10th October, 2011, House of Commons
‘New Clauses relating to the Public Order Act 1986; and’.
I have tabled this amendment to the programme motion because I simply cannot believe that the Government are trying to stifle debate on new clause 1 —the only new clause in the Bill to attract support from dozens of Members from all parties in this House. One would have thought that the Government would welcome hon. Members trying to improve the Bill—is that such an outrageous thing? One would have thought that they would welcome the fact that 65 Members have put their names to new clause 1.
“We support the amendment of the Public Order Act 1986 to remove all references to offences based on insulting words or behaviour. We consider that this would be a human rights enhancing measure and would remove a risk that these provisions may be applied in a manner which is disproportionate and incompatible with the right to freedom of expression”.
One would have thought that surely a Government committed to free speech would realise that this was an important issue and allow some time for new clause 1 to be debated, especially as it is normal, if not a convention, for new clauses to be debated early on Report because they are debated last in our Committees. Because new clauses are often not reached in Committee, it is normal for a Government who want to have open debate to allow them to be debated at an early stage on Report.
This is one of the most extraordinary programme motions that I have seen, because it ensures that no new clauses are debated. Why have the Government done this? For the life of me, I do not know why we are being pushed to the back of the queue. There is no point in having emollient words. There is not some small chance that new clause 1 will be debated; as a result of this programme motion, there is no chance that it will be debated or voted on. We have had three hours of statements, and we now have two hours to debate many important issues. However, we are going to spend an hour and a half on car parking. I am sure that car parking is very important, but so is freedom of debate. How ironic that the Government are using their own powers under guillotine procedure to stifle a debate on freedom of speech. It is an extraordinary situation.
I know that we are discussing my amendment to the programme motion, not new clause 1 itself, but it is worth saying that it is a very modest proposal that seeks only to change one line of legislation, would not cost the Government one penny, and would not affect anything in the manifesto or the coalition agreement. There would have been no harm in our having a civilised debate. Perfectly valid arguments could have been made on both sides of the issue, and the Government would have got their way in the end, so why not have a debate?
I do not want to be unfair to the Government, who have written to me and said that they are now going to have a review. That is strange. We have been campaigning on this for a whole year. For several months, we got the same letters from the Minister that we used to get from the previous Labour Minister, no doubt written by the same civil servant sitting in front of the same potted plants and serving out the same cups of tea. We made no progress whatsoever. Yet suddenly, hey presto, because 65 people are prepared to put their name to new clause 1 and because my amendment is selected for debate, we get this promise of a review. Why is it starting tomorrow or next week? Why did it not start six months ago, when the amendment was put on the Order Paper? Is this a very complex issue? I have not yet been consulted about the issue, and neither have the National Secular Society, which supports the amendment, or the Christian Institute. We are going to have a review, and the only people who will not be consulted formally are those of us in the House of Commons. What a strange situation. Is this not the home of democracy? Is it not beyond the wit of the Government and the programme managers to allow just three quarters of an hour for an important debate about freedom of speech? But no, the one body that will not be allowed to debate the issue is the House of Commons. We are told by the Government, “Oh, don’t worry, we’ll have this review”—although there can be no debate in the House of Commons—“and then the House of Lords will debate it.” However, they could have had such a review months ago. It is hardly rocket science: we are not talking about a technically complicated issue such as trying to reform the entire national health service or anything like that
I say this to hon. Members on both sides of the House: why do Governments—I am not talking about this Government; I mean all Governments—accept amendments only in the House of Lords? Why not here? Why can we not accept the revolutionary proposal that, in a grown-up way, a Member of Parliament might produce a cross-party amendment on a serious issue, the Government could consider it on its merits and it might actually be agreed to? Why do all Governments take the view that they are prepared to accept amendments only in the other place? Frankly, I have never been an enthusiast for House of Lords reform, but I am beginning to think that until the other place is reformed, the Government will never take this place seriously.
We are talking about an important issue that is too serious to delay. There are so many cases, affecting people from all walks of life: demonstrators threatened with seizure of property and arrest under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 for protesting against seal culling by using toy seals coloured with red food dye; the young man prosecuted for growling at two Labrador dogs; the countless street preachers harassed by police for daring to mention Bible passages that some people do not like. Just last month, a café owner in Blackpool was told by the police that displaying verses from the New Testament on a video screen was a breach of section 5. What are the police suggesting? That we should cut and paste things from the Bible but leave out things that people do not like? Many people do not like many things from the Bible, but the Bible is the Bible and if people want to quote from it, they should be allowed to do so without PC Plod tapping them on the shoulder and telling them that it is against some piece of legislation.
All those things are happening under section 5 of the 1986 Act. There is something fundamentally wrong with the way it is being used. That needs to be properly debated in the House of Commons and nowhere else. The fact that the Government have agreed—only today, as a result of all the pressure from colleagues—to discuss such matters with outside groups shows that they acknowledge that there is a problem. All I am asking for is a debate. Why are the Government so concerned about our new clause? What we are proposing is hardly radical. It would not leave the police powerless to prevent public disorder. As the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Ken Macdonald, says in his legal opinion on new clause 1, there are plenty of other powers in existence to prevent or prosecute behaviour that is abusive or risks a breach of the peace; indeed, we have always had breach of the peace powers. There are numerous other powers that could be used, but section 5 is being used as a kind of catch-all and is chilling debate.