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Abortion Clinics: Safe Access Zones

Volume 834: debated on Monday 20 November 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what progress they have made towards the implementation of safe access zones around abortion clinics as legislated for in section 9 of the Public Order Act 2023.

My Lords, the Government will issue non-statutory guidance to ensure that law enforcement agencies have a clear and consistent understanding around enforcement, and that abortion service providers and protesters are clear as to what is expected under the new law. The Government will launch a public consultation on the contents of the guidance at the earliest possible opportunity, and following consultation we anticipate commencing Section 9 in the spring of 2024.

My Lords, there is a great deal of foot-dragging in this. Both Houses supported the Public Order Act six months ago, which was to protect women accessing legal healthcare for their necessary rights. Yet in these months the most cruel demonstrations are going on outside clinics—for example, people wearing bodycams and holding out posters saying that babies are being murdered there. I do not see that a consultation is necessary; I urge the Minister not to delay the will of Parliament any longer but to get on with it and protect women from these very cruel demonstrations.

My Lords, I quite agree with the noble Baroness—it is totally unacceptable for anybody to be harassed or intimidated simply for exercising their legal right to abortion services. Personally, I find that very depressing to see. However, in terms of the public consultation, this is new legislation on an emotive topic, and there are strong views on all sides of the debate. Determining the appropriate balance will not always be straightforward. Therefore, to make sure that the legislation can be implemented effectively—that is the point—the Government have decided to launch a public consultation on the non-statutory guidance for safe access zones.

My Lords, we need to take account of the fact that the previous Home Secretary voted against safe access zones and has a history of opposing abortion rights. The noble Lord needs to give us an example of where—when the will of Parliament is so clear, as it is in this case—it has been necessary to have this kind of public consultation. We are very familiar with pre-legislative scrutiny and consultation in this House, but why are we seeing months-long delays? Can the noble Lord please give us a timeline?

I say to the noble Baroness that I already have: it will be commenced by the spring of 2024, and I am very happy to commit to making sure that that happens. The guidance is not straightforward because of the broad nature of the prohibited behaviours. For example, it is a criminal offence to intentionally or recklessly influence, which means that members of the public, the police and prosecutors will benefit from being aware of what could be criminalised within the zones. I totally take the noble Baroness’s point: I want to see this happen as soon as possible too.

Does my noble friend agree that these women will be in a very fragile state of mind, and it is highly undesirable that they should be subjected to coercive behaviour by the opponents of abortion?

Can the Minister confirm whether the Home Office plans to be in touch with local councils, abortion care providers and the police in coming weeks to discuss how these zones are best implemented?

As I say, there will be a public consultation, and I hope that all those whom the noble Baroness mentioned will engage with the consultation process.

Will the noble Lord guarantee that Section 9 will be in force and implemented before the next general election?

Can my noble friend tell the House what advice will be given to police in the interim period to deal with those causing harassment and intimidation at the gates of abortion clinics?

My noble friend will be aware that a number of powers already exist, particularly around public space protection orders, which have been issued in a number of cases. Some guidance is already being deployed to local authorities, which have the powers to impose those public space protection orders where harmful behaviours are having, or are likely to have, a detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality. There is plenty that the police can do already, but, as I say, the commencement will be by spring 2024.

I am afraid that it has not started yet; it will start imminently—and I mean imminently. The draft is ready; it is just a question of bureaucratic dotting of “i”s and crossing of “t”s. As soon as that is done, I will come back to the House to update your Lordships on the precise timelines of the consultation.

My Lords, I am assured by the Minister’s own commitment to this legislation; he has made a clear statement. However, the concern that I have—having argued and voted for this legislation—is that the victims are still worried. They are already terrified sometimes when having this treatment and are further intimidated by some of the protests. Does the Minister agree that the consultation, important as it is, should not take so long? It is not very complex to implement; we have implemented greater criminal changes far more quickly.

First, I associate myself with the noble Lord’s remarks about the victims; I completely agree with everything that he said on that subject. I have tried to explain why the consultation will take the time that it will. I would like it to be concluded as speedily as possible, and I promise to come back to the House and update on that timeline.

My Lords, anti-abortion protesters and groups were spreading their misinformation and distressing images when I was at university, which is more years ago than I care to admit. Their horrific images stay with me to this day. They are still trying to intimidate women outside abortion clinics all these years later—so what is there to consult on? Does the Minister agree that the Government should stop the intimidation and the additional suffering that those women are going through once and for all?

I agree, but I also say that the protesters should stop their intimidation now and leave those women well alone, as the noble Baroness suggests. I have tried to explain the context of the consultation and the reasons for it. There is nothing more to say on that at the moment.

My Lords, although no one could defend intimidation or harassment, there are those who quietly pray. This came up when we debated the subject earlier in the year, and considerable concern was expressed in a number of quarters of the House. Can my noble friend assure me that the consultation that will follow will take account of those who merely stand quietly and pray silently?

My noble friend should probably consult some of the providers to find out the precise types of behaviour happening outside their clinics. Plenty of examples are available online. The most recent I saw was on 4 November from BPAS. However, training will have to reflect Article 9 of the ECHR; as the House knows, that is around the freedom of expression and manifestation of religion and belief. I also say that those rights are heavily qualified.

My Lords, having spent many an hour debating the clause, I think it requires careful consideration. I want to talk about context. First, people have been arrested for praying outside abortion clinics. However wacky we might consider it, that is a free-speech matter. Secondly, as the police do not seem to be able to know what intimidation is—whether outside a Labour MP’s office or on the streets in terms of anti-Semitism—I hope the consultation will be as helpful as possible so that they arrest the right people and do not end up policing easy targets instead.

The noble Baroness invites me to speculate on operational policing. As we discussed many times from this Dispatch Box recently, I cannot and will not do that. What I can say is that, in my understanding, some of the context around previous arrests is that they are more to do with breach of PSPOs than with the behaviour that she describes. In that case, I think it was repeated breach of a PSPO, so I am not sure that she is completely correct in her assertion, but I take her point.

My Lords, the Minister spoke earlier about the need for the guidance to address an appropriate balance. He spoke a few moments ago about the relevance of freedom of religion and freedom of expression. Was not the whole point of the parliamentary debates earlier this year to specify in legislation where the balance lay? Surely it is therefore time to get on with implementing it.

Again, I have tried to explain the context. I do not think those two things are entirely mutually exclusive. The fact is that some of the language in the law is relatively unusual. Therefore, the consultation is necessary to make sure that people are aware of what it is.

Does the Minister agree that people who wish to pray can do that at home or in church? They do not have to do it outside an abortion clinic. Does he further agree that plenty of people around the world have found solutions to this problem? Why do we not implement the same legislation that other countries have to protect these women?

We have legislation which we are discussing now, and I am not going to go against the will of Parliament and suggest alternative forms of legislation. The noble Lord is quite right: people are perfectly at liberty to pray wherever they wish. Intimidating behaviour, however, crosses the line.