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Freedom of Expression

Volume 797: debated on Wednesday 3 April 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to ensure freedom of expression following the temporary detention by Border Force of a man at Gatwick airport for displaying an anti-Brexit badge.

My Lords, freedom of expression is enshrined in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This includes the,

“freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority”.

Under the Human Rights Act 1998, public authorities have to act compatibly with the convention. The Government are happy to take this opportunity to reassure Parliament that they take freedom of expression very seriously and are determined to promote it actively.

My Lords, I am not sure that that answers the Question. I think that the House’s understanding of the Question will be enhanced by my explaining, at the risk of breaking conventions, that the badge worn by Mr Brinsmead-Stockham read: “Bollocks to Brexit”—like the one I have with me. It was a bit rude, certainly, but surely not a reason to be detained by Border Force. Meanwhile, a leave campaigner has put malicious devices on train tracks in a politically motivated attack on infrastructure, which is apparently not being treated by the police as terrorism. Should the authorities not get their priorities right?

The individual concerned was delayed as opposed to detained—I think that there is a clear difference between the two.

It was for four minutes. I cannot say a lot about it because the incident is being looked into, but I agree with the noble Baroness that whether we say what is on her badge or quite the opposite, we should be perfectly entitled to do so.

My Lords, I hope that I shall not ruin the career of the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, by supporting her Question and in finding the Government’s Answer disappointing. Likewise, what about the Christian preacher, Pastor Olu, who was arrested, had his Bible wrenched from him and was dumped several miles away by police for preaching the divinity of Jesus, to which a nearby Muslim took offence? Are the Government aware that freedom of speech and expression are dying under their watch?

I do not know where the specific incident that the noble Lord talked about took place. Was it in the UK? No? You only have to go outside the doors of this Palace of Westminster to hear that any view, as long as it does not incite hatred towards someone, is absolutely taken on board—I enjoy walking past people who either agree with my view or do not, and who regularly admire my handbag—and to know that freedom of speech is well upheld by this country and by this Parliament.

My Lords, wearing a pro-Brexit or anti-Brexit badge should not be a reason to be stopped, delayed or detained at a border entry point. These are difficult times and passions are running high, but can the Minister ensure that officials are briefed on ways to avoid these matters becoming incidents?

I assure the noble Lord that in the case of the individual concerned in the Question, we are undertaking some fact-finding meetings with the member of staff and the higher officer on duty at that time. I think that the noble Baroness and the noble Lord will be comforted by that. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, perhaps strayed into other events that have taken place around the Palace of Westminster. We all have the right to give our views on Brexit—and, my goodness, we have done that—but when that strays into some of the more aggressive behaviour that we have seen, it is absolutely unacceptable.

Should the Leader of the House not be more enthusiastic about the slogan cited by the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford? After all, it is used frequently and is well known as the slogan of the chairman of Pimlico Plumbers in London, a very famous and distinguished remainer.

I think my noble friend the Leader of the House is no more enthusiastic about the slogan than I am, but everyone—I thought the noble Lord was going to refer to the wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons—has the right to air their views on what is an incredibly heated topic at the moment.

My Lords, on the subject of people having freedom of expression to give their views on Brexit, will my noble friend give the House an undertaking that our rules will not be subverted so as to prevent us considering legislation properly throughout its stages in this House?

I say to my noble friend that the conventions and rules of this place and the other place have been upheld for hundreds of years and I agree that we should have the time to be able to consider such huge matters before us at this time.

If there was objection on the grounds of the language used, what was the offensive word? Was it bollocks or Brexit?

My Lords, when we debated the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill, we argued that the power given to Border Force to detain people for up to six hours should be based on reasonable suspicion, while the Government argued it should be able to detain people without any suspicion. Is the detention of the pro-remain supporter at Gatwick not an example of how Border Force can now, thanks to the Government, lawfully overstep the mark?

Again, we must make a distinction between someone being detained and being delayed by four minutes, but I take the point behind the noble Lord’s question: obviously, Border Force has to be very careful about why it detains someone. That is the very point in the legislation the noble Lord referred to that we brought through together.