Page last updated at 21:50 GMT, Monday, 14 January 2013

May: Government to back change to insults law

The government has signalled it will support a bid by the House of Lords to repeal a law banning insulting words or behaviour.

Home Secretary Theresa May said she was "not minded to challenge the amendment made [to the Crime and Courts Bill] in the other place", as MPs began second reading of the legislation on 14 January 2013.

Peers defeated the government last December when they voted by a 96-majority to remove the word "insulting" from Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986.

The Section 5 rule was aimed at football hooligans using insulting words or behaviour. Real-life arrests under the Act have followed someone barking at a dog, and another asking if a horse was gay.

Several high profile celebrities have spoken in favour of removing Section 5, including comedian Rowan Atkinson, arguing that the law stifles free speech.

In the Commons, Mrs May said: "There's always a careful balance to be struck between protecting our proud tradition of free speech and taking action against those who cause widespread offence with their actions."

But she said the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, has stated that "the word insulting could safely be removed without the risk of undermining the ability of the CPS to bring prosecutions".

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said it was important to protect freedom of speech but also to ensure vulnerable groups are protected from unfair discrimination.

She said Labour wanted to see the government's evidence before committee stage of the bill that Section 5 "can be removed whilst maintaining protection for groups who might be discriminated against or where the police can respond in an effective way".

Later in the debate Julian Huppert, Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge, said he was "delighted" that the Lords had voted to remove the word from the act.

The Crime and Courts Bill also makes provision for the establishment of the National Crime Agency, replacing the Serious Organised Crime Agency and the National Policing Improvement Agency.

It will implement changes to the judiciary and introduce a new drug-driving offence among other measures.

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