The Government is under mounting pressure to axe “insults” from Section 5 following a debate in the House of Lords.
Lord Mawhinney, the former Tory Party Chairman who forced the debate, told the Government there was broad opposition to Section 5 in its current form.
“There is a widespread opposition to the continued inclusion of ‘insulting’ in Section 5.
“In fact it is so widespread one kind of wonders what the problem is the Government has got.”
And he criticised the Government for failing to announce the conclusion to a consultation on Section 5.
“It is nearly six months and it still can’t make a decision. It appears some civil servants and some police officers are loathe to see things change.”
He also said that as an MP for 26 years, a minister in Northern Ireland and chairman of the Conservative Party he “knew all about” being insulted.
“I’m willing to join those police officers who don’t much like it, but that’s not an excuse for curbing freedom of expression.”
Responding for the Government was Home Office Minister Lord Henley who said there had been 2,500 replies to the consultation and ministers wanted to “consider them very carefully”.
“It is clear there are a number of very different and passionately held views on the subject,” he said.
But in a clear swipe at Lord Mawhinney and other campaigners he said that freedom of expression was “never an absolute right”.
MPs, secularists, faith groups and activists launched the Reform Section 5 campaign in May with the backing of MPs from all parties, along with a diverse range of campaign groups.
Commenting on the Home Office response, Campaign Director Simon Calvert said: “I cannot recall a campaign that unites such a diverse range of campaigners, and I am disappointed that the Home Office has not taken this opportunity to recognise that support for reform is overwhelming.
“It cannot be right that the collective voices of gay rights campaigners, civil libertarians, Christians, secularists, the majority of MPs, former senior police officers and a former Director of Public Prosecutions are ignored.
“We will be aiming to step up the fight. The issue is too important to be kicked into the long grass.”
And Human Rights Activist, Peter Tatchell commented: “Given that I was arrested under this law as long ago as 1994, and that pressure has been building for this reform since 2009, we’ve been very patient. The government say they want more time to make up their minds. Fine. It’s not complicated. There is no reason why ministers cannot conclude their deliberations by the autumn.
The Reform Section 5 campaign is not going away. Free speech is too important. The longer ‘insults’ are criminalised, the more people will risk losing their right to freedom of expression. We had a new abuse of Section 5 just the other week, involving an atheist critiquing religion. There’ll be another one soon, I’m sure. Eventually, people are going to run out of patience.
We have cross-party support in parliament and support from campaign groups that are often at odds with each other. It’s time for change.”
Read the House of Lords debate here: