Edward Leigh is the Member of Parliament for Gainsborough.
For centuries, men and women in Britain have fought for the right to express in words what is in their hearts. Freedom of speech is, perhaps, our most precious civil liberty after the right to life itself.
But there is a widely held concern that civil liberties such as freedom of speech are being eroded. Many blame the last government for this. Even the current Leader of the Opposition admitted that the Labour government was “draconian” on civil liberties.
But it is not just changes in the law that lead to the erosion of freedoms. It is changes in policing practice.
Since the 1930s Public Order law has criminalised “threatening, abusive or insulting” words or behaviour. That phrase is now found in Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986.
Threats and abuse clearly ought to be covered by public order law. Insult, however, is a much lower threshold and is open to misuse. Whatever self-restraint the police exercised in the past in applying the law against insults appears to be melting away. No doubt we can blame it on external pressure from activists and internal pressure from out-of-control ‘equality and diversity’ programmes.
The result is that we are witnessing more and more cases of public order law being used to regulate legitimate debate and to silence those who dissent from the nostrums of political correctness. The case of the Christian café in Blackpool that was told by police that displaying the text of the New Testament on TV screens breached public order law is just the latest in a long and sorry line.
As events over the summer reminded us, it is very important to have laws that protect public order and public safety. Freedom of speech does have its limits. But it is not legitimate to criminalise words or behaviour that are merely insulting in the ordinary meaning of the word. One man’s insult is another man’s argument. What one person finds insulting may be sacred truth to the next person. If people are allowed to dial 999 every time they feel insulted, the result is a colossal waste of police time and a dangerous chilling effect on freedom of speech.
Tom Watson, Alan Beith and I have tabled an amendment to the Protection of Freedoms Bill – debated in Parliament this week – that removes the word ‘insulting’ from Section 5. It is backed by 65 MPs from across the political parties. It is an amendment called for by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights and backed by civil liberties groups like Justice. It is actively supported by the National Secular Society and the Christian Institute. Such breadth of support shows the strength of the case for change. Indeed, the Minister, James Brokenshire, has conceded that the Government will have to assess the benefits of the amendment.
However, the Government is using a procedural device in the House of Commons to block debate on the amendment – even though it is far and away the most well-supported amendment tabled to the Bill. It is ironic that MPs should be denied the opportunity to speak about the freedom to speak.
Nonetheless, we must trust the Government will be true to its word to consider the merits of the argument. But they must not delay. The Protection of Freedoms Bill is the ideal vehicle for this amendment. The opportunity must not be missed.