The chief prosecutor in England and Wales says it is safe to reform a law which criminalises insulting words and behaviour, ahead of a vote on the issue today.
The House of Lords are voting on an amendment to Section 5 of the Public Order Act, proposed by Lord Dear.
Keir Starmer QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, said the word “insulting” could be removed from Section 5, in a letter to Lord Dear, the former HM Inspector of Constabulary.
Currently, Section 5 outlaws abusive, threatening and insulting words or behaviour.
Mr Starmer wrote, “having now considered the case law in greater depth, we are unable to identify a case in which the alleged behaviour leading to conviction could not properly be characterised as ‘abusive’ as well as ‘insulting'”.
He added: “I therefore agree that the word ‘insulting’ could safely be removed without the risk of undermining the ability of the CPS to bring prosecutions”.
The controversial law has been used to arrest street preachers, a student for calling a police horse “gay” and a 16-year-old protestor for holding a placard criticising scientology.
Lord Dear said yesterday in The Daily Telegraph that the misinterpretation of legislation by police is “impinging on the right to free speech”.
He said: “There must be something wrong with a law that can be used by police, prosecutors and the courts in such an excessively broad way.”
He added: “Behaviour that is merely ‘insulting’ should not be criminal in a democracy.”
A change in the law is backed by campaign group Reform Section 5, which includes the National Secular Society, The Christian Institute, the Peter Tatchell Foundation and others.
Comedian Rowan Atkinson added his support to the campaign in October, warning that merely stating a different point of view could lead to an arrest unless the law was changed.
A ComRes poll commissioned earlier this year by the RS5 campaign showed that 62 per cent of MPs believe it should not be the business of government to outlaw “insults.”
Only 17 per cent of MPs believe that removing the contentious “insult” clause would undermine the ability of the police to protect the public.