Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:45 pm on 24th March 2022.
I beg to move
That the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill [NIA 35/17-22] do now pass.
The Business Committee has agreed that there should be no time limit for the debate.
It is a great relief to finally be able to move my Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill at Final Stage. When I was first elected, I pledged to the people of South Belfast that I would work hard on equality issues, for human rights-compliant legislation and, particularly, for women. Today is the last sitting day of the mandate. The Bill is part of that pledge. It has been a long time coming. I began working on the Bill in 2016, shortly after I was first elected to the Assembly. The issues have been well debated and mostly understood across the House. I thank Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the UUP, the Alliance Party, Claire Sugden, Gerry Carroll and Trevor Lunn for their steady support in getting the Bill this far. Many staff behind the scenes, whom I have been told that I cannot name, have been absolutely invaluable on that journey. While I cannot name them, I want to let them know how much they are appreciated and how helpful they have been. Their skills have been invaluable to me throughout the Bill's development. Of course, I thank the Health Committee for its engagement during its scrutiny of and work on the Bill.
We are all aware that we are coming up to elections. Yesterday, I was on the Electoral Office's website and bumped into a code of conduct for canvassing in the vicinity of a polling station. I thought that Members might be interested to hear some of the rules of engagement that we are afforded in order to uphold a democratic process.
That code of conduct states:
"Canvassers shall be polite and courteous at all times when speaking to members of the public. They should be careful to avoid any behaviour which may leave them open to complaints of harassment or intimidation. Canvassers will not engage in canvassing activities inside the grounds of a polling place. Canvassers should not restrict or in any way impede pedestrian access to any entrance of a polling place. Canvassers shall not attach flags, emblems, banners, posters or any other item used in connection with canvassing to a polling place or to any part of its perimeter wall or fence."
None of that is what I have experienced with abortion services.
I went out to consultation on the Bill in 2017, just as the Executive was collapsing yet again, and the three-year hiatus meant that I could not progress the Bill any further. What happened in those years was that abortion legislation was changed at Westminster, and abortion is now no longer a criminal offence in Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland Office went out to public consultation to commission services, and it considered imposing buffer zones. Unfortunately, despite overwhelming support, the NIO decided not to bother. We got a new Health Minister, and he is aware of what is happening. However, yet again, he has not moved to end the intimidation and harassment levied against women and staff. There is no movement from the Executive to commission services, and, still, we watch as women are traumatised on our streets as they seek healthcare services.
Staff are harassed for doing their jobs, security measures are put in place, and services are moved and kept secret. The Abortion (NI) Regulations 2020 commenced on 31 March 2020, and, since then, 2,794 women have been able to access free healthcare safely and legally here at home. That should end the nonsensical claims that there is no need for abortion provision in Northern Ireland.
During 2020 alone, an estimated further 371 women were forced to travel to England or beyond to access the services that they needed. When the regulations meant that everyone else had to stay at home, hundreds of our women were forced to travel, sometimes alone, without the care and compassion that they deserve around them. That should be enough to end the nonsense of the Executive being unable or unwilling, or both, to commission the services needed.
We are hours away from the end of the mandate, and the Secretary of State has had to step in again with an instruction to commission services by 31 March; otherwise, he will. Although we do not yet know what those services will look like, we know all too clearly that, when trying to overcome the many barriers, including the lack of services and finding the help that they need, women and, indeed, staff are then forced to run the gauntlet of public shaming by a deliberate, concerted campaign of harassment and intimidation at some healthcare settings.
Due to the emergency response to the COVID pandemic throughout 2020, I was again unable to make any meaningful progress with the Bill in the Chamber. Yet, despite "Stay at home" messaging and regulations to prevent public gatherings, the concerted campaign of harassment and intimidation against women and staff continued unabated, and all authorities — the Health Department, the Department of Justice, the PSNI — claimed that they could do nothing to stop it. Despite the travel restrictions in place, legislative reforms and the pandemic, women and healthcare staff were still forced to run the gauntlet of public shaming by that deliberate, concerted campaign of harassment and intimidation.
When the Black Lives Matter protest happened during lockdown, there was swift, unified action from the PSNI, supported by Ministers, to fine some protestors for breaching regulations. Yet women and healthcare staff continued to run the gauntlet, and no action was taken. They were told that neither the current legislation nor the lockdown regulations were deemed sufficient to act. That is simply not good enough. If this Bill is passed today, we can right that wrong, and I urge all Members to support it.
I will make some remarks as Chair of the Committee in relation to this Bill.
I welcome the Final Stage of the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill. I thank the sponsor, Clare Bailey, for introducing the Bill, and I thank all who engaged with the Committee during its consideration of the Bill. This issue was first raised in evidence during the Committee's consideration of the Severe Fetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment) Bill last summer. The Committee sought further information from trusts on the number of incidents and the actions that they had to take in response to the protests. The responses indicated that trusts had to introduce new security measures, and some had to move the location of the services.
All members of the Committee commented that there was no place in our society for the harassment, abuse and intimidation of women and girls accessing health services, and that patients, staff and visitors should be able to access health premises free from harassment, abuse and intimidation. The Committee therefore welcomes the aim of the Bill, which is to establish safe access zones around registered pregnancy advisory bureaux and clinics in order to protect the women and girls who use the clinics, as well as the people who work in them. The Bill will make it a criminal offence to harass people in a safe access zone around clinics and will stop activity directly outside centres that can cause distress to those attending the clinics and to staff.
During consideration of the Bill, the Committee agreed that it would take evidence only from statutory bodies, as the views of organisations and individuals on the Bill were clear from the written submissions that the Committee received. Those written submissions informed members' views on the Bill and were published in the Committee's report on the Bill. During its evidence sessions, the Committee heard examples from the trusts and the PSNI of some of the difficulties that women and staff face when accessing health services. It is fundamentally important that people can safely access health services when they are needed, without the fear of harassment.
During Committee consideration of the clauses and amendments, a majority of members were in support of the Bill and the amendments. I note that the members of the Committee from the DUP did not take part in the formal clause-by-clause scrutiny of the Bill. I thank all Committee members for their consideration of the Bill, and I thank Members for their engagement throughout the progression of the Bill in what was a busy time for the Committee. I also thank the Committee team and the Bill Clerks for their support through the various stages of the Bill. I commend the Bill to the Assembly, and I am sure that any incoming Health Committee will look to the implementation of this Bill to ensure that it is meeting its purpose and protecting people accessing these health services.
As Sinn Féin's health spokesperson, I will just very briefly say that it is surely long past time when women, girls and staff who are attending or working in these clinics are subjected to the harassment and abuse of the levels that we heard about on the Health Committee. Sinn Féin will be supporting the Bill.
I do not intend to speak for long in this Final Stage debate. As I have said during debates at previous stages, the position of my party is clear, and our concerns about the legal implications of the Bill remain.
Everyone will agree that harassment and abuse in their many forms are not acceptable. No one should be intimidated or harassed entering his or her workplace. No one should be intimidated or harassed as a patient entering a health facility. No individual should ever be intimidated or harassed under any circumstance or at any place. The proper home for this issue is within a review of our harassment laws.
As I have stated before, I sincerely believe that this Bill will not have the impact that its supporters believe it will have, and it will almost certainly result in protracted legal action. The Bill is not good legislation. It is vague and leaves many grey areas, particularly around the definition of "influence" as an offence. The right to protest is incredibly important to all of us, and surely the whole point of protest is to attempt to effect change or, indeed, to influence. How this offence of influence will or can be implemented remains to be seen, and the operational concerns of the PSNI have certainly not been addressed. Potentially criminalising someone on the basis of perceived influence is a very dangerous road for our Government to take. I am in no doubt that it will lead to a direct conflict with several articles of the European Convention on Human Rights.
I note Ms Bailey's comparison with the electoral law and polling stations. I point out that, as members of political parties, we stand outside those polling stations at every election, where we absolutely seek to influence voters. Perhaps the comparison is not so good when it comes to this particular part of the Bill, which we oppose, on the creation of an offence of influence.
The DUP will be opposing the Bill. It believes that there are better ways to strengthen harassment legislation and to give the police the proper resources to prevent incidents, wherever they may occur.
I am pleased to stand in the Assembly to support and, indeed, champion the legislation at its Final Stage.
The legislation is long overdue. It does not take away anything from anyone. It does not remove anyone's civil rights. It does not take away freedom of speech or the right to protest. It does not prevent anyone from praying. However, it does protect the right of passage for anyone who is seeking healthcare and assures them of a safe access zone.
Just down the road from my office, it has become a weekly routine for protesters to gather. That has been upsetting and exhausting for patients, staff and the local community. Somewhat ironically, that persisted throughout what is now approaching a full year since the Western Trust's early medical abortion service was suspended as a result of the Health Minister's failure to commission services.
Attempts to influence personal healthcare and decisions at the clinic doors are unacceptable. Some women who are seeking abortions will have made their minds up as soon as they found out that they were pregnant. Others will take longer. No matter how easy or difficult the decision, if someone has made up their mind, made an appointment and is walking through the doors of a clinic, their decision has been made. How dare anyone suggest that they know better. Women are fed up to the teeth of that condescending attitude and of constantly being told, "I know what is best for you". We women know that all only too well. I do not need to spell out the damage that that has caused to women throughout the centuries or that it continues to cause. Sadly, it is prevalent across these islands.
Attempts to interfere in personal healthcare choices also constitute an invasion of people's privacy and deny them confidentiality. Some women reported feeling forced to rebook later appointments to try to avoid the groups of protesters. That disrupts their treatment and can cause emotional distress. It particularly risks causing additional issues if they are approaching certain week limits.
The Bill will not only help to prevent that interference but will enable anyone to enter a healthcare building without fear. The abuse of people who are seeking or providing care is always unacceptable, but it happens far too often, and it requires this intervention. Their rights and well-being will finally be protected.
It is also worth pointing out that many of the posters and leaflets that are distributed by those groups of protesters distort reality, are factually inaccurate and are often emotionally manipulative. Distributing that kind of unregulated, false information is dangerous.
On the topic of falsehoods, no matter what is bandied about inside or outside the Chamber, the fact of the matter is that existing legislation is not enough to prevent the intimidatory behaviour that is taking place outside clinics. Everyone who is accessing abortion services, to which they are legally entitled, must be allowed to do so in safety. The reality is that patients and healthcare workers are routinely subjected to targeted abuse. The Bill will finally put the necessary protections in place to put an end to that kind of harassment.
I thank Clare Bailey, her team and all the stakeholders for their hard work to bring forward this private Member's Bill. On Tuesday, Clare Bailey, you were pure scunnered by the naysayers, but, today, Clare Bailey, in my best Derryism, I am all lured for you. You have delivered protections and support for many years to come, and that is a legacy of which you should be very proud. I am proud of you. I commend the Bill and look forward to its implementation.
I congratulate Clare Bailey on getting the Bill to its Final Stage. I very much commend her on her work and engagement with the Health Committee, at which, on many occasions, she listened to the issues that we raised, and on her very constructive work with the Health Department on the amendments that she tabled at the amending stages. I very much welcome the Bill's Final Stage.
What a society we live in where these zones are needed, but the passing of the Bill today will send a message from the Chamber that that behaviour will no longer be tolerated. It also sends a message from us to those women and the people who are accompanying them that we support them, support their reproductive healthcare rights and support their seeking healthcare provision without the need to have to run the gauntlet and experience harassment when doing so.
I put on record my thanks to Brandon Lewis MP, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, for his written statement today on strengthening the regulations around the commissioning of abortion services here. I was, however, a bit disappointed that there was nothing in the statement about timescales. That should have been tightened up. He probably could have had the regulations drafted and ready to be laid this week. We are all losing patience in Northern Ireland waiting for abortion services to be commissioned. Women have waited far too long.
In closing, I thank the Health Committee and my colleagues for the work that we did on the Bill. I also thank those people who provided evidence to us. I place on record my thanks to Informing Choices NI, Alliance for Choice and the entire women's sector for their role in lobbying and championing safe access zones. Again, I thank Clare Bailey for bringing forward the Bill.
I, too, will speak in full support of the Bill at its Final Stage. Despite the protracted attempts of others to block progressive change this week, if the Bill passes today, it will be another momentous day in the Assembly. It will be a day on which we send a strong message that we are committed to protecting women from abuse and intimidation; that we are standing up for women at one of the most vulnerable times in their life; and that we are listening to the resounding calls from across the North that women have the right to access healthcare safely and free from intimidation and harassment.
I, too, thank Clare Bailey for bringing forward the Bill and congratulate her on pursuing it to the end, which has been a very challenging task. I also thank all the women who contacted me and shared their personal stories, some of which were very harrowing. I thank them for trusting me with those stories. They included women who are patients, women who are staff, women who are parents and women who have just encountered these protests when going about their daily lives. Those protests have had a significant impact on them, and they want to see this change made.
Finally, I pay tribute to Cara, Fiona, Angela and Sharon and the whole Supporting Women Newry group. For almost two years now, they have been steadfast in their commitment to standing up for women week in, week out and to trying to support women when they are accessing John Mitchel Place in Newry and Daisy Hill Hospital. I hope that their efforts have not been in vain.
Today, we have an opportunity to ensure that never again will women have to run the gauntlet of protesters when trying to access healthcare or when going to their work. I sincerely hope that Members across the House will make the right decision to show that we take the rights of women seriously, that we respect women's choices and that we are serious about our commitment to tackling violence and abuse against women and girls.
I will be brief, as I have made my comments clear both in the Committee and in the Chamber during the various stages of the Bill. It will come as no surprise to hear that I am against the Bill. I fundamentally believe that it is poor legislation and will be difficult to enforce on the ground. I also place on record again that my voting on the issue has been consistent and clear.
If we all took a step back in relation to the legislation, I do not think that there would be anybody who would not agree that there are things that still need to be ironed out but have not been, due to the rushed-through nature of the legislation. We have not had the time that we might have had, had it not been for time constraints, to fully engage with other organisations. Not least, I wonder if businesses will know that a safe access zone will be enforced close by. I wonder if that will deter the public from entering such public spaces due to worry or concern.
