Could you be arrested for putting an atheist poster in your window?

Robust debate is a freedom to be celebrated, not feared.

"Religions are fairy stories for adults" is scarcely the most incendiary slogan ever devised. It might be a question on an old-style A-level paper ("discuss"). A pensioner from Boston in Lincolnshire was, however, advised by the police that he risked falling foul of the Public Order Act 1986 if he put the message in his window. He might even face arrest. Well, sort of.

John Richards' "defiant" stand – the word comes from the original report in the Boston Standard – has attracted the support of, among others, the National Secular Society. Their president Terry Sanderson described the police reaction as "completely over the top", adding that "people have got to learn to get a thicker skin." Pavan Dhaliwal of the British Humanist Association commented that the case "shows how subjective the law is, and how it has the real potential to stifle free speech."

Also supportive is Simon Calvert of the Christian Institute, the pressure group responsible for highlighting several free speech cases involving Christians. Calvert proclaimed that "It is no business of the criminal law to impinge on such moderate expressions of belief... What possible justification could there be for officers to tell a man he cannot insult religion with a tiny poster in his own window?"

It's important to be clear about what actually happened in this case. First of all, Richards' poster has not, as yet, attracted any complaints. When I spoke to him he told me that the only reaction he had received came in the form of an anonymous letter which supported both the message and his right to display it. Nor were Lincolnshire police acting on their own initiative in warning him of the possible consequences were complaints to be made. They only discovered the existence of the sign because he wrote to them, informing them of his intention and enquiring if it might constitute a criminal offence. In setting out the circumstances in which it might they were, he thinks, "just covering themselves".

Richards, a retired journalist who is also chairman of the Apostrophe Protection Society, denies that the story is a publicity stunt. He contacted the police, he says, because he was worried about the legal position and wanted to protect himself. Nor did the police response cause him to take the sign down – or, indeed, to do anything except contact the Boston Standard. Nevertheless, however trivial, the story does highlight a genuine issue.

Section 5(b) of the Public Order Act 1986 makes it an offence to "display any writing... which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby". The section is notoriously subjective – previous instances in which police have used it as a reason to intervene (and occasionally to bring charges) have involved Christian preachers inveighing against homosexuality, members of Outrage! protesting against the persecution of gay people by Islamic governments, a teenager holding up a sign describing Scientology as "a dangerous cult" and a student who described a police horse as "gay".

Peter Tatchell has argued that it is "sweeping, draconian and has a chilling effect", especially as there is no requirement to prove intent to cause harassment or distress. He is one of many people currently urging that Section 5 be repealed or at least modified by removing the word "insulting". The campaign is spearheaded by an alliance of convenience between the Christian Institute and the National Secular Society, who said in a joint statement earlier this year: 

With such a low threshold, it is too easy for police – and thin-skinned activists – to fall back on when there is controversy and one side claims to feel offended. At the same time there are plenty of other, more targeted, offences available to tackle genuine cases like harassment, incitement and breach of the peace.

"Breach of the peace", however, is at least as much a catch-all as the word "insulting" in the Public Order Act. The real problem may be one of attitude rather than the precise wording of legislation: the existence of an official mindset that sees robust debate as potentially threatening to the tranquility of the public space, as a threat to be managed rather than as a freedom to be celebrated.

The other issue is that of the chilling effect, something that is only increased by the publicity given to unusual or exaggerated cases like that of John Richards.

A poster in your window could cause you serious trouble. Photograph: Getty Images
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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation