Jeremy Browne MP writes…Liberal Democrats change the law to promote freedom of speech

We all know that insulting people is bad manners, but what many people did not realise is that until last week, insulting people was actually a crime. Under Section 5 of the Public Order Act “insulting words or behaviour” were outlawed, with no clear definition of what qualified as an insult.

People have been arrested for a slew of peculiar “crimes”. Telling a police officer his horse was gay. Holding a banner describing Scientology as a dangerous cult. Growling and barking at two passing dogs.  Playing a DVD with quotations from the Bible.

Some of these “crimes” were people making statements with which many people disagree. Describing homosexuality as a sin. Describing religion as fairy stories for adults. But you do not have to agree with someone to believe they should be able to voice their opinion without threat of a police crackdown.

In an open society, you debate with people who do not share your views. You do not silence them.

So we have made a change. A big change. It will still be a crime to discriminate against others, to harass people or to incite violence. But that key phrase, “insulting words or behaviour”,  is gone. That is a significant step forward for freedom of speech.

People will now be able to speak their mind without fear.

Civil liberties are not often cause célèbre. It has been too easy, for too long, for governments to eat away at our freedom without most people noticing. Now, in government, Liberal Democrats are steadily reversing that tide.

Restoring freedom of speech is just one step. We cancelled ID cards. We have stopped the police from storing the DNA of innocent people and limited stop and search. We have ended fingerprinting of children in schools without their parents’ consent.

And in the coming months, we will go further. We have rolled back the authoritarian state. Our next project is to roll forward the liberal freedoms of the individual – overturning many of the rules and regulations that stop people from making their own choices, taking their own risks, and getting on with their own lives.

* Jeremy Browne is the MP for Taunton Deane, and was previously a minister in both the Home and Foreign offices.

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  • Great stuff.

  • Brilliant. Simply brilliant.

  • “We have rolled back the authoritarian state.” – except for those claiming any kind of state benefit. Benefit claimants (and especially disabled claimants) are now subject to the kind of oppressive, illiberal coercions which were commonplace under the rule of the Soviet state. Try to claim a benefit, just to keep a roof over your head and some kind of food in your stomach and you are transformed into a second class citizen.

    So, sorry Jeremy, but your self-congratulatory screed is a hollow sham. You need only consult the website Black Triangle, or ATOS Miracles on Facebook to find out the truth about life at the bottom in liberal Britain.

  • robert heggie 23rd Jan '13 - 10:57am

    Very good news, well done, i may become a lib dem voter for this

  • Wow! This is a blatant rewrite of political history and fact. I’m do not recall any overt involvement of the Liberal Democrats in calling for and actioning this change, other than their being part of the coalition government which has agreed to remove the word from the Public Order act..
    The campaign was led in the Lords by Lord Dear a crossbencher, it was led in the Commons by David Davis a Conservative and it was led in the public sphere by the Christian Institute, the National Secular Society and Peter Tatchell, not to mention Rowan Atkinson and many other well known faces, non of which are overtly members of the Liberal Democrats. It’s great that Jeremy Browne is supportive of repealing Section 5 but it would be a fairer if he gave credit where it was due rather than giving it to the Liberal Democrats who were very far in the background on this one.

  • Liberal Neil 23rd Jan '13 - 11:12am

    This is great news 🙂

  • Sarah Gosling 23rd Jan '13 - 11:48am

    Oh thank you very much .. so as a member of a minority group I can now have insults thrown at me more easily on the street .. and this is something else I should thank a bunch of Lib Dem MP’s for .. along with helping the Tories destroy the NHS. Very much an ex Liberal voter now.

  • James Sandbach 23rd Jan '13 - 12:26pm

    Jeremy – great work. But it’s not enough just to look at protecting civil liberties in the “negative” sense of removing oppressive laws – people also need “positive” protection from hate filled harrassment, prejudiced discrmination or general infringement of their dignity or liberty to go about their daily life – I hope in the Crime and Courts Bill you will look at controlling bailiffs behaviour..

