New Clause 43 - Offence of interference with access to or provision of abortion services

Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 pm on 24 June 2021.

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“(1) A person who is within a buffer zone and who interferes with any person’s decision to access, provide, or facilitate the provision of abortion services in that buffer zone is guilty of an offence.

(2) A ‘buffer zone’ means an area with a boundary which is 150 metres from any part of an abortion clinic or any access point to any building that contains an abortion clinic.

(3) For the purposes of subsection (1)—

‘interferes with’ means—

(a) seeks to influence; or

(b) persistently, continuously or repeatedly occupies; or

(c) impedes or threatens; or

(d) intimidates or harasses; or

(e) advises or persuades, attempts to advise or persuade, or otherwise expresses opinion; or

(f) informs or attempts to inform about abortion services by any means, including, without limitation, graphic, physical, verbal or written means; or

(g) sketches, photographs, records, stores, broadcasts, or transmits images, audio, likenesses or personal data of any person without express consent.

(4) A person guilty of an offence under subsection (1) is liable—

(a) in the first instance—

(i) on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months, or

(ii) to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, or

(iii) to both; and

(b) on further instances—

(i) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years, or to a fine, or to both; or

(ii) on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months, or to a fine, or to both.”.—(Sarah Champion.)

This new clause would introduce areas around abortion clinics and hospitals (buffer zones) where interference with, and intimidation or harassment of, women accessing or people providing abortion services would be an offence.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Sarah Champion Sarah Champion Chair, International Development Committee, Chair, International Development Committee 12:15, 24 June 2021

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I am proud to speak to this clause, tabled by my hon. Friend Dr Huq and supported by more than 35 MPs from across the House.

As we come to the end of Committee stage, a significant portion of our debate has focused on the safety of women in public spaces, and I am grateful for that. We can all recognise, to a greater or lesser degree, that existing public order legislation does not provide the necessary framework to address women’s fear and concerns in public spaces.

This new clause raises a discrete problem—harassment outside abortion clinics. The issue has been raised in the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton for several years, with great support from other Members on both sides of the House. As hon. Members will see on the amendment paper, the new clause has cross -party support from Members from five different parties.

Although my hon. Friend was driven to raise this issue by harassment in her own constituency, this is not a local issue. Figures from the Department of Health and Social Care and abortion providers indicate that in 2019 more than 100,000 women—or more than half of everyone who has an abortion—had to attend a hospital or abortion clinic that had been targeted by anti-abortion groups.

I want to make it clear that this new clause is not about abortion. A woman’s legal right to end a pregnancy is supported by the House and by the public and has been in statute since 1967. It is, however, about the ability of a woman to exercise this legal right without the fear of harassment or intimidation. Therefore, this new clause has a narrow purpose to introduce buffer zones 150 metres around abortion clinics, where certain activities designated as pressuring women about their decision to access abortion are banned.

Currently, around the country, anti-abortion groups engage in activity at the clinic gate seeking to deter or prevent women from accessing abortion care. This takes many forms, including the display of graphic images of dismembered foetuses, large marches that gather outside the clinic, filming women and staff members, following women down the street, sprinkling sites with holy water and handing out leaflets that tell women, falsely, that abortion causes breast cancer, suicidal intentions and can lead to child abuse. Recently, groups have been handing out advertisements for dangerous and unproven medication to reverse an abortion. This activity has been an almost permanent fixture outside several clinics for years. Abortion providers such as the British Pregnancy Advisory Service have collected thousands of accounts from women they have treated about the activities outside clinics and the impact it has had on them. In the past year alone, even during lockdown, this harassment has continued.

One woman, in Liverpool, reported in February:

“She told me that I should let God decide—that it will torture me for the rest of my life and don’t let them do it. She told me her daughter couldn’t have kids and I’m wrong for killing a baby…that I’ll have no luck in the future if I kill a baby.”

Another woman, in Bournemouth, said in December 2020:

“My partner was waiting in the car and he had one woman staring at him and walking around his car whilst showing him a cross. Both my children (both under 4) were in the car waiting with my partner…I felt uncomfortable walking out of the clinic knowing they were there.”

