Last night the House of Lords voted in favour of reforming Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, in a great victory for free speech.
Despite the Conservative and Labour parties ordering their peers to vote against the amendment, it was passed by 150 votes to 54. The amendment, tabled by Lord Dear, removes the word ‘insulting’ from Section 5.
Lord Dear, a former Chief Constable and HM Inspector of Constabulary, told peers that the amendment “would herald a very significant victory for freedom of expression”.
The former Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay and a number of other prominent peers, spoke in support of Lord Dear’s amendment.
Lord Mackay said, “the notion that freedom of speech can be tampered with without serious consequences to our democracy is a considerable mistake. The amendment would be an important step in clearing our situation regarding freedom of speech. There is no menace in an insult. Abusive or threatening language is different.”
Introducing the amendment, Lord Dear told peers of the overwhelming support outside of the House to reform section 5. He said: “I have not heard a word in argument for the retention of “insulting” in Section 5. There have been no personal approaches to me, either here or outside; no letters or e-mails; no telephone calls. Every comment in the media is supportive.”
He added that many of his colleagues in the House had been the “recipients of a flood-or is it a blizzard?-of letters from people outside in all walks of life supporting the amendment”.
Several Peers cited recent comments from the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, who wrote to Lord Dear last week supporting the removal of the world “insulting” from Section 5.
Mr Starmer said: “… 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…”
Commenting on the vote, Lord Dear said: “We must never lose sight of our basic constitutional freedoms within the law, which are so important in any civilised country. That’s why the vote tonight was so important in upholding and enhancing one of those basic freedoms.”
Simon Calvert, Campaign Director of RS5, said he was “delighted” at the result and commented: “Freedom of speech is such a vital part of British heritage but this law has seen many people suffer – simply for speaking their mind.
He added: “The vote will encourage everyone who believes in robust debate, especially those who feel free speech has become less free in recent years. We now wait to hear whether the Government will try to overturn this vote in the Commons. Reform Section 5 will continue its work until the moment this change becomes law.”
Human Rights Campaigner, Peter Tatchell, who has been backing the campaign, said: “This is a sweeping victory for free speech and civil liberties. It is all the more significant given the disgraceful opposition to reform by the Labour and Conservative front benches.”
“The criminalisation of insults is far too subjective and constitutes a dangerously low prosecution threshold”, said Mr Tatchell. “Anyone who values free speech and robust debate should welcome its removal from section five.”
The National Secular Society said: “The Reform Section 5 campaign chalked up a spectacular victory for freedom of expression on Wednesday evening”. It added: “The Bill revised by this amendment will need to be approved by the House of Commons, where there is also an energetic, supportive campaign led by Rt Hon David Davis MP. So it is to the Commons that we now need to turn our focus.”
Click links below for news coverage of the vote
Breaking news: Peers vote to reform ‘insult’ law
The Christian Institute
Section 5 free speech campaign passes a major hurdle with Lords victory
National Secular Society
Peers vote to remove law banning insulting language