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?