Government blocks free speech debate on Section 5

Two weeks ago police banned a Christian café in Blackpool from displaying Bible verses. Acting on a complaint from someone claiming to be an aggrieved individual, police officers warned the Owner of the Salt & Light Coffee House, Jamie Murray, that he was breaching Section 5 of the Public Order Act.

See my previous post for more on this.

Following media coverage of the case, the police gave a weak, partial apology for the ‘manner’ of their investigation, but refused to apologise for launching it in the first instance.

This case highlights how activists are using Section 5 to call in police when they can claim they are offended. Section 5 must be amended to protect free speech and prevent the wasting of police time. Current police guidance clearly isn’t working and is bring the police into disrepute.

On Monday, 10 October, MPs are due be debating the Protection of Freedoms Bill. An amendment removing “insulting” words and behaviour from the scope of Section 5 was front of the queue for debate. The amendment, known as New Clause 1, has been tabled by Edward Leigh MP and is being backed by 60 MPs from across the political parties. Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights and civil liberty groups

Justice and Liberty back the change, as well as prominent atheists.

BUT… the Government has rearranged Monday’s timetable to send New Clause 1 to the back of the queue and so block debate on it. I think this is unworthy of them, is low and indefensible.

The amendment would make clear to the police that conduct which is merely “insulting” is not a criminal offence, while not diminishing in any way their powers to maintain law and order. Section 5 would still criminalise “abusive” or “threatening” behaviour. There are also other public order laws available to protect vulnerable groups, and powerful laws against harassment.

I wonder why the government has blocked the debate. What could their motive be?

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