Saturday, December 15, 2012

A victory for free speech: Lords vote to axe law banning insults that had led to countless arrests of ordinary people

Free speech campaigners have hailed a vote by the House of Lords to scrap a draconian law that made it a crime simply to insult someone. The controversial legislation led to countless arrests of ordinary people for making jokes and expressing opinions about religion and sexuality. Section 5 of the Public Order Act criminalised ‘insulting’ words and behaviour – without defining what the term meant. Critics warned that over- zealous police and prosecutors were abusing the law, leading to ludicrous scenarios such as the conviction of a teenager for saying ‘woof’ to two dogs. An amendment to strike out the term ‘insult’ by Lord Dear, a crossbencher and former West Midlands chief constable, was backed by 150 votes to 54 late on Tuesday. The move was backed despite the Government and Labour peers opposing the change. Liberal Democrats banded with rebel lords from across the parties and crossbench peers to vote for the change. 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 was so important in upholding and enhancing one of those basic freedoms.’ Simon Calvert, of The Christian Institute and campaign director for Reform Section 5, said: ‘We are delighted the House of Lords has voted to enhance free speech for everyone by reforming Section 5. ‘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.’ The amendment was passed by the House of Lords as part of the Crime and Courts Bill. It will still need to go through the House of Commons for approval, however, and will need government backing to become law. A senior MP told the Mail Theresa May had become hesitant to change the law following the 'plebgate' row involving former International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell Last night, the Home Office said it was ‘considering’ the arguments for change and ‘will reflect on the Lords’ decision’. A spokesman added: ‘The Government supported the retention of Section 5 as it currently stands, because we believe it is wrong to swear at police officers.’ The Home Office launched a consultation on repealing Section 5 in January, but no decision has yet been reached about whether it will back the change. One senior MP told the Mail the Home Office had taken an unusually long time to deliberate and had ‘become hesitant’ to change the law following the ‘plebgate’ row involving former International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell. The MP said: ‘Until Mitchell’s plebgate, we thought the Home Office and police could work this out and agree to drop it. But Theresa May did not want to be seen undermining police in the wake of that.’ Mr Mitchell was accused of swearing at police officers outside Downing Street when he was asked to get off his bicycle. But the intervention last week of the Crown Prosecution Service will heap pressure on the Government to back the change. Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, said the law could be ‘safely’ amended while still protecting vulnerable people from harassment under existing laws.

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