Arresting people for swearing is ridiculous. And yet, under Section 5 of the Public Order Act, it regularly happens.
Section 5 is a badly written, catch-all law which – as one former officer put it to me recently – “lets us take people off the streets if they haven’t committed a specific offence but we don’t really want them there”.
The precise wording outlaws anyone who:
(a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or
(b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,
within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.
Given the total lack of any definition of what constitutes “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour”, and the overzealous nature of some (though far from all) bobbies on the beat, it is hardly surprising that the clause has been abused over the years. It has been applied to stop people making perfectly valid criticisms of Scientology, protesting against the murder and oppression of gay people in the Middle East, and saying religions are “fairy tales”, among many others.
Given that it is on the statute book, and that it is regularly used to arrest ordinary members of the public for far less serious behaviour than that displayed at Downing Street last week, Section 5 should surely have been used to arrest Andrew Mitchell, the Chief Whip.
Instead, he was allowed to swear repeatedly at a police officer, despite the police log’s report that bystanders looked “visibly shocked” – which seems to my lay perspective to qualify as using “insulting words…within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress”.
How many plebeians would be allowed to get away with that with only a verbal warning, rather than a trip to the cells?
Giving greater privileges and more freedom under the law to members of the Government than is given to the people at large prevents Westminster from understanding how bad the criminal law of this country has become. Leading the Chief Whip away in cuffs would have been an absurd scene when his sacking or resignation should be the sensible outcome, but it would have woken our representatives up to the excessive powers of Section 5.
Until that happens, what hope is there that they will realise the urgent need to reform the Public Order Act?
The problem with fighting in the gutter is that everyone tends to get covered in muck.
So it is with the latest set-to around Aidan Burley, the MP who became notorious for attending a stag do where someone wore a Nazi costume.
This week, a schoolkid on a trip to Auschwitz tweeted:
aiden burley seen texting and dozing whilst listening to an concentration camp survivor
Burley denied dozing or being disrespectful, a position that was given quite a bit of credibility by a statement from Dr James Smith, the Director of the Holocaust Centre, who sat next to him at the talk in question.
Something seemed a little fishy, particularly given that teenagers on school trips aren’t normally that big on recognising backbench Tory MPs, so perhaps it wasn’t a huge surprise that the teacher leading the group of school children turned out to be a Labour councillor, Suzannah Reeves. According to PoliticsHome it was she who recognised Burley and “confronted” him.
The problem for Councillor Reeves (other than the appalling grammar of her pupils) is that she’s not exactly in a position to preach about controversies involving alleged anti-semitism.
As well as being a teacher and a Labour councillor, she’s also the Chair of Governors at Parrs Wood High School. Only last week, she and the school’s Headmaster were called to a meeting with Jewish community leaders angry that the school was hosting an event run by a Hamas-linked charity, Human Appeal International, listed by the US State Department as being linked to terrorism.
The school has since had to cancel the event, which was particularly embarassing given previous controversies over a pupil’s skewed perspectives on the Middle East.
Now, I’m sure Cllr Reeves isn’t anti-semitic in any way, the school trip she was running shows that she must have an understanding of the importance of Holocaust education, and there’s no suggestion she personally played any part in organising the HAI event.
But should she really be attacking Aidan Burley when the school she is meant to Govern has drawn the attention Department of Education’s extremism experts due to agreeing to host an event for a charity which is linked to funding Hamas, an anti-semitic terrorist movement dedicated to destroying Israel?
My point is simply this – perhaps the gutter isn’t the best place to fight, if you want to stay clean.
Almost a year ago I wrote on the difficult question of whether paying a ransom for the release of the Chandlers, the British couple kidnapped by Somali pirates, was right or wrong. It’s my view that paying cash to kidnappers makes the crisis of Somalia worse by a) giving the pirates vast resources for new kit and weapons and b) giving them a reward for kidnapping which will inevitably encourage them to repeat their crimes.
The personal urge for friends and family will always be to pay up and save their loved ones – but the result is that the freedom of many others will be infringed as a result.
The same goes – in spades – for today’s deal to free Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit from his five year captivity by Hamas.
I’m delighted for Shalit and his family that he is free – the prospect of losing half a decade of your youth to imprisonment in the hands of a fascist movement committed to the annihilation of your whole race does not bear thinking about, and it is a miracle that he is alive. The deal to release him, though, is a pact with the devil.
It would be bad enough if the Israelis had traded money for his release, but they have gone further, releasing over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. We’ve yet to learn all of their identities, and some may well be uncharged detainees, but we know for a fact that many of them are convicted murderers, bomb-makers and terrorist masterminds. They include
- The perpetrators of the Passover Massacre, 2002 – a suicide bombing on a hotel which killed 30 people
- A woman who lured a 16 year old boy to his death through internet chat rooms
- A bombmaker who has pleaded guilty to building devices that killed 66 people and wounded 500 more
- A bus hijacker who killed 16 passengers and injured 27
One of the most disturbing is Ahlam Tamimi, a woman who was involved in blowing up a pizza restaurant in Jerusalem, apparently chosen specifically because it was full of families. As well as stating repeatedly that she does not regret her actions,
In a documentary on Palestinian prisoners, she was asked whether she knew how many children had been killed in the attack. She did not. When told the number was eight, she smiled.
As well as the moral element of releasing such people, we should consider the practical implications. Some extremely dangerous people are being set free, potentially to commit acts of terror again. Over 200 of them are deemed too dangerous to be allowed to live in Palestine, and I am hardly comforted by the news that they are going to be resettled in Turkey instead. People willing to kill en masse for their cause are unlikely to now retire and take up market gardening for the rest of their days.
Furthermore, the deterrent effect on would-be terrorists of lifetime imprisonment has now been fatally diluted – the bar to entry for a young man or woman considering joining Hamas has been lowered yet further.
Worst of all, Hamas will be learning a lesson from this: kidnap Israelis, and you will get what you want on a vast scale. Even leaving aside the hundred of killers disappearing back into the underground, and the removal of a deterrent for individuals, this will have a deadly affect – Hamas has tried and tested a terrorist tactic and found that it works. This is a green light for more kidnaps and more attempts at kidnap that will surely end in death.
There are 6,000 more Palestinian prisoners in Israeli custody. After today, can anyone doubt that Hamas will be thinking about who to kidnap to get them released, too?