New Clause 1 - Offence of interference with access to or provision of abortion services

Public Order Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 am on 21st June 2022.

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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 or site 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.

(5) Nothing in this section applies to—

(a) anything done in the course of providing, or facilitating the provision of, abortion services in an abortion clinic,

(b) the operation of a camera if its coverage of persons accessing or attempting to access an abortion clinic is incidental and the camera or footage is not used for the any of the purposes listed in subsection (3), and

(c) a police officer acting properly in the course of their duties.”—

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 Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

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

At the last count, 35 other right hon. and hon. Members, from seven parties, including at least one Member of every party of England and Wales, had signed up to the new clause. I do not know whether the number has gone up since then.

We have talked quite a lot in Committee about what could happen. We have talked about what could happen if someone was carrying, as I am today, a bike lock— I thought I would have to cycle in; I cycled part of the way, to the house of another Member who gave me a lift the rest of the way—and whether I could be criminalised for having that on my person. Could two little old ladies from the Women’s Institute be arrested for linking arms? The new clause, though, addresses what is actually happening every day, up and down our country, at abortion clinics.

Some of the fanciful stuff we have talked about, such as members of Extinction Rebellion gluing themselves to trains, or the blocking of the A40 in my constituency, which I have spoken about, are pretty rare and the exception, not the rule; but every day, women are unable to make their way into abortion clinics to have a perfectly legal procedure. It has been legal in this country since 1967 or 1968, I think—for more than 50 years, anyway. There is disruption not just to the women who use the clinics, but to users of the public highway and local residents. The figures are there—the Home Office has done the crunching—and they show that tens of thousands of women, at a number of locations, are affected every year.

I have previously ventilated this issue through a ten-minute rule Bill and a letter to the then Home Secretary, Amber Rudd. Loads of MPs from both sides of the House signed up to those, because they know, as do their local police forces, what a waste of time it is for the police to have their people tied up in adjudicating between two groups of protesters. There are two groups. There are the anti-choice people, and then there is a group in my constituency called Sister Supporter; its members, who wear pink hi-vis vests, want to escort women into the clinic. There is friction, and the police, who should be fighting crime, are tied up there.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

My hon. Friend mentioned the impact of the people outside the clinics on the people going into the clinics, and the obstruction of the pavement and passers-by, but does she agree that there is a difference between the two? As we have discussed in Committee, protests that cause people inconvenience are legitimate, but there is quite a difference between that and the harassment of people making a possibly difficult life choice. Does she agree that there is a difference in the impact on people, and that protesters could hold a protest without being close to the clinic?

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

My hon. Friend makes a really good point. When is a protest not a protest? These women are subject to harassment. There is a time and place for protest. If someone wants to attack legislators, they should protest here, or they could protest at the Department of Health and Social Care, wherever that is now—I know it is not in Richmond House anymore, because my office is there. There are legitimate places where people can hold a protest without shaming individual women and rubbing their noses in it. We have heard how these things are filmed and put on Facebook Live, and the new clause takes that into account.

The Minister has chided me on this before, but last time there was a Labour amendment on this issue, it also concerned anti-vax protests. The former Minister for vaccines used to have a Friday call with all of us that was very popular, and he pointed out that stuff has been done in law to stop those protests. This is not dissimilar. We said after the horrible Sarah Everard episode that women should be able to go about their lawful business, to use the public highway and to walk down the street without being impeded by others. Some people would describe what is happening outside clinics as a protest; the people doing the “protesting” would say they were holding vigils and offering advice to the women, but there is a time and a place for that, and it is not at the clinic gates when women are making the most difficult decision of their life, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East said. They are not doing it lightly, and it may be for all sorts of reasons, such as fatal foetal abnormality.

Other jurisdictions have similar legislation. The French legislation brackets the offence with causing psychological distress, and the amendment is lifted from British Columbia. Several American states have such an offence, as does Australia. I have given the example of Ealing before, and I am proud that my local authority was the first to set up a public spaces protection order, or PSPO. Ministers have told me, “Well, councils can do that,” but that order was set up in 2018, and only three other councils in the country have done the same, although new locations for such action are popping up all the time. The Minister might not understand, but my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East and the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central, will know that walking past certain unpleasant things will send a shiver down a woman’s spine anyway. Imagine how that might be magnified when they face a difficult medical procedure. Women can sometimes be uneasy about using the public highway; such activity adds a whole new dimension.

