Protection of Freedoms Bill

Memorandum submitted by Mrs Sharon Vogelenzang (PF 07)

Summary

1. The Protection of Freedoms Bill is meant to restore freedoms. I want to tell you about how my own freedoms were taken away by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. I want to ask you to help prevent cases like mine by amending the Protection of Freedoms Bill to take the word "insulting" out of section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986.

2. My husband, Ben, and I were prosecuted under section 5 in 2009. All that had happened was that a guest in our hotel had got upset at us during a discussion about religion (which she initiated). The police and the Crown Prosecution Service pursued the case all the way to trial. They actually prosecuted it as a "religiously aggravated" section 5 offence. The judge threw the case out. He seemed to agree that the case should never have been brought. But we lost our business because of the prosecution. And it was one of the worst experiences of our lives.

Our story

3. Running a hotel was our dream for a long-time. We wanted to provide a place where people would feel welcome and-cared for. The business really started to take-off when we contracted with the pain management centre at our local hospital to provide accommodation for people who were coming in for treatment. We received lots of referrals from 2008 onwards - and lots of nice thank you cards afterwards from the people who stayed.

4. One lady referred from the hospital in March 2009 was a convert to Islam. She was not the first Muslim guest we had welcomed into our hotel (which is also our home) and we have always had good relations with local people in the Muslim community.

5. Although she had lengthy discussions with another guest about her faith, we didn’t talk with her about her faith, or our own (we are Christians) until the last day of her stay. Previously she had always worn Western dress but on her final day she came to breakfast wearing a long robe. She asked if I knew she was a Muslim and I said I did. She approached me again a few minutes later to raise the subject of her Islamic dress but I was busy emptying the dishwasher.

6. She then initiated another conversation about her religion with my husband Ben. He tried to make light of it but the lady appeared determined to keep the conversation going. She did so by attacking the Christian faith, saying, "Jesus was just a minor prophet and the bible is not true". I joined the conversation saying "we would have to disagree with you there as we are Christians."

7. She referred again to the issue of Islamic dress and I said I couldn’t understand why she would want to put herself into bondage. She became angry and said, "I knew this was going to happen" and walked off.

8. She again raised the issue of religion with Ben and with another guest and again became angry and walked off.

9. She left that day with the other guests, most of them exchanging the usual pleasantries and, apart from feeling a little bruised by the encounter, we didn’t give it any more thought until we were told she had made a complaint to the police.

The police handling of our case

10. We were asked if we would voluntarily attend the police station for an interview, which we did. We got to the police station at ten in the morning and left at about four o’clock. We were interviewed separately.

11. I went into a small, white room with a table and four chairs. One of the two officers took notes and the interview was recorded on tape. It was a very distressing experience. Neither of us had ever been in trouble with the police before.

12. The complainant said we had been shouting and whirling around and insulting her. None of this was true. But the police charged us under section 5 of the Public Order Act. They said it was religiously aggravated. If we had been convicted we could have been fined up to £2,500 each.

13. At the trial Ben was put on the stand first, and I saw all the stress of the previous eight months coming out as he gave his evidence. He was distraught afterwards. He sat in court crying his eyes out.

14. The court was told my husband offended the lady by calling Mohammed a warlord. He never said that. But Hugh Tomlinson, QC, our barrister, said that even if he had, "The fact that someone is upset or offended is not a reason for criminalising the speech used by the other person".

15. Thankfully, the judge reached his decision very quickly. He said the evidence against us was unreliable and implied the police should have handled matters differently and that the case should never have been brought. But the police stood by their decision, issuing a public statement after the hearing, defending themselves.

16. After the publicity of the trial we received messages from around the world, most of them sympathising with us, but some of them threatening violence against us, including some death threats. We reported these threats to the police. They did follow a couple of them up; one led to a reprimand of a gentleman and a small fine (he had apparently never done anything like that before but he was influenced by the media’s negative reporting); the other one, we were told by the investigating Police Officer that this person was already under investigation in another City so, disappointingly for him, he said was told by the CPS that he couldn’t take this any further for us.

The collapse of our business

17. The police had told the hospital about the charges against us and the hospital had stopped referring people to us. Since 80% of our business came from them, our business collapsed. We had to sack staff and we and other family members had to work unpaid to try to keep the business afloat. We tried to persuade the hospital to refer people to us again after we were cleared. After all, the court had declared us innocent. But they wouldn’t.

18. Our hotel business closed in September 2010 and we re-opened the premises as a social enterprise, aiming to provide respite care, a contact centre and other services for the local community. As I’ve said, we are Christians and we trust God to bring good out of a bad situation.

Conclusion

19. We hope you can see that the police made a mistake in prosecuting us under section 5. But we understand the pressure they feel under in these controversial cases. We’ve spoken out publicly about the fact that we believe section 5 is too broad. By making ‘insults’ criminal, it puts the police in a difficult situation when someone claims to have been insulted by a conversation or a disagreement.

20. Even though we were acquitted we went through a terrible ordeal which cost us our business. We lost our freedom of speech the day we were charged, because it makes you afraid to say things even though you have every right to say it.

21. We should have freedom to disagree without the police having to get involved. It would be better for the police, and better for people like us, if Parliament made clear that feeling insulted by someone does not mean they have committed a criminal offence against you.

22. I understand that the Public Bill Committee calls witnesses. I would be willing to come and speak to the Committee if you would like to hear more about what happened to us. We were helped through our difficulties by The Christian Institute and especially by Mike Judge their Head of Communications. He was present throughout the trial and was closely involved in everything and he can explain very clearly what happened. He can also give evidence about other cases where section 5 has been misused. If I am called to give evidence to the Committee I would like it very much if he was able to accompany me.

March 2011