Archive for the ‘Public Order Act’ Category

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theresa mayThe crime of insulting someone through words or behaviour, which once led to the arrest of a student for asking a police officer whether his horse was gay, is to be dropped.

Section 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act currently means that threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour might be deemed a criminal offence.

It has been rightfully criticised by free-speech campaigners, and in December the House of Lords voted by 150 to 54, a majority of 96, to remove the word insulting. The move was championed in the upper chamber by former West Midlands chief constable Lord Dear.

Home Secretary Theresa May confirmed to MPs that the government would not seek to overturn a Lords amendment scrapping the ban contained in Britain’s often abused catch-all laws of the Public Order Act. May told MPs:

I respect the review taken by their Lordships. They had concerns which I know are shared by some in this House that Section 5 encroaches upon freedom of expression.

On the other hand, the view expressed by many in the police is that Section 5 including the word insulting is a valuable tool in helping them keep the peace and maintain public order.

Now there’s always a careful balance to be struck between protecting our proud tradition of free speech and taking action against those who cause widespread offence with their actions.

She said the government had previously supported the retention of the word insulting to prevent people swearing at police officers, protesters burning poppies, or similar scenarios . The DPP Kier Starmer’s statement that he agrees: that the word ‘insulting’ could safely be removed without the risk of undermining the ability of the CPS to bring prosecutions. May said that in the light of Starmer’s comments, ministers were not minded to challenge the Lords amendment to the Crime and Courts Bill.

Of course Labour are not the slightest impressed bit impressed by Britain allowing a little more freedom, and warned that it could remove protections for minority groups. Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper pressed the government to produce an assessment of the impact of Section 5 of the Public Order Act on different groups, particularly on minority groups . S he shamefully spouted:

Many people have said that the existing Section 5 has formed some sort of protection. It is important to make sure we can protect freedom of speech …BUT… it is also very important to make sure we can protect vulnerable groups from unfair discrimination.

Simon Calvert, campaign director for the Reform Section 5 group, said:

This is a victory for free speech.

People of all shades of opinion have suffered at the hands of Section 5. By accepting the Lords amendment to reform it, the government has managed to please the widest possible cross-section of society. They have done the right thing and we congratulate them.

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House of Lords logoThe House of Lords on Wednesday night voted to remove a shameful law that criminalises the use of insulting language in Britain.

The upper chamber voted to erase the word insulting from the clause in the Public Order Act that covers speech and writing on signs which states a person is guilty of an offence if he uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour.

It follows a long history of abuse by the authorities.

MPs are likely to be asked to finally decide whether to vote down the Lords amendment early next year. A ComRes survey of MPs in May found 62% believed insults should not be illegal.

In Wednesday night’s debate, peers said the government had concluded there was insufficient evidence that the removal of the world insulting would have overall benefits and urged their colleagues to vote against the amendment. It had been sponsored by the former West Midlands chief constable, Lord Dear, Labour peer Baroness Kennedy, the former director of public prosecutions Lord Macdonald and the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay.

Campaigner Peter Tatchell said:

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.

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Keir StarmerThere is no need for a law that makes it a crime to insult someone, the Director of Public Persecutions has said.

In a boost to free-speech campaigners, Keir Starmer said it was safe to reform the controversial law that says it is a criminal offence to use insulting words or behaviour .

The clause of the 26-year-old Public Order Act has spurred a campaign which has united gay and secular activists, celebrities and conservative Christian evangelicals in favour of a robust right for people to insult each other.

The Crown Prosecution Service, which Starmer heads, has in the past been against any move to strike the word insulting from the statute book. But the DPP has now changed his mind, the CPS said.

He wrote in a letter to former West Midlands chief constable Lord Dear:

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 the word “insulting” could safely be removed without the risk of undermining the ability of the CPS to bring prosecutions.

Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said:

This legislation has been on the statue books for 26 years, initially to control football hooligans, major demonstrations and protests such as the miners dispute.

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.’

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reform section 5 logo The Reform Section 5 campaign has taken a major step forward with the tabling of an amendment in Parliament to remove the word insulting from section 5 of the Public Order Act.

The amendment, to the Crime and Courts Bill, was made by Lord Dear, former Chief Constable of the West Midlands police, and countersigned by three prominent lawyers, former Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay of Clashfern, former Director of Public Prosecutions Lord (Ken) MacDonald and Baroness (Helena) Kennedy QC.

The amendment has been welcomed by the incoming Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Baroness Onora O’Neill, who said:

There is evidence that police are using this power to arrest and fine people for exercising their fundamental human right to freedom of expression.

Limitations on free speech to deal with offences such as incitement to hatred and violence are clearly necessary. However, a blanket ban on the use of any insulting words or actions is dangerous because it could criminalise anyone who speaks their mind, regardless of their intention.’

A legal change is vital to protect free speech along with better guidance on equality and human rights, to help police find the right balance between legitimate free speech and taking justifiable action against abusive words or conduct.’

The influential Joint (Parliamentary) Committee on Human Rights has also recommended that:

We understand the sensitivities with certain communities on the issue of criminalising insulting words or behaviour, but nonetheless we support an amendment to the Bill which reduces the scope of Section 5 Public Order Act 1986 on the basis that criminalising insulting words or behaviour constitutes a disproportionate interference with freedom of expression.

The campaign to reform section 5 has been led by the Christian Institute and the National Secular Society who last week wrote to every peer asking them to support the change.

Keith Porteous wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society said:

Given the high level of support, especially with such prestigious names, we are highly optimistic that this campaign will be successful. The deadline for the Government to respond to the consultation passed many months ago and there is no credible opposition.

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theresa may 2010 An official consultation on public order powers has just been launched.

The home secretary, Theresa May, is seeking curfew powers for the police to create no-go areas during riots. The powers are expected to include immediate curfews over large areas to tackle the kind of fast-moving disturbances that swept across many of England’s major cities in August. May also wants to extend existing powers to impose curfews on individuals and stronger police powers to order protesters and rioters to remove face masks.

On a more positive note, the consultation will look at repealing section 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act, which outlaws insulting words or behaviour. There are claims the provision hampers free speech and it has been the subject of a strong Liberal Democrat campaign.

Parliament’s joint human rights committee has called for the removal of the word insulting to raise the threshold of the offence, citing a case in which a teenager was arrested for calling Scientology a cult. Evangelical Christians have complained about the use of section 5 to fine street preachers who proclaim that homosexuality is sinful or immoral.

Those supporting the reform say it would still cover threatening, abusive or disorderly behavour.