The mother of a patient in Bournemouth just last week said:

“The protester was stood by the entrance with a banner. My daughter is autistic and this procedure is stressful and traumatic—and when she realised they were outside it caused her to have a panic attack”.

Doctors and nurses are not immune to harassment, either. In Brighton in October 2020, one reported:

“There was a man in the entrance lobby—my colleague didn’t know what to do. He wouldn’t leave. He asked us if this was a place where ‘you kill babies’, if I ‘agreed with murdering babies’, and whether I was ‘happy to murder foetuses’.”

This is not a protest—the groups involved in this activity are very clear that they are not seeking to change lawmakers’ minds or amend the abortion legislation. Instead, they seek direct access to individual women who have no choice but to approach them as they access legal and essential healthcare. It is, quite simply, targeted harassment.

The solution is simple and has been used successfully across Canada, Australia and parts of the USA. We need to protect women seeking confidential medical care by making it clear that it is unacceptable to accost a woman at a clinic gate, harass her and lie to her about medical procedures.

We must also recognise that much of the legislation has been thoroughly inadequate at addressing the problem. I am sure the Minister will wish to mention that. The only law that has ever been successful in solving the problem at clinic levels is public space protection orders, which enable a council to create its own local buffer zone, but only three counties across the country have them in place, leaving more than 90% of affected clinics with nothing to protect them. That creates a postcode lottery of protection from harassment, and that is just not good enough. We need a national solution to this national problem. I hope the Minister will consider the impact of this activity on women, and I hope she will recognise that, despite the existing law, it has continued unabated for years.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for setting out the case for this new clause, tabled by the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton. As she rightly identifies, it is supported by parliamentarians from across the House. I approach this issue with the respect that such a widespread array of support deserves.

We have looked into this issue and kept it under very close review over the past few years, and I will set out in a moment some of the steps we have taken. I want to be very clear that I have sympathy for what the new clause seeks to achieve, in that harassment and intimidation of women who are seeking medical care is completely unacceptable.

The hon. Member for Rotherham is right to emphasise that this new clause is confined to a very narrow basis. We are not debating the provision of abortion services; we are talking about the public order element surrounding clinics and hospitals. For the benefit of colleagues and others who may be watching this debate closely, given that we are looking purely at a public order issue, on a very narrow basis, my Whips have concluded that this is not a matter of conscience, so the matter is whipped. It is in a different category from the wider issue of abortion, about which Members have many varied and strongly held opinions. We confine ourselves to the public order element of what the new clause is trying to achieve.

We keep this matter under very close review. As the hon. Lady knows, it is an offence under the Public Order Act 1986 to display images or words that may cause harassment, alarm or distress. The police have certain powers under that Act if the purpose of the assembly is to intimidate others into doing or not doing an act. Clause 55 of this Bill strengthens those powers and enables the police to place any necessary conditions on such assemblies.

The power that has found resonance with local authorities and has been upheld by the Court of Appeal recently is the power under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 to implement public space protection orders to create buffer zones around abortion clinics or hospitals, when they are satisfied on reasonable grounds that protests are having an unreasonable and persistent detrimental effect on the quality of life of people in the area. Three local authorities have imposed such orders around particular clinics. Indeed, I am led to believe that Ealing, which imposed the first such order, very recently renewed it following its expiration.

Photo of Sarah Champion Sarah Champion Chair, International Development Committee, Chair, International Development Committee

I thank the Minister for recognising that this is harassment rather than protest. Does she share my frustration that more councils are not using public detention orders?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I will come to the figures in a moment because they will, I hope, help the Committee understand the approach that the Government are taking.

In the protests, or demonstrations—or however one wants to describe them—there can be a range of activities, and the hon. Lady has, understandably, focused on some of the most upsetting forms of activity. There are more peaceful ways of protesting, however, and I do not think it would be right for me to pretend that every single protest has the ability to harass and alarm in the way in which she has said some protests do. The advantage of PSPOs is that they are very local. They are brought by local authorities in the circumstances of their area, and the conditions imposed will reflect the conditions of the protests faced outside service providers.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

I was going to make a similar point to that made by the hon. Member for Rotherham. Is it not the case that many local authorities find the process complex and expensive? Will the Minister consider providing a toolbox or other assistance to local authorities to enable them to do this in a way that does not put them outside their comfort zones in the areas in which they have been working?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

Very much so. Indeed, that has been part of our work with the review. We conducted the first review in 2018 and, to put this in context—I will read the figures out because I want to make sure they are correct—of the 406 clinics and hospitals identified as providing those services, providers told us that only 36 had stated that they experience any protest activity.