  • @Sybil: I think you are just outright rewriting the Liberal legendary of this party. Freedom of Speech…etc is a cornerstone of our acts and we have been campaigning on this issue since before the Liberal Democrat Party even existed. To claim Lib Dems do not campaign on issues to do with freedoms is like saying that Max was a capitalist.

    @James: I agree, controlling bailiffs behaviour is fundmental; as is regulation of any group or organisation which can de facto restrict our liberties.

    This is great news. It is only one small step among many, but it is part of a much bigger act.

  • It’s Lib Dem policy to amend the Public Order Act 1986 by repealing the whole of Section 5 and removing the word ‘insulting’ from Section 4A. The government are only removing the word ‘insulting’ from Section 5. It’s a victory, but only a partial one. However, not all Lib Dems will be disappointed by this being only a part-win:

    @Sybil – nonsense. Like I say, this is Lib Dem policy being (part) enacted, and also Lib Dem MPs like Julian Huppert were as much part of the Reform Section 5 campaign as anybody else. Here’s his LDV piece on the subject from 2011:

  • “this issue since before the Liberal Democrat Party even existed.”

    Just thought, I should clarify ‘this issue’ refers to restrictions on our Freedoms, such as Freedom of Speech, not to this exact Act and Section. So really ‘this issue’ should read ‘these issues’

    (Once again, sorry, I suffer from a learning disability which affects my English.)

  • Simon Bamonte 23rd Jan '13 - 4:41pm

    @Simon McGrath:
    did i miss the vast prison camps the coalition has set up. or the imprisonment of dissidents in mental hospitals. Or the restrictions on movement?

    No, it hasn’t gotten that bad yet. But maybe you have missed the way the DWP encourages the public to snoop on and report anyone who someone may think be fiddling the system – where 95+% of all calls reporting “fraud” are actually malicious and baseless. So there’s the Soviet “setting citizen against citizen” aspect. You might have missed the DWP planning to snoop on Jobseekers’ use of the internet (in their own homes) and their request for their email/Facebook/etc. passwords. After all, if they’re taking State money (which most people have paid into), they don’t deserve any privacy, right?!. Oh, there’s also the disgraceful, not-fit-for-purpose ATOS system which is finding people “fit for work” who are most certainly not so and causing untold misery and destitution amongst our most vulnerable members of society. And if a sick or disabled person actually passes the ATOS test, the DWP sends out application forms again, only a month or two later, sending them to another assessment with ATOS. Over and over. This is nothing more than the state hounding the weak, which is pretty Soviet in itself. And get this: once these same people are found “fit for work” by ATOS, against the advice from their GPs and specialists, they then cannot sign onto JSA if they declare they have an illness or disability. So a sick person then has to lie to get JSA. Or starve. That’s straight out of a Soviet bureaucratic nightmare.

    But, hey, they’re just poor people and the disabled. Shirkers, if you will. The LibDems are happy to sacrifice these people for more important things like the (failed) AV referendum and (failed) Lords’ reform. After all, the vast majority of LibDem MPs and Peers have voted for these anti-poor measures while voting for tax breaks for the richest.

    “In government and on our side” indeed.

  • Simon Bamonte 23rd Jan '13 - 7:52pm

    @Simon McGrath:

    Here are links to the government’s plan to snoop on and track those on JSA. Cannot find the link where I originally read they would track email/Facebook use, but they still plan on snooping on the unemployed through web cookies. By tracking (snooping) on those receiving JSA through the new “Universal Job Match”, claimants will be sanctioned if they fail to apply for any of their “job matches” the website throws up:

    IMO, the government should never be snooping on any innocent peoples’ web usage, whether they’re receiving benefits or not. This is a highly illiberal plan.