I recognise that there have been awful incidents that have deeply upset people, including staff, and I know that there have been incidents in which protesters have met with abuse. We cannot dispute that staff and those entering premises should be free from intimidation and attacks, but it is also important to remember that we must strike a balance in relation to freedom of speech, which is enshrined in law. Again, I point out to the House such wonderful organisations as CARE and Both Lives Matter and, indeed, the Churches that have submitted evidence to the Committee with concerns about how the legislation will work in practice. I felt that it was important that we listened to those concerns. It is a small minority of people who have created such situations, and it is important to point out that it is wrong to tar everyone in the pro-life community or even pro-life advocates involved in mainstream protest activity as people who are abusers or who harass people. During some of the debates, it seemed that, if you are against abortion, you harass people, you are someone who shows distressing imagery and you are against women. That parallel is wrong. It is important to call that out today. I utterly condemn actions that have furthered no cause but that of causing distress and harassment, which, unfortunately, have been carried out by a small minority of individuals in the vicinity of these settings. Such actions are malicious and can be reasonably regarded as being criminal in nature. However, it is an oversight that there has not been more engagement with the Department of Justice on the legislation. The best way of dealing with the issue may have been to look at our current harassment laws and strengthen them.
The police will have difficulty in enforcing the legislation, and therefore I raise questions yet again. In particular, why is the legislation going through today, considering that it will be difficult to enforce? That will help no one, and it will certainly raise the expectations of those who will expect it to work for them. Given my previous opposition to the Bill, it will come as no surprise that my party and I are against the Bill.
It should be no surprise to anyone that there would be protest against the widespread facilitation of abortion. Though abortion, by its advocates, is constantly described in the House as a medical procedure, the truth and reality of abortion is that it is, by choice, the deliberate killing of a baby in the womb. A woman's womb should be the safest possible place for the unborn. Yet, with abortion, it is the most dangerous place for the unborn, because it is there, in the womb, that, consciously, deliberately and by choice, death is visited on the unborn. It should therefore be no surprise that that provokes unease, distaste and protest. When it ceases to do so, this society will have entirely abandoned any semblance of a moral compass.
Thus, when we come to a Bill that would criminalise the merest attempt to influence someone against the deliberate choice of killing in the womb, it is but a reflection of how some think so little of human life that they want not just to have absolute legality and protection for the taking of human life but to quell, suppress and extinguish any opportunity for anyone to say that it is wrong. They want to expel from the public space anyone who dares to take a stand that is compatible with a basic tenet of belief: "Thou shalt not kill". Under the Bill, an individual who dares to silently hold a placard or a piece of paper with those few words on it is to be criminalised. They do not have to say anything, shout anything or approach anyone. If their words are capable of influence, under this pernicious Bill, that is a criminal offence.
We really have reached a sorry pass if we are now in a society where the liberalism of some is so illiberal that they cannot abide the very articulation of a message contrary to their own and that they believe that they should be able to self-certify public territory and to say, "Only our world view will prevail within this 150 metres: only a pro-abortion view". You are allowed to influence pro-abortion terms, but you are a criminal if you dare to try to influence against abortion. That, to me, is the oppressive and vindictive nature of the Bill.
Its vindictiveness is underscored by the fact that the House deliberately refused any amelioration in respect of clause 5 and the criminal offence of influencing. It refused to accept that there should be written into the law, as there is with a vast panoply of criminal offences, the defence of reasonable excuse.
Just a couple of weeks ago, the House deliberately decided that the most basic of defences — reasonable excuse — would not be available for this criminalisation. Instead, the House decided that it would have to be and would be an absolute offence. No matter what your motivation or mode, just being there or engaging in silent prayer, if it could be interpreted as being capable of influencing someone, would be an absolute offence. It does not matter what the reasonable excuse was. It does not matter if you are the mother of a 14-year-old who insists on going through with the abortion. Those are the depths to which the House sunk in its blind determination to ram down everyone else's throat its world view about the taking of innocent life.
I have heard talk today about human rights. It really is quite galling to hear talk of human rights when the rights of the voiceless — the unborn — are so trampled upon and despised that you cannot even abide anyone seeking to influence others against abortion.
The Bill is unworthy and, in that sense, disreputable, because it goes way beyond what was ever necessary to protect people from and deal with illegitimate protest. The criminal law and provisions on disorderly behaviour are all there, but, no, that was never enough. There had to be a special UDI approach to abortion clinics: special places that can abide only their view of the world. Because I think that that is an abhorrent position to take and because I believe in the right to protest — whether I agree about the issue being protested against is neither here nor there — I will vote against the Bill. I will only regret that some who tell us that they are against the Bill would not take the step that would have saved their statute book from such unnecessary and inappropriate legislation.
I am happy to speak on the Bill today. I have supported it all the way through and am happy to do so at its Final Stage. I commend the Member for getting to this stage with the Bill. Hopefully, it passes today.