As I say, only three other councils have used a PSPO. Why have other councils not done so? Because setting them up is time-consuming and clunky for local authorities, who have quite a lot on their plate. In Ealing, we have the west London Marie Stopes clinic. It is not just my constituents who use it; women come from all over the country, and women from Ireland historically have used it. We are lucky in Ealing: protesters are moved away from the clinic gates. They are moved only 150 metres away, because there is a main road boundary there. We could be flexible about the limit; it could depend on where the clinic gates are, and where women have to pass. As a mother, I have taken little ones past these groups. We are not just talking about protests; there can also be gruesome images of foetuses and 3D dolls. I have been asked, “Mummy, what’s that?” People who are not even using the clinic have had to divert and use other roads so as not to pass that distressing scene.

Other councils have not followed Ealing because doing so is very resource intensive. We had this situation for 24 years in Ealing before the council took the imaginative route of using antisocial behaviour order byelaws; that is what PSPOs are thought of as being. The order is only temporary; it lasts three years before it has to be renewed, and a huge burden of evidence is needed. There is the principle of consistency before the law. We are lucky in Ealing, but this should not be a matter of luck. People should have equal protection under law, wherever they live, and there should be such restrictions for every clinic. I understand that Birmingham has two clinics, one in the north and one in the south; sometimes the protest gang will be at the north clinic, and sometimes at the south one. The element of uncertainty needs to be eliminated. Life has enough uncertainties as it is.

We are often told in Committee, “There is sufficient legislation.” Opposition Members have at times asked the Government, “Why do you want to create a new offence? There is sufficient legislation out there. These people can be stopped.” In this instance, it is proven that there is not sufficient legislation. Whenever I have ventilated the issue, the idea of taking action has been popular on both sides of the House. As constituency MPs, we all know about the complaints we get in our postbags when a street becomes unusable and police are tied up in dealing with unnecessary stuff. I was discussing this offline with a Committee member who I cannot see in his place today. He has an issue with abortion, but this is not about abortion at all; it is not about the number of weeks before which a person can have an abortion, or about being anti-abortion or pro-abortion. It is just about people not having a protest within the buffer zone, however many metres wide we define that as being. People can make their protest in a way that does not interfere with women’s right to walk into the clinic and have the procedure.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East pointed out, having an abortion is a huge, difficult decision, and women should be informed of the pros and cons and their choices by medical professionals, counsellors and family members. These things should not happen in the street, in a pressurised environment, and in a distressing and confrontational way that is about trying to bring on all these feelings of guilt and shame.

This issue is just not going away. The number of protest sites is growing year on year. The stuff going on across the Atlantic, where Roe v. Wade is being revisited, is very regressive. I do not want us to take a polarised position in Britain. As I have said before in this Committee, the Ealing decision has been challenged at every level—in the High Court, the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal—and it has always won. Judges have seen that someone having a medical procedure has a right to privacy that trumps freedom of belief, thought, conscience and expression. The two do have to be balanced, and people can have their protest, but not in a way that interferes with women’s right to use the public highway, and to have a procedure to which they have been legally entitled for decades—for longer than my lifetime. All the medical opinion supports this approach; it is supported by the British Medical Association, all the royal colleges, the nurses and midwifery people, and even good old Mumsnet, who are not normally seen as militant crazies.

I think I have said my bit for now. As I say, this measure was massively popular when it was a ten-minute rule Bill, and that was at the height of covid, so not everyone was in the building, but I think the numbers in support of it were crushing. If there was a free vote on the measure, I think that the House would support it. The Government should adopt it; they can then show that the Sarah Everard case was not in vain, and that something has been done for women and girls, even though there are zero mentions of the issue in the Bill.

Photo of Natalie Elphicke Natalie Elphicke Conservative, Dover

I agree with the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton that the new clause is not about abortion rights. This is a Public Order Bill about the right to protest, the extent of active protesting that seriously disrupts others, and where the balance lies.

The public order subject matter of new clause 1 has been debated previously and was the subject of an in-depth review by the Government in 2018. That review engaged with more than 2,500 people and organisations, and it concluded that national exclusion zones of the type proposed in new clause 1

“would not be a proportionate response, considering the experiences of the majority of hospitals and clinics, and considering that the majority of activities are more passive in nature.”

I note the evidence submitted to the Committee by a Mr Damien Fitzgerald, who described in the following way the activity we are discussing:

“Peaceful pro-life vigils