    As for sick/disabled people being found “fit for work” and then being unable to claim JSA, I do not have a link at hand to the relevant regulation, nor the time to trawl through the DWP website to find it, but if you look at the online JSA application form, the 9th question states : “Do you have an illness or disability that prevents you from working?”. It asks the same thing on paper forms. I work for an advice charity which helps claimants with housing, food parcels and benefits advice. I have dealt with several clients who were found “fit for work” by the DWP/ATOS, against evidence provided by GPs and other medical professionals (even after tribunals) who then went on to apply for JSA. Upon applying for JSA and ticking this box, they are then told by Jobcentre advisers that they do not qualify for JSA, as they may not be able to take any job that is offered to them due to illness/disability. They are then usually told to re-apply for ESA, which then leaves them with next to nothing to live on for months (remember, LibDem MPs also voted to do away with Crisis Loans). This is a bureaucratic nightmare, especially for those who are very vulnerable and is particularly hitting the mentally ill the hardest, as the ATOS tests are still not taking mental illness into proper consideration (despite the continual Harrington recommendations).

    After the NHS “reforms”, I finally left the LDs last year (after nearly 25 years) due to their failure to properly stand up for the vulnerable in our nation. We are enslaving our most vulnerable with even greater poverty, and making them pay for an economic crisis they had no hand in making. While the richest get a tax break, the disabled have to choose between food and heating. This is a disgrace and any LD with any compassion should be ashamed of this.

  • Simon McGrath 23rd Jan '13 - 10:07pm

    @Simon B – thanks for confirming neither of the claims I asked you about stand up.

  • @Sarah Gosling

    “so as a member of a minority group I can now have insults thrown at me more easily on the street”

    Oh come now, somehow, I would think that would be covered by ” It will still be a crime to … harass people ,” wouldn’t you?

  • Robert Sloss 24th Jan '13 - 10:54am

    I suspect that this will be another well meaning change with unintended consequences. The recent Mary Beard incident where she was deluged with extremely negative comments about her appearance after the only intelligent contribution in Question Time last week where she debated with facts whilst the others used opinions. She has said that this is the sort of thing that puts women off appearing.

    Another example the disgraceful Julie Burchill article where she can make derogatory comments about a whole group and encourage the stigmatising of Trans sexuals, a vulnerable group.

    The whole host of the commentariat who express opinions contrary to the facts should also be made accountable e.g. Dominic Lawson on Climate Change and Melanie Phillips on everything

    Stick to the basic premise you can do and say anything you like providing it doesn’t harm anyon

  • : “Do you have an illness or disability that prevents you from working?”.

    As someone else who works on these sorts of cases, I fully endorse benefits and believe there are many things that have been decided by this Government that are questionable at best. However, I am sorry, I do also sometimes dispare at the complaints people make. It is sort of in the question; this question does not say “D you think you have…etc” It clearly asks if you have any such illness or disability. Now, if you have been assessed by a medical professional to be fit for work, then, regardless of whether you personally agree or not, you are in the eyes of the Government fit for work, thus you clearly have to answer no to this question.

    Yes, it can be seen as harsh and yes I am sure there are cases where it is outright wrong for someone to assessed as fit for work, but it is clear here that you have state you are fit for work, otherwise you clearly fail the most basic requirement of JSA.

  • Mike Falchikov 24th Jan '13 - 6:01pm

    Taking the phrase about “insulting words and behavior” out of Section 5 of the Public Order Act is a small but excellent
    step towards a freer society and a society less in thrall to busybodies and political correctness. Jeremy Browne deserves our thanks for that. Predictably some contributors took the discussion in another direction altogether – the unfair treatment of some claimants under the new social security rules. This is important to Lib Dems, but it does not detract from the merits of the change to the Public Order Act – and Jeremy Browne is not the MInister for Social Security. .
    Simon McGrath is quite right anyway – people who try to equate modern Britain with the Soviet Union in its heyday are, I suspect, coming from a position of total ignorance about communist regimes and need to read a bit of history,
    or better still, talk to people who’ve lived under such conditions.

  • I wonder if this applies to the millions of cannabis users that are victims of the war on drugs!!!!!

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