The Government last night said it would consult on changing the problematic Public Order Act, after pressure from MPs.
Over 40 Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs rebelled against the Government, supporting instead Gainsborough MP Edward Leigh.
He wants to amend Section 5 of the Public Order Act to remove the word “insulting” – a move which has received the backing of groups as varied as Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights, Justice, The Christian Institute and the National Secular Society.
Last night the Government said it would launch a consultation on changing the law “in the next few days”.
Making the announcement, Home Office Minister James Brokenshire said the consultation would give interested parties the opportunity to set out their views.
He added: “I look forward to the debate and to meeting my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough to hear his views at first hand.”
However, the Government did not allow a debate in Parliament on the issue last night – something Mr Leigh described as “ironic”.
He said it was an “extraordinary situation” that the Government was using its powers to “stifle a debate on freedom of speech”.
The MP also said that the change to the law was only a “very modest proposal that seeks only to change one line of legislation” and would not cost the Government any money.
Mr Leigh criticised the lack of Parliamentary debate, saying the issue was “too serious to delay” and he highlighted a number of cases involving Section 5.
He said: “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.”
He noted that Section 5 is “being used as a kind of catch-all and is chilling debate”.
Responding for the Government, Mr Brokenshire said there were “complexities” around changing the law, which is “why the Government would prefer to consider and reflect on the matter carefully”.
Mr Brokenshire added that the public consultation would “provide an opportunity for hon. Members, the Christian Institute, the police and many others to set out their views”.