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

Part of Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:15 pm on 24 June 2021.

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Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 12:15, 24 June 2021

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.