Last night the Government suffered heavy defeat on the reform of Section 5, a campaign Big Brother Watch has been proud to support.
As Baroness Smith of Basildon noted: “it is nearly a year since the Government launched their consultation on public order policing and whether the word “insulting” should be removed from Section 5 of the Public Order Act. In the Committee on this Bill-a good five months after the close of the consultation-the Minister said that he hoped that at Report stage, the Government “will be able to put forward the Government’s considered view to the House”. Since then, the Government had a further five months to come to a decision, and yet-unless the Minister is going to make an announcement this evening-even at this stage, we still have not had a public announcement from the Government about their position, or about the findings and evidence from the consultation which your Lordships’ House has asked for.”
However, Lord Taylor responded for the Government: “the Government strongly holds the view that the word “insulting” should be retained in Section 5 of the Public Order Act. The Government have a responsibility to protect the public so that communities and law-abiding citizens can live in peace and security. The police must have the powers they need to meet this responsibility.”
Lord Dear, the former Chief Constable of the West Midlands who had proposed the amendment in the House of Lords, concluded: “We have a picture on the one hand that everything is well, despite the fact that the current DPP, the ex-DPP and the ex-Lord Chancellor-a plethora of legal minds in this House-have said that “insulting” can and should come out. The law is not leaving a hole in its place; “abusive” will cover it. There is the safety net of Section 4A, what is left of Section 5 and other legislation. I am deeply disappointed. I had hoped that the Government would support this, with the wide-ranging, voluminous support that there is on all sides of the House, from people who have much better experience than me.”
Indeed, only last week the current Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, said in a letter to 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 that the word “insulting” could safely be removed without the risk of undermining the ability of the CPS to bring prosecutions…”
From David Davis MP to Peter Tatchell, the current and former DPP to the Association of Chief Police officers, it seems the only people opposing reform of Section 5 reside in the Home Office.
It is to be greatly celebrated then that the House of Lords did not share their view, with just 54 Lords supporting the current position, compared to 150 who supported the amendment.
The campaign goes on, but it is one step closer to changing this unwarranted restriction on free speech.