Ipswich MP: I worry about 'creeping authoritarianism' in policing of our speech

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt said improvements to the Nacton Road/Ravenswood junction could be a game-changer for motorists there.

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt - Credit: Archant

My colleagues and I from the Common Sense group of MPs in Parliament have been co-authoring a book on a number of issues we believe the government should be firm on. One of these is law and order.

I have pushed for tougher sentencing for violent criminals and a zero-tolerance approach to anti-social behaviour, but one thing I am increasingly worried about is the creeping authoritarianism with regards to the policing of our speech.

Free speech is the backbone of our democracy, but currently it is coming under threat from the investigation and recording of so called ‘non-crime hate incidents’.

There were nearly 120,000 of these incidents recorded between 2014 and 2019. As by definition, these incidents do not constitute a crime - all it takes for such incidents to be logged against someone’s name is the perception by another that their speech was motivated by hostility based on race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or transgender identity.

This is irrespective of whether there is any evidence to identify the hate element – just the fact that someone has complained is enough!

This new move has seen the police come knocking on the doors of thousands across the country for jokes they have made online, on Twitter or Facebook. Jokes and statements which, however distasteful they may be, are not inciting violence.

Not only is this a waste of police time, but it should also be worrying to anyone that despite these incidents being ‘non-crimes’ and non-evidenced they do have implications for those accused.

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They are formally recorded by many police forces and can show up during DBS checks when applying for work, ruining careers.

They can also lead to lengthy and intrusive investigations of people who have written or said something that falls below the current standards of political correctness.

This was notable in the Harry Miller case in 2019, where police officers visited his place of work to ‘check his thinking’ and suggest he may face prosecution after a Twitter user complained he had made a transphobic remark.

The judge ruling on the police investigation of Harry Miller warned the court that "the effect of the police turning up at his place of work because of his political opinions must not be underestimated".

A similar famous case occurred in 2020, when the journalist Darren Grimes was investigated at length for an interview with historian, David Starkey.

In Mr Grimes’s formal complaint about the Metropolitan Police, it was noted that while he was being investigated on an allegation of stirring up racial hatred, the police instead referred to comments "which [have] caused offence" while also making reference to the context in which the interview was broadcast.

It was suggested that "racial tensions were high with the BLM movement protesting. Their aim was to address the issues of race in modern society and called for reform".

Instead of referring to the law, the officer appeared to be basing his investigation on political outrage and assumptions about the current political climate, including those based on a movement with highly controversial elements and goals in the form of Black Lives Matter.

This is unacceptable. We cannot allow our police forces, which are comprised of brave individuals who put their lives on the line to protect the public, to be used as the private militia of the most outraged in society and they should have no role in policing political debate.

It is important to remember that it wasn’t Darren who made an offensive remark, but rather his interviewee - establishing an unsettling precedent for the work of journalists in this country.

That the role of the police is to prevent and solve crime is what the public expect, and it is what thousands of police officers across our country dedicate themselves to every day, often running towards danger when others would run away.

It is The College of Policing Guidance which needs to change to ensure that police officers do not have to waste their time with every complaint made about offensive speech.

The Hate Crime Operational Guidance (HCOG) should be changed to stop referring to people of have merely complained as ‘victims’, so as not to conflate them with victims of actual and serious hate crime which should always be condemned.

Those that complain should also have to provide evidence and the HCOG should stop defining ‘hate’ so loosely to include ‘dislike’, ‘resentment’ and ‘unfriendliness’. Only then will our officers be free to do the work they signed up to do.

The government’s plans to recruit 20,000 additional police officers are welcome, but if we want more crimes prevented and solved then this must go hand-in-hand with action to ensure that the police’s priorities are the public’s priorities, and that the energy and resources of our police forces are directed solely against criminals, not law-abiding members of the public exercising their right to free speech.

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