The 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.