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February Adjournment

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:53 pm on 13th February 2020.

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Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Labour, Hornsey and Wood Green 12:53 pm, 13th February 2020

I congratulate Dr Evans on his excellent peroration, and I wish him all the best in his career and in representing his constituents. I will also draw on some of his words about empowerment and choice, and I hope that as a member of the Health Committee, he will enjoy introducing new ideas and best practice from his recent experience as a GP.

The issue I wish to raise is also health-related. Last weekend in my constituency, some protesters assembled outside the British Pregnancy Advisory Service at Stroud Green, intent on disrupting the clinic’s work and intimidating service users who were attending it. This issue is not new to the House. Indeed, my hon. Friend Dr Huq has raised it on a number of occasions, imploring the Health Secretary to take more action and create buffer zones around clinics so that women who have to make choices at what is often a stressful time in their lives are able to make those choices without experiencing harassment or degradation.

I was disappointed to see those protests in my constituency. As I follow the excellent speech by the hon. Member for Bosworth, I am sure that we all agree that choice is crucial in this debate, and that women’s rights are human rights. The right for women to do what they choose with their own bodies is an important principle, and I have always stood up for that most basic of human rights.

The protests outside clinics that have been popping up in various constituencies can turn nasty, and I implore the Minister to seek advice from those senior to him about what can be done. As we know from the speech we have just heard, some patients need to make choices at various points in their lives. Women in particular should be supported at a difficult time, not bombarded by protesters who surround clinics, accuse service users of murder, and display graphic images that should not be tolerated while women are taking such a significant step in their lives. Turning a blind eye to such intimidatory tactics is not some- thing that any Member of the House should encourage.

I am grateful to my local authority, Haringey Council, for its sympathetic approach to this issue when it appeared suddenly last weekend, as well as to our excellent borough commander. They immediately passed the issue to local community police officers, who are able to deal with issues of community cohesion that can arise quickly in a matter of hours. I hope I will gain the Government’s support on this. We know that local authorities are hamstrung. The only legal tool currently available is the public spaces protection order, which is not really appropriate for this sort of issue, as a high threshold must be met to obtain a buffer zone.

I understand that such protests are a frequent occurrence. According to experts, over the past 18 months, 44 clinics across the UK have experienced some form of protest activity, including a number of GP surgeries. The hon. Member for Bosworth will know that a protest outside a GP’s surgery could be particularly negative at a time when, as he said, it is important to empower a patient to make a decision. However, only a handful of those protests would meet the threshold for a PSPO.

Given that we are in the third decade of the 21st century, I ask for the law to be updated to protect women who choose to exercise their right to access pregnancy advice services, and in what they choose to do with their bodies. Will the Minister speak to the Home Secretary about the need for legislation to decriminalise abortion and to provide for buffer zones around registered clinics, with proper enforcement measures if those zones are breached?

I will conclude, Madam Deputy Speaker, as I know that lots of Members wish to speak. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton has already led calls on this issue in the House, and she has long been a champion for buffer zones. I know that the issue is on the Government’s mind—together with a number of other pressing matters—and if it is dealt with quickly, it might lead to a calmer situation. We know that arrangements are in place abroad to prevent disruptive and intimidating protesters from getting near clinics and pressuring women who are already under a great deal of stress and pressure.

Some may argue that buffer zones place a limit on free speech—we could have a debate about that. There is nothing to stop such debates taking place in a calm and measured way, and Members on both sides of the House will have different views. Nevertheless, we can demonstrate our ability to have calm discussions in this House about issues on which we disagree, and we do not need to shout at service users at critical times, show distressing images, or call people murderers outside a perfectly reasonable and well-established clinic.

Finally, may I beg the Minister a third time to take this issue up with the Home Secretary? Providing buffer zones would achieve protection and dignity for women while they make what is often the biggest or most difficult decision of their lives. We cannot let the protests continue and we cannot afford more delay.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I wish you a lovely break next week.