Protection of Freedoms Bill

Memorandum submitted by Andy Robertson (PF 09)



Section 5 of the Public Order Act is too vague and is being used wrongly to interfere with the legitimate work of Christian street preachers. I have experienced this myself. Police officers tried to use it to stop me preaching in Gainsborough after an unsubstantiated complaint. The problem seems to be that the wording of Section 5 is too broad and vague. I urge the Committee to look at the proposal from the Joint Committee on Human Rights to amend Section 5 so that instead of outlawing "threatening, abusive or insulting" words, it focuses on "threatening or abusive" words and no longer covers the vague and subjective idea of "insult".

1. My name is Andy Robertson and I have been an open air preacher with the Open-Air Mission (OAM) for over twelve years.

2. OAM was established in 1853 and is a respectable, mainstream evangelical organization. We employ 13 open-air preachers throughout Great Britain. All our preachers receive training and together we work hard to present the gospel in ways that people can relate to and without causing unnecessary offence.

3. For many years we have done our work with little difficulty. But in recent years, quite a few of our preachers have been told by police that they are somehow breaking the law. Often, the police cite Section 5 of the Public Order Act. But they are not applying it correctly. This is borne out by the fact that not one of our preachers has ever been prosecuted, let alone convicted, under Section 5. But when a police officer tells you to stop preaching and claims you are breaching the Public Order laws, it is very intimidating, even if you know they are mistaken.

4. OAM national training conferences used to just focus on theology and ways of being more effective. But in recent years we have had to invite lawyers to come and tell us about our legal rights when we are on the streets. We shouldn’t have to do this. I urge the Committee looking at the Protection of Freedoms Bill to consider amending Section 5 to stop the current confusion.

5. I preach in various places but I’d like to tell the Committee about one experience I had in Gainsborough. I go there once a month and preach for an hour in the marketplace.

6. One day I got a letter from the local council, West Lindsey District Council, telling me they wanted me to stop preaching. One councilor in particular had taken a dislike to my message. But I just preach the message of mainstream Christianity. I like to think I have a fairly relaxed and friendly style. I don’t single people out or shout at people (although the voice is raised for the Gospel to be heard). I often use a display board like you would see in a Sunday School.

7. The Council suggested I was breaking some kind of byelaw. I subsequently had several exchanges with them but no one could ever show me which law it was or what it said, that I had supposedly broken.

8. I was concerned someone might make an allegation about the content of my preaching so I started to record myself when I went out preaching.

9. One day I went into Gainsborough to preach as normal and two police officers asked me for a word. I kept the recorder running, (I had mentioned during the conversation that I had recorded what I had preached but I don’t think they heard that) so I have a record of the conversation. The officers were perfectly friendly, but they said the Council had told them I wasn’t allowed to preach there with a display board. They said it was a council byelaw but they didn’t know which one or what it said.

10. When I asked them to specify which one they changed tack and said they were moving me on because I was "causing offence" to people around me. When I asked why, they said I had been making homophobic comments. I was absolutely stunned because I hadn’t mentioned homosexuality at all.

11. I asked what they would do if I refused to leave with the board and they said they would arrest me for breach of the peace. I agreed to move the board but I said that I would continue to preach. I told them the Council had already admitted they could not stop me from preaching.

12. The officer insisted that there were claims that my preaching was homophobic. I said this was untrue and told them I had recorded my preaching to prove it.

13. I wanted to make it clear that I could still preach. After all, I have the right to free speech just like everyone else. I also pointed out that, even though I had not mentioned homosexuality, it was not a crime to say that homosexuality is a sin. The officer said, "That’s probably going to fall under section five of the Public Order Act." I told him that was not right and told him that I had a copy of section five with me. (This was because of the teaching and advice we had received at our conferences about our legal rights. I also had a copy of a written legal opinion that OAM had obtained and issued to all its workers.)

14. The officer replied, "Well, as I understand section five of the Public Order Act that would cause harassment, alarm or distress to people. And if you’re saying that’s a sin, and if I was gay, I’d be quite offended by that."

15. He kept saying that there was "a fine line" between what I could and could not say but without telling me exactly what it was. As a law-abiding citizen this didn’t really help me to know how to keep on the right side of the law.

16. I pointed out that people passing by sometimes swear at me, which definitely can be prosecuted under Section 5, but no-one ever seemed interested in enforcing the law against those people.

17. All in all it was a very disturbing experience. They hadn’t clarified the complaints from the person. They just seemed to think that because someone had claimed they felt offended that was enough for them to use Section 5 to silence me. They put all the pressure on me as if I had done something wrong. It was very unfair. I should not have to live with the real possibility or fear of being arrested just because someone takes an opposing view to me or me to them, for that matter.

18. I respect the police. They have a hard job to do. They should not have to waste their time with people like me who haven’t done anything wrong.

19. Section 5 is obviously difficult for police officers and citizens alike to understand. It is too vague. The inclusion of "insulting" words within its scope seems to make it hard for police to know what to do when someone claims to have been insulted by someone else’s opinion. I hope Parliament will use the Protection of Freedoms Bill to change it to make it more certain and to protect freedom of speech.

March 2011