It is also welcome news today that the Secretary of State will intervene if the Health Minister and the Department do not move to introduce legislation to allow abortion services. It is a real shame that the Minister did not move to commission services earlier in the mandate. His party is obviously rebranding as progressives but has not moved to allow basic services for women to access terminations in this part of the world, which, as we have heard, has forced thousands of women to travel for terminations. Anti-abortion laws and laws or policies that do not commission abortion services do not stop abortions; they merely export the health issue, which is exactly what abortion is.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)
There has been some talk about freedom of speech and the right to assemble, but the truth is that there already are general restrictions in place for protests but not people who are anti-choice. I have been on anti-racism protests. Several years ago, a diversity carnival, no less, was not allowed to go through Belfast city centre and was redirected so that people could take the back roads, the excuse being sensitivities around the Primark fire and potential threats to businesses' profits. We hear nothing about that from people who oppose the Bill. Black Lives Matter protesters who had no freedom to assemble on 5 June were, despicably, targeted and fined.
Therefore, as the law stands, restrictions, written and unwritten, are already in place.
The restrictions in the Bill are limited, but that, as much as I vigorously oppose anti-abortion organisations and the way in which they conduct themselves in their activities, is as it should be. I have been on many counter-protests, as has the Member. Those organisations will still be able to demonstrate and put their point across, just not outside healthcare clinics, and that is as it should be. They should not be and are not banned from protesting in cities and towns across this place. I commend the Member on the Bill and am happy to support it.
I will, of course, support the Bill today. I congratulate the Bill sponsor on introducing it. The House has a history on abortion matters that goes back to before 2016. I remember when Stewart Dickson and I tabled an amendment to try to introduce a concession for fatal fetal abnormality, which the House rejected. That was in perhaps 2015. There has been a lot of discussion about it. At least, in the end, the British Government saw sense and decided to introduce legislation on behalf of the Assembly. It is no tribute to the Assembly that that had to happen. Where we are today is the latest piece in a jigsaw of regulations and rules. It is finally becoming a reality that women's rights are fully recognised, including their right to control and make decisions about their body.
Back in 2015, I decided to visit the Marie Stopes clinic. I wanted to find out exactly what it was about. That year, the police had been called to the front of the clinic 200 times. There was, I think, one attempted prosecution of a very well-known lady activist, who complained about nearly everything but particularly abortion. However, the prosecution was not successful; she got off. She would only have been given a fine, but it was not enforced. What does that say about the existing legislation, which has been referred to a couple of times here? Some have said that it is powerful enough and that we do not need this legislation. We clearly need it, because everything else has failed.
People are saying that the Bill restricts freedom of speech and freedom of movement. All that I can say to that is that the women, mostly, and couples who go to an abortion clinic, advisory service, hospital or private hospital are also entitled to freedom of movement and freedom of action. They are entitled to that under the law that was brought in by the British Government. Every time that there is an abortion debate of some kind in this place, it turns into some sort of conscience thing. We now have abortion services provided under the law. Hopefully, in the new mandate, whoever is the Health Minister will move to commission them properly. If not, by the sound of Brandon Lewis's comments today, the British Government will again step in and do that for us.
The Bill is designed to stop the possibility of harassment, abuse and confrontation as well as people filming and taking photographs. All of that will be banned in the vicinity of a designated area, which will be a space of 100 metres or perhaps 150 metres, depending on the geography of the location. It will not stop people protesting outside that area, and it will not stop people railing against abortion till the cows come home, if they want to do that. It will, however, stop them harassing women who are in a very fragile state and who are making serious decisions — not easy decisions — that will affect the rest of their life.
The Member talks about the fact that the Bill will allow people to move without fear of protest. Does he accept that the legislation will mean that protesters will be displaced elsewhere, so it will not do what he is indicating?
I did not quite get the logic of that, with all due respect. The Bill will stop people protesting in any material form inside the designated area outside a particular premises. I am happy to give way again, if the Member wishes to clarify what she said.
You did not say that the first time. As I understood it, you said that the protesters would still be there. The protesters will move outside the safe access zone, but they will still be there.
Does the Member accept that the Bill, if passed, will allow anti-choice organisations, not that I am encouraging them, to protest outside Stormont, councils and government buildings, and that the restriction is limited only to healthcare settings?
Yes. I am not for one minute trying to encourage those protesters, but it is a fact that the restriction applies only to designated areas outside designated premises.
All other avenues have been exhausted; this is the only way forward. We cannot rely on existing legislation. I do not see any point in suggesting, as Pam Cameron did, an amendment to tweak the existing harassment laws. In a way, that is what the Bill does.
It is a good day for women's reproductive rights. I thoroughly support the Bill, and I congratulate Ms Bailey once again. I have been involved in this issue for about 10 or 12 years now, but that is nothing compared with the amount of time during which Clare has been involved, including long before she was in the Chamber. The other day, we talked about the Brook advisory clinic and all the shenanigans around it. Most people here are too young to remember that, but it was effectively the same issue.
