Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to restrict demonstrations in the vicinity of abortion clinics; and for connected purposes.
The demands in this Bill are not new, and although its title includes the word “abortion”, the termination of pregnancy is not at issue here—not the number of weeks, or anything of that nature. This is about women being able to present themselves for legal healthcare free from intimidation.
Many Members with a clinic within their boundary will know the issue at stake. In 2017, I and 113 cross-party colleagues wrote to the then Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, which resulted in her commissioning a review. Alas, by the time it reported back, her successor recognised the problem but deemed it was not serious enough to address. Yet any harassment is surely wrong and since then things have worsened. Pre-lockdown, there were scenes of scores of protesters obstructing the entrance to the BPAS Finsbury Park clinic. That made national news. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) called on the Government to bring forward legislation to protect women from Cardiff to Eastbourne and Doncaster—even my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition has this menace on his patch.
Lockdown provided some respite, but they are at it again. It took over three decades of protests outside the Marie Stopes clinic in Ealing before the exasperated council in 2018 introduced Britain’s first buffer zone—a public spaces protection order, a local authority byelaw—so that women could access healthcare services in confidence and dignity, with their journey down the street and up the path into the clinic unimpeded by anti-abortion or even pro-choice campaigners, after having probably made the most difficult decision of their lives.
But with the covid-19 crisis preoccupying local authorities—although the protesters do not seem deterred by it—councils have enough on their plate without having to find the time and resources for the onerous process necessary for a PSPO. While a PSPO is an infinite improvement on what was there before, it is cumbersome and only temporary. Ours ends next year, and it took a six-figure sum to gather evidence and redeploy a senior team of officers from elsewhere for six months, and to pay for the subsequent signage and the legal fees resulting from the inevitable challenges from the well-endowed people on the other side.
I have been aware of Ealing protests since the ’90s, which included disturbing 2D and 3D foetus images lining the road. When I became a parent and had to walk my own past there, I shuddered more. As an MP, I received representations from constituents from neighbouring houses, with people saying that they there were not sure whether to comfort the women in distress. Worse still was the anguish felt by women clinic users. They were usually young and about to go through a challenging process, sometimes after rape or a fatal foetal abnormality. The last thing they needed in that situation was to be met by lifelike, medically inaccurate foetus dolls and graphic images, handed misleading literature on the way in, or called “mum” and told they would go to hell. I held a meeting at the clinic, and we only got in because it was raining that day and the protesters were put off by the precipitation. The clinic keeps an incident log, and staff reported being hounded themselves, and told me about women either missing appointments or turning up in tears due to groups congregating outside, thus causing potential physical and emotional harm to themselves. There was a record number of submissions to the PSPO consultation, including reports of clinic users being shouted at, having their arms grabbed, and being filmed on camera phones. While pro-life supporters claim that handing out leaflets and kneeling with rosary beads is not harassment or intimidation, and does not require police intervention, as Justice Turner said when upholding the Ealing decision at the High Court, it is “uninvited attention” when women are “vulnerable and sensitive”.
Ealing’s chief superintendent told me that the police would prefer national protections as this order is about to run out and the whole onerous process must start again. For the police, life has been made a lot better now, with officers freed up to fight crime, rather than keeping rival groups apart at the gate since the emergence of the pro-choice advocacy group, Sister Supporter.
In reality, however, only one side protests not in the traditional sense by targeting legislators like us to change decisions, but by targeting individual women on their way to make this agonising decision that they have often made as a forced choice, and with judgments on their morality cast all over them. The High Court, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court have all affirmed the Ealing decision, with my brilliant barrister constituent, Kuljit Bhogal, defending each time, but the cash-strapped council and our leader Julian Bell now fear further expense because the next stop is going to be the European Court of Human Rights, at a time when every penny from the public purse counts.
