Demonstrations (Abortion Clinics)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:50 pm on 24th June 2020.

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Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton 12:50 pm, 24th June 2020

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 where 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.