We are where we are. I hope that the Bill will pass; I am sure that it will now, judging by the tenor of the House. It will be another step. If we need to do more for women's rights, I hope that the next Assembly will do it, but for the time being, perhaps this is as far as we need to go.
As this is my last contribution and as a lot of other Members have done, I wish everybody well. I wish them well in the election, in that I hope that they achieve the vote that they deserve. That may not be the same as the vote that they think that they deserve. I look forward to the outcome of the election. I am glad to see that the Assembly, even in my time, has managed to pass some progressive legislation that just would not have happened 10 or 15 years ago. We are moving. We are doing OK.
I wish everybody well, including you, Mr Deputy Speaker, the Speaker and the other Deputy Speaker.
Before my speech, a LeasCheann Comhairle, with your indulgence, I wish Trevor all the best for his future in whatever he chooses to do. I hope that he thinks that I deserve enough number-one votes to be elected for Mid Ulster.
I agree with much of what Trevor said and concur with much of his commentary on the issue. I want to make one specific point, which he also addressed, and that is on the issue of people's not being able to protest, have silent prayer or say what they want to say. The notion is being put out there that that is being stopped, but it is not being stopped. To be very clear: people will still have the right to protest. We all defend the right to protest of any group or organisation, regardless of whether we agree with what they are protesting about. The issue is about where they protest and how that impacts on people and individuals, particularly, in this case, women who are going through some of the most vulnerable times of their life.
On many occasions, I have been clear and open in the Assembly that I am the mummy of one child. I waited a long time to have that child. She is the light of my life and the most important thing in my world. There are women out there, however, who, for whatever reason — I do not need to know what that reason is, any more than anybody else in society does; their reasons are theirs alone to know and understand — need to make decisions, with their family, about their life. They should never have to run the gauntlet while dealing with their decision. They should not be threatened, abused or shouted at when accessing a service that they badly need at that time in their life.
I commend Clare Bailey for the work that she has done and her perseverance in getting the Bill to this point. Well done. I commend all of the Members who support the Bill today. It is the right thing to do. As I have said previously, we have passed a lot of legislation in recent times around the protection of women and girls. This Bill is another piece of that jigsaw. It will genuinely protect women and girls, particularly at the most vulnerable time of their life. I hope that everyone who is elected to the new Assembly will have a very progressive and, even more importantly, compassionate attitude. Let us be compassionate and kind. Let us look after women and girls who are at the most vulnerable time of their entire life. Let us also be kind and compassionate to those who do not agree with the decisions that they have taken. However, they do not have the right to threaten and abuse women who have made a decision, for whatever reason they have made it.
It seems strange to speak, probably for the last time in this mandate, on a topic on which I disagree with the Bill's sponsor. The terminology that has been used to describe us, with my being pro-life and the Member's being pro-choice, is not fair. We are debating the Final Stage of the Bill. I respect the fact that the Bill's sponsor has been working on it for some time, not just during this mandate but before it. I am also aware that the Health Committee carried out scrutiny of the Bill. However, the Health Committee did not perform its function to its full and fair extent. It did not facilitate a fair hearing for some of the compassionate pro-life groups that genuinely and compassionately seek to care for people and offer practical help and counsel.
The Bill has certainly raised the debate on assembly and protest, as many Members have said. I would have expected at least to have seen a formal impact assessment, given that pregnancy and abortion are such important and much-debated matters. Perhaps the Member, at the end of the debate, will clarify what assessment will take place if the Bill is passed today.
If the Member will further indulge me, I seek clarity on an issue that has been distorted and misrepresented, and clarity and definition that will help to form the regulation behind the legislation, if it becomes statute. Clause 5(2) states that it is an offence for a person:
"to do an act in a safe access zone with the intent of, or reckless as to whether it has the effect of— (a) influencing a protected person, whether directly or indirectly, (b) preventing or impeding access ... or (c) causing harassment, alarm or distress to a protected person".
Does the Member agree, for clarity in the interpretation of the Bill, that someone standing in personal prayer without approaching anyone entering or exiting a defined premises in the buffer zone is not causing the mischief that clause 5 intends to prevent and, therefore, that person is not guilty of that offence?
I thank Members, those who said that they support the Bill and those who are still raising issues, for their contributions. As has been mentioned, the Bill does not stop the right to protest. The Bill seeks to balance the right to protest with the right to healthcare, the right to health and the right to a private life. The current harassment laws have been brought up again. They have been repeatedly debated throughout the stages of the Bill. Current harassment laws are not sufficient to deal with what we are seeing. It has also been said that the Bill seeks to be —
I will tell you why. I see the Member. Current harassment laws require two incidents to happen to the same person before action can be taken. If an individual attends a clinic once, and one person approaches them, and then, when they leave, another person approaches them, it is not the same person targeting the same individual on two or more occasions, so no action can be taken.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. The law is there for anybody to go and read up on it. It is pretty straightforward and simple to understand. The Bill also seeks to be proactive about preventing harm from being done, and we have had that debate many times already.
