for gay equality and animal welfare. The open exchange of ideas – including unpalatable, even offensive ones – is the hallmark of a free and democratic society".

Perhaps even more powerful was the argument put by Keir Starmer, the present Director of Public Prosecutions, who wrote to the sponsors of the amendment supporting the change on the grounds that the sort of behaviour which a civilised society would wish to prevent will still be caught by the law if amended as proposed because such behaviour would be "abusive" or "threatening" or both. Mr Starmer wrote that

"We are unable to identify a case in which the alleged behaviour leading to conviction could not properly be characterised as 'abusive' as well as 'insulting'. I therefore agree that the word 'insulting' could safely be removed without the risk of undermining the ability of the CPS to bring prosecutions."

The "feel free to insult" me campaign has brought together some most unlikely allies supporting this change in the law, from militant atheists to evangelical religious groups, from left to right, from comedians to senior legal figures, from supporters of gay rights to people who - well, as the law has not been changed yet, let's just say people who are not.

But all those who support the proposed change have three things in common.

* The first is a wish to be able to express their views openly and honestly in a peaceful and non-threatening way without being prosecuted because someone who disagrees decides to find those views insulting.

* The second is a willingness to extend the same right to their opponents, and

* the third is a sincere belief in democracy and free speech.

I have not seen this put better than by Rowan Atkinson in this excellent address at a parliamentary reception organised by the "Reform Section Five" campaign.


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