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I am grateful for the opportunity to state publicly that I very much support the new clause. On the point that the Minister has just made, in my local area abortion services can be accessed in the large hospital. There is no protest there because it is a large hospital with loads of people coming and going for other things, but in areas with stand-alone abortion clinics, we all know where they are, and people are known to stand outside. Although I understand the point about things being different in different areas, when people are standing outside, holding something and not saying anything, it is still enormously judgmental, scary and upsetting, even though what those people are doing perhaps does not look to the police to be as intimidating as it is. I am sure that some turn away because they cannot face going past that.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I accept that, and of course, women can be in a distressed state when they are approaching clinics. They may be in turmoil and may have questions about what they are about to do—they may well have doubts. I am sympathetic to the idea that not every protest has to display the sorts of posters that the hon. Member for Rotherham has described to unsettle or upset women accessing those services.

I have a second set of figures. The figures are important because we as a Government have to look at proportionate responses. The first set of figures came out of the 2018 review. Since then, to come to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby, we have again asked service providers for their views and whether there has been an increase or decrease in activity. The figure I have been provided with is that 35 out of the 142 registered clinics are currently or have recently been affected by protest activities. Five hospitals have been affected. That compares with 32 clinics and four hospitals being affected in 2018.

I am told, incidentally, that one of the clinics that had been reviewed in 2018 has since closed down, so that may explain that difference. I give the figures because that is why we are concerned that a blanket ban across all of the service providers may not be proportionate, given that the majority of clinics and the overwhelming majority of hospitals that provide these services do not appear to have been affected by protest activity thus far. That is why we believe that a localised approach of PSPOs, with councils using the orders, is the way forward.

We have also looked very carefully at whether there is work we can do to help councils understand the powers that they have under the orders. Again, we believe that the law is in a good place at the moment, but we very much keep this under review.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

I thank the Minister for those assurances. Would it also be the case that where an abortion clinic is in a general hospital, the measure could unintentionally prevent people from protesting against the closure of a ward or a service, or trade unionists protesting about a particular aspect of their employment rights?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

My right hon. Friend raises an important point. That is why we have looked so carefully at the universality of the measures put forward by the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton and why we believe that PSPOs, which are targeted and have been upheld by the Court of Appeal, seem to be the most effective way of managing these very difficult circumstances outside particular service providers.

I appreciate that this may be corrected before Report, but we are also concerned that proposed subsection (3) of the new clause potentially includes medical practitioners and others providing advice on abortion services within the confines of the buffer zone—in other words, within the clinic. Nobody—but nobody—would want that to be an unintended consequence of the new clause. My right hon. Friend has alighted on another unintended consequence—that other forms of protest may be caught by the new clause.

We very much understand the motivations behind the new clause and the work that parliamentarians have been conducting over recent years in order to shed light on this issue, but the Government do not feel able to support new clause 43.

Photo of Sarah Champion Sarah Champion Chair, International Development Committee, Chair, International Development Committee

I hear what the Minister says. I am still very concerned that, by the Minister’s own figures, we are looking at a quarter of clinics being targeted. I am very concerned about the postcode lottery. Would the Minister be open to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton working with her civil servants to try to come back with a more appropriate wording for Report?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

In fairness—I am sure the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton will back me up on this—we have been working. I do listen. I have meetings with colleagues from across the House—both those who support the intentions of the new clause and those who do not. We must acknowledge that there are colleagues and members of the public who want to defend their right to make their feelings and their views known in front of these service providers. I am very happy to meet colleagues representing the range of opinions on this issue. I have met the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton several times and am very happy to meet other colleagues, whichever side of the debate they may stand on.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Tom Pursglove.)

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.