I take the point that Mr Allister raised on the defence of reasonable excuse, but that defence will remain available to anyone, whether written explicitly in the Bill, if they ever need to use it.
That is absolutely untrue, with respect. It is not in the Bill, and the way in which the Bill is written means that it is an absolute offence, so there is no defence now of reasonable excuse. The Member should be careful not to mislead the House. Her Bill is very clear. I know that she wanted to put it in, and she failed, as I failed, in that. We have the Bill as it is, and, in the Bill as it is, it is an absolute offence.
I thank the Member for that, but the enforcement clause allows an officer to direct a person to leave the safe access zone. People would therefore be made aware of their behaviours, and, if they were refusing, they would have no reasonable defence that they did not know that what they are doing is against the law, if the Bill passes. You said that the Bill is all about having someone else's views rammed down your throat. Women in Northern Ireland know all too well what it is like to live with that.
I say to the House that protests are taking place outside this Building right now: protests that cannot take place at the door of this Building. They are protests that are not even allowed to happen on the front steps of this Building. They are protests that have to happen on the apron outside, on the far side of the railings, probably about 100 metres away. Those protests are not silenced. We know that they are there, and we know what they are aiming for. They are simply managed.
I thank Mr Butler for the points that he raised, because it gives me the opportunity to say, once again, that it is not, and never has been, my intention to criminalise anyone unnecessarily under the Bill. The offences outlined in it are narrow in scope, and, despite what has been said, it does not ban protest. It does not ban silent prayer. Rather, it regulates behaviour that targets women and attempts to stop them accessing lawfully available healthcare services and information. That is it.
I respect the points that have been raised from Committee scrutiny or evidence sessions, and I know that the Committee received hundreds of written submissions. I will refer to just one that I have read. It came from a compassionate group called Faith Voices for Reproductive Justice. The group's words might be useful for some to hear. It stated:
"The right to hold religious, moral or ethical beliefs is fundamental and absolute. No one can force you to change your views on God or abortion or any other issue. But there is no such thing as an absolute right to religious "
— or moral or ethical —
"expression. At the point where our beliefs interact with the lives of other people we are bound as people of faith by two things: legal responsibilities not to interfere with the rights of others and the moral duty to love others and do no harm."
I am also aware that the Minister, who, Mr Butler, is your party colleague, has also confirmed that he will produce a policy paper setting out how his Department intends to implement the requirements for safe access zones, including guidance to operators of health and social care premises. It could be about displaying clear and appropriate signage at protected premises. That is an important measure in achieving the appropriate balance of rights, and it recognises the role of operators in that.
On the impact assessment, if the Bill is implemented properly and proportionality, I know with certainty that women will cease to be targeted by those who are intent on their deliberate campaign of harassment and intimidation and that staff and services will be able function without fear.
I thank the Member for giving way. It is just a point of clarity with regard to the question and the manner in which I asked it. With particular regard to clause 5, an individual's prayer in the buffer zone will not constitute an offence in the interpretation of clause 5. Is that fair?
It is certainly not the intent within this Bill. Silent prayer cannot harm anyone. Silent prayer is silent prayer, so how does any other human being know what is going on?
I thank the Member for giving way. I think there must be a difference between silent prayer where someone is on their knees indulging in silent prayer outside the door of the premises within the buffer zone, which is clearly designed to influence the person, as against someone who wants to have a silent prayer outside the City Hall half a mile away. There is a difference here. I am sure that God gets both messages, but there is a difference.
I thank the Member for that. It is worth noting that, comparatively, this Bill takes a light touch in respect of offences being committed, because the punishment for breaching safe access zones around the world, in almost all cases where they are operational, can result in imprisonment and wildly higher fines than what is being proposed in this Bill. That comes back to the intention behind the Bill: it is to ensure safe access to healthcare. The intervention proposed here goes only as far as necessary to meet that aim. It is not punitive in nature, and the strength of this Bill lies in the ability of the police to move people on from the zone, ensuring the sanctity of a safe space and a safe zone in making sure that those who need to access protected premises can do so without fear or intimidation. The efficacy of the Bill is achieved without being unnecessarily heavy-handed or putting significant additional pressures on any criminal justice system. I hope that we can move on from those debates.
This is absolutely a landmark moment for the Assembly. I have seen many Bills passed today that I am incredibly proud of. We are sending a very clear message to women that we see you, we hear you and we are not afraid to stand up for you in the face of bullies intent on imposing themselves where they are not wanted or invited. We have a long way to go to right the wrongs that women endure, not least the full commissioning of abortion services across Northern Ireland; but it is a start, and an important one that will make a real difference to the lives of women and staff across a range of healthcare settings. They have been abused for simply doing their jobs.
I must acknowledge today that I can bring this Bill and that, in doing so, I stand on the shoulders of some pretty formidable female giants going back as far as 1991 and 1992, as Mr Lunn has already mentioned, when the Brook Advisory Clinic opened in Belfast. The protests outside it were so shocking to me that I made a point of barging my way through those protesters every lunchtime that I could, just to walk through the doors of that clinic and say thank you to the staff for what they were doing. While I did not know her at the time, I do now: I salute Mary Crawford for her bravery in the face of such resistance.
When I lived in a flat in the Holylands in University Street right opposite the doors of the Family Planning Association (FPA), I watched from my window the campaigners as they targeted women, hurling abuse and insults and blocking access. They were relentless. Members may be aware that the FPA is now Informing Choices NI, and I declare an interest as a board member with the organisation. While I did not know her at the time, I do now: I salute Audrey Simpson for her bravery in the face of such resistance.
Breda Hughes was the director of the Royal College of Midwives for 21 years, tirelessly campaigning for legal reforms that would protect her staff and provide the services that women needed — free, safe and legal — right here at home.
She is a woman whom I am so proud to know, and I salute her for her bravery in the face of such resistance.
I remember when Dawn Purvis was for so long a lone voice in the Chamber, speaking up for reproductive justice. Then Anna Lo, Steven Agnew, Trevor Lunn and a few others came in and took up the mantle. Dawn Purvis, along with Marie Stopes International, stepped up and brought nothing short of a revolution in reproductive healthcare services in Northern Ireland, simply by opening the doors of a clinic and offering a choice to women. That was in the face of such severe, hostile, targeted intimidation, yet she persevered. I knew Dawn at that time, and I will always salute her for her bravery in the face of such resistance.
Barrister Laura McMahon has been unwavering in her profession, seeking to ensure that our laws are human rights-compliant, going above and beyond at every opportunity. I salute her for her bravery in the face of such resistance.
Those women — not the bullies; not the people waging the campaign of intimidation — have been targeted and arrested and have faced criminal sanctions for speaking out and stepping up.
To every activist and campaigner in the Alliance for Choice networks in Belfast and Derry who have changed the conversation and have educated, agitated and organised to break the stigma and end the shame, I say this: I am proud to be among you, not least Emma Campbell, Naomi Connor, Kelly O'Dowd and Danielle Roberts.
Supporting Women Newry, whom Ms Kimmins mentioned, have organised themselves to stand against the intimidation outside their hospital services, on their streets.
Every woman who has been called to bare her soul in public and speak about her deep and harrowing personal experiences has got us to this point by getting us to understand how our lack of action impacts them.
As for my staff team, of course, none of this would be possible without them. I know that I have put them through the wringer. They have gone above and beyond, and I am so proud of and thankful for them. I want to let every one of them and everyone who has stood firm for decades know that this Bill is their Bill, and I am just proud to be a small part of their story.
I hope that Members will support the passage of the Bill today. To those who have not supported it so far, I say this again: I urge you to reflect on your understanding of what it is and why it is and to do the right thing by voting in favour of the Bill passing today.
In the words of Margaret Mead:
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
I commend the Bill to the House.
The Question will be put again in three minutes. I remind Members that they should continue to uphold social distancing. As per Standing Order 112, Members who have proxy voting arrangements in place should not come into the Chamber.
Question put a second time.
The Assembly divided:
<SPAN STYLE="font-style:italic;"> Ayes 55; Noes 29
Dr Aiken, Mr Allen, Dr Archibald, Ms Armstrong, Ms Bailey, Mr Beattie, Mr Blair, Mr Boylan, Ms Bradshaw, Ms Brogan, Mr Carroll, Mr Catney, Mr Chambers, Mr Delargy, Mr Dickson, Ms Dillon, Ms Dolan, Mr Durkan, Ms Ennis, Ms Ferguson, Ms Flynn, Mr Gildernew, Ms Hargey, Ms Hunter, Mr Kearney, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mrs Long, Mr Lunn, Mr Lyttle, Mr McAleer, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGrath, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Ms McLaughlin, Mr McNulty, Ms Mallon, Mr Muir, Ms Á Murphy, Mr C Murphy, Mr Nesbitt, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mr O'Toole, Miss Reilly, Ms Rogan, Mr Sheehan, Ms Sheerin, Mr Stewart, Ms Sugden, Mr Swann, Miss Woods
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Lunn, Miss Woods
Mr Allister, Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Ms Bunting, Mrs Cameron, Mr Clarke, Mrs Dodds, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mrs Erskine, Mr Frew, Mr Givan, Mr Harvey, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr Lyons, Miss McIlveen, Mr Middleton, Mr Newton, Mr Poots, Mr Rankin, Mr Robinson, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Clarke, Mrs Erskine
Question accordingly agreed to. Resolved:
That the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill [NIA 35/17-22] do now pass.
The Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill has passed and stands referred to the Speaker. I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)