Life is all about weighing up competing interests, and freedoms of thought, of conscience, of expression and of assembly are often cited, but clinic users also have a right to privacy. Pregnancy is something we tend to keep private until it shows: I definitely did—and look at Carrie; we didn’t know until later, did we? Pregnancy is a personal thing, and shaming people undergoing it, with the added dimension of abortion, and pushing them into the spotlight in a public place—a public highway—violates this. As our chief superintendent put it, protesters can still protest; they have just moved a few hundred yards down the road.
Many MPs on both sides of the House who are supporting this Bill are devout Christians, and we should not muddy the waters of the issues at stake here. When that vicar’s daughter, the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey), was an Ealing councillor, she was a prime mover behind our PSPO, and local clergy, such as Nick Jones of Saint Mary, Acton, are completely, 100% on side, as are a plethora of other groups: the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Midwives, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Women’s Aid and Mumsnet, to name but a few.
Australia and Canada have adopted this approach and this type of legislation functions fine, but we do not want to go down the road of America, where there are horrific stories of medical professionals’ cars being booby-trapped and all sorts of scary things; I fear we could head in that direction if action is not taken now.
This is not about the rights and wrongs of abortion. While emotions run high, and there are sincerely held opinions on both sides of the argument, we must accept that it has been legal for 50 years in this country. This is about the rights of vulnerable women seeking access to healthcare in safety, anonymity and dignity, without the accompanying paraphernalia designed to induce guilt, such as grossly inaccurate quasi-medical leaflets or being filmed and livestreamed entering and leaving the clinic, which no other medical procedure would attract. Access to health services should be a fundamental human right enjoyed by all without interference.
Following our buffer zone in Ealing, Richmond has followed suit, and apparently the constituencies of my good friends, my hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) and for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill), are next on the cards. Although Ealing’s PSPO was a necessary and local solution to a local problem, women should not effectively be in an uneven, patchy postcode lottery in order to be able to access harassment-free reproductive healthcare. This is a national problem that requires a national solution. Where Ealing leads, the world should follow, but we should better what Ealing has. This Government have been courageous with things such as same sex-marriages and they should be so again. I commend the Bill to the House.
I rise to oppose this Bill and urge colleagues to vote against it, whatever their views on abortion, on several key grounds: its potentially damaging impact on freedom of speech, the fact that we already have sufficient relevant and effective legislation—we do not need more—and because the Government looked into and rejected a Bill of this type less than two years ago
In 2018, the then Home Secretary conducted an in-depth review about protest activities outside abortion clinics. The outcome was clear. He said that
“introducing national buffer zones would not be a proportionate response.”
Why did he conclude this? One clear reason was, as he said, that
“legislation already exists to restrict protest activities that cause harm to others.”
Where a crime is committed, the police have the power to act so that people feel protected.
There are, by my reckoning, at least six pieces of legislation already available for authorities to tackle behaviour that might cause harassment, alarm or disorder: the Criminal Justice Act 2003; the Public Order Act 1986; the Protection from Harassment Act 1997; the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005; the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014; and the Local Government Act 2000. We do not need more.
The Government’s review also found that anti-abortion activities take place outside a very small number of abortion facilities. Of the 363 hospitals and clinics in England and Wales that carry out abortions, just 36 had experienced anti-abortion activities. Evidence showed that these activities were—again I quote from the then Home Secretary’s conclusion—“passive in nature” predominantly. He went on to say:
“The main activities that were reported to us that take place during protests include: praying; displaying banners; and handing out leaflets. There were relatively few reports of the more aggressive activities”
of the type described by the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton. The type of behaviour that she described is simply not replicated widely across the country. In fact, for more than a quarter of a century, in places from Ealing to Edgbaston, people concerned about abortion have, in the main, gathered peaceably to pray near abortion clinics, and they have gently offered a leaflet or the opportunity of a conversation. Actually, colleagues, how different is that from our political campaigning—apart from the praying that is, though some of us do that, too? Little trouble was registered at these clinics until the last few years when opposing campaigners started to arrive in groups with a mega- phone to deliberately stir up conflict—in my opinion—where none had existed previously.
