MPs want 'insulting words' axed from Public Order Act


Talking of unlikely political alliances, the combined weight of "faith, family and flag" Tory Edward Leigh, Labour troublemaker Tom Watson, Lib Dem patriach Alan Beith and radical Liberal Julian Huppert (plus more than 50 other MPs) is mustered behind an amendment to the Protection of Freedoms Bill, which might just get discussed next week.

The Bill is supposed to remove various onerous intrusions on individual liberties that have built up over the years - restrictions on peaceful demonstrations, DNA databases, CCTV etc - and I'm told it more or less abolishes wheel-clamping.

Mr Leigh and his supporters want to remove "insulting words" from the scope of the 1986 Public Order Act, arguing that it is used by activist groups and over-zealous police officers to undermine free speech.

They point to anti-scientology protesters threatened with prosecution under section 5 for calling scientology a "cult"; campaigners warned under section 5 for protesting against seal culling; Christian street preachers arrested and handcuffed for allegedly "insulting" passers-by with their doctrines. And, in any case, they suggest, it is no business of the law to criminalise insults.

Under the usual rules their amendment, New Clause 1, would have been considered at the beginning of the Bill's Report Stage, due on Monday.

But a Government Programme Motion published on 15 September pushes it to the back of the queue - guaranteeing that it will not be debated. Mr Leigh argues his amendment is precisely the kind of thing that ought to be included in the Bill. In a round robin to MPs, he writes: "New Clause 1 is designed to improve freedom of speech and is supported by civil liberties groups. It seems quite wrong - not to say ironic - that Members will be denied the opportunity to debate free speech."

He has taken the unusual step of tabling an amendment to the programme which would restore he new clause to the front of the queue

The selection of amendments is in the hands of the Speaker - so this will be an interesting opening day of the new term for John Bercow, who has made opening up the procedures of the Commons to backbenchers a priority.

He has infuriated ministers on a number of occasions - allowing the debate on the hacking scandal, refusing to select a Government amendment to a backbench motion and so on. Will he allow the Leigh amendment to get to the wicket?

Mark D'Arcy, Parliamentary correspondent Article written by Mark D'Arcy Mark D'Arcy Parliamentary correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I'm not sure Boris would approve - he was probably relying on the 1986 Act to stop swearing at police officers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    It should be the case that backbenchers run the commons and ministers have to grovel to them. We then may start to believe that we have a meaningful democracy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    This is great news for anyone who values freedom of speech. I have campaigned to change this law for 2 years now, because its original purpose - to prevent foul language in public - has been completely usurped by the demands of political correctness. That is to say, individuals are now being arrested for the 'offensiveness' of their opinions, not just the manner of their articulation. Outrageous.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    The biggest threat to our democracy is the increasing power of the Front Benches of all parties, so I would hope the amendment is put even if I didn't agree with it.
    As it happens, I dislike being offended, but will put up with offense so that I can express my opinion and perhaps offend MPs - which many deserve if they are simply sheep following their leaders instructions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    I like the proposal


    problem is when does 'insulting' become e.g. 'offensive' &/or threatening

    If our judiciary struggle between the rights of a cat & an illegal/foreign criminal?

    Maybe well meaning but this all just means more money for the over-paid/charging, fat manipulative lawyers & more taxpayers money wasted in the H of C gravy train


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