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16 January 2014

Free speech: moving in the right direction

Free speech: moving in the right direction

The Alliance has been involved in a campaign aimed at protecting free speech and so we were very pleased to announce that it looks as if there could be a positive outcome to the campaign following a vote in the House of Lords on 8 January.

The Lords voted against the Government's attempt to seriously threaten freedom of speech in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill. Proposals to lower the threshold of behaviour currently required for Anti-social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) so that almost any kind of public activity could have been caught by the new Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance (IPNAs) were rejected by the Lords by a large majority. The Government will now have to review its whole approach and the Home Secretary is being asked to reconsider.

Former Chief Constable, Lord Dear, pressed an amendment to Clause 1 of the Bill aimed at replacing the government's proposed new low threshold of 'nuisance and annoyance' with the previous test of 'harassment, alarm and distress' which had worked quite satisfactorily. The government had argued that it needed to effect the change to make the law easier to understand and to obtain injunctions.

But many civil liberties groups – and even the police themselves – were against the proposal, not least on account of its unintended consequences, and many were suspicious that an agenda of increased state control was behind the government's intransigence on the issue. During a lively debate the government found it difficult to combat the obvious rationale of the proposed amendment and embarrassingly were unable to cite even one example of a type of anti-social behaviour that Lord Dear's amendment would not catch. As Baroness Smith declared, "Noble Lords who were defending the Government's position, when asked whether they could give examples of activities that would come under the Bill's definition of nuisance and annoyance but not cause alarm, harassment and distress, were unable to do so."

The amendment attracted support by four former Commissioners of the Metropolitan Police, along with a former Lord Chancellor, a former Attorney General, a former President of the Supreme Court, a former Deputy President of the Supreme Court, a former Director of Public Prosecutions and numerous other judges and QCs. In the event, the Lords agreed with Lord Dear and voted against the government by 306 votes to 178.

The government evidently misread the mood and determination of the House based on broad representation from a wide range of concerned parties. Having tried to deal with the various concerns by promising to issue appropriate guidance for the police, they desperately tried to reach a last-minute accommodation – but it was too late to prevent the decisive vote which now obliges the government to reconsider how it will handle the matter when the Bill returns to the House of Commons. Many Christians wrote to Peers seeking their support and we are very grateful to all those who did so.

Don Horrocks, head of public affairs, Evangelical Alliance.