Let me be clear: I do not condone aggressive protest activities outside abortion clinics, but those are in the minority, and imposing national legislation where it is not required would be a drastic overreaction. It would be a drastic overreaction because of the potential damage that this Bill could do to the more widely held freedom of speech in this country. As the then Home Secretary wrote:
“In this country, it is a long-standing tradition that people are free to gather together and to demonstrate their views. This is something to be rightly proud of.”
Not only could freedom of speech be threatened, but also freedom of assembly, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, the right to peaceably protest, and the right to receive information. They are fundamental liberties, many hard-won, underpinning our democracy. This is a dangerous Bill with potentially far-reaching implications. Everyone has the right to free speech within the law. That includes the right to say things which, though lawful, others may find disturbing or upsetting. Of course free speech is not an absolute; there are limitations prohibiting speech that incites violence, or constitutes harassment or is defamatory, but there are laws to deal with that, as I have said. However, the law does not prohibit speech that others might find upsetting or offensive. I find it upsetting to hear that 9 million unborn children have been aborted since 1967—one every three minutes in Great Britain today; 600 every working day.
We must not allow a situation in which minority groups holding unpopular or unfashionable opinions that are within the law are shut down by those seeking to prevent the free speech of people whose views they disagree with. What other points of view could be delegitimised next? We must safeguard free speech as precious. No wonder a host of prominent human rights groups and civil society campaigners, who I suspect do not share my views on abortion, have spoken against the proposed “buffer” or “censorship” zones proposed in the Bill. They include Peter Tatchell, the Manifesto Club, Big Brother Watch, Index on Censorship, the Freedom Association and Liberty, the last of which has strongly criticised the public spaces protection orders, to which the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton referred, as powers that allow
“for the criminalisation of a very broad range of conduct”,
and has called on the Government
“to get rid of these over-broad and under-scrutinised powers.”
A PSPO can be created simply if a local authority is satisfied that two conditions are met: if activities in the area have a detrimental effect on quality of life—a hugely subjective test, especially when applied in such a sensitive area as abortion—and if the activities are likely to be continuing. Not only would such nationwide censorship zones set an illiberal precedent of Government censorship, but they would make people fearful of expressing views about abortion elsewhere, outside such zones, lest they be held to have broken the law, or to be guilty of some hate crime—the so-called chilling effect on free speech. That may well affect freedom of speech on other topics. How soon will it be before legal pro-life expression is unacceptable anywhere in the public sphere—or the expression of views on other issues that cause people to feel uncomfortable?
This House must safeguard freedom of speech and oppose a Bill that risks silencing in public life the views of countless people, including those of Alina, who described on the website Be Here For Me how she kept her daughter, now aged seven, after a quiet encounter outside an abortion clinic. When she went into the clinic, she was told only how to have an abortion, but she says that having had that encounter with a woman outside,
“I felt that I did have a choice. I can choose, yes or no.”
This is not a pro-choice Bill. It is a regressive Bill, and I urge colleagues to vote against it today.
I am about to put the Question, and I expect there to be a Division when I do. I remind hon. Members that we are using the new arrangements I announced last week, with the voting in the Lobbies being recorded by pass readers. I will not give the instruction to lock the doors earlier than 18 minutes after I call the Division, although I expect that time to be reduced as the new system beds down. I urge all hon. Members to be patient during this process and in particular to observe the requirements of social distancing.
Question put (Standing Order No. 23).
The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.
That Dr Rupa Huq, Dame Diana Johnson, Rosie Duffield, Jess Phillips, Sarah Olney, Sir Bernard Jenkin, Mr Andrew Mitchell, Laura Farris, Caroline Lucas, Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, Huw Merriman and Liz Saville Roberts present the Bill.
Dr Rupa Huq accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 11 September and to be printed (Bill 145).