Pressure grows on the Home Secretary ahead of crucial Lords vote
Pressure is growing on the Home Secretary and the Government to remove the word “insulting” from the 1986 Public Order Act, after the Director of Public Prosecutions confirmed that it was safe to do so.
In a letter to Lord Dear, the former Chief Constable of the West Midlands, the DPP Keir Starmer QC says, “…having now considered the case law in greater depth, 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 news has been welcomed by campaigners, ahead of a crunch vote in the House of Lords on Wednesday, where peers will seek to remove the word “insulting” from the existing law.
Simon Calvert, Reform Section 5 Campaign Director, commented: “This is great news that pulls the rug from under the Government’s chief excuse for resisting reform. The Home Office has continually USED the line that if it removes the word “insulting” then it would not be able to prosecute hooligans and yobs who swear at the police. As this letter from the DPP shows, that is simply not the case.
“We hope that the Home Secretary Theresa May will listen to country’s top prosecutor and agree to reform this over board and unwanted legislation, which has a chilling effect on free speech.”
Currently the law outlaws the use of “insulting words, or behaviour”, but civil liberties campaigns, faith groups and secular organisations have joined forces to have the phrase removed on the grounds that it restricts free speech and penalises campaigners, protesters and even preachers.
Examples of its use include a student who told a police officer his horse WAS gay, a teenager carrying a sign which read “scientology is a dangerous cult” and human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell for holding a placard denouncing Hizb ut-Tahrir.
A ComRes poll commissioned earlier this year by the RS5 campaign showed that 62 per cent of MPs believe it should not be the business of government to outlaw “insults.”
Only 17 per cent of MPs believe that removing the contentious “insult” clause would undermine the ability of the police to protect the public.
Peter Tatchell and RS5 campaigners to protest outside the Home Office
Before the vote in the House of Lords, Human Rights Campaigner Peter Tatchell will lead a protest outside the Home Office on Monday.
Mr Tatchell, dressed as a police officer, will be joined by Simon Calvert of the Christian Institute, Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society, RS5 campaigners and a pantomime horse and a student. The horse is a reference to the case of a student who was arrested for jockingly asking a police officer if he realised his horse was gay.
Mr Tatchell commented: “This legislation has been on the statue books 26 years, initially to control football hooligans, major demonstrations and protests such as the miners’ dispute, which was still fresh in the minds of law-makers when they passed the Bill.
“But the legislation is now being used to criminalise huge numbers of people for trivial comments. In 2009 the police used this law 18,000 times, including against people who were expressing their views or beliefs in a reasonable manner that was non-abusive and non-threatening.
“The problem with the current law is the word insulting is completely elastic and subjective, which is why people have arrested for saying a police horse was gay, or that scientology was a cult.
“The longer ‘insults’ are criminalised, the more people will risk losing their right to freedom of expression. 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.”
Mr Calvert concluded by saying: “I don’t think any campaign has united such a diverse range of campaigners, MPs from Left and Right, faith-based groups and secularists. The support for reform is overwhelming.
“It cannot be right FOR the collective voices of so many to be ignored and we challenge the Government to back Lord Dear’s amendment in the House of Lords this Wednesday.”
The Campaign to Reform Section 5 was launched in May by MPs from the three main political parties, the Christian Institute and the National Secular Society.