Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill: Final Stage

Part of Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:00 pm on 24 March 2022.

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Photo of Deborah Erskine Deborah Erskine DUP 4:00, 24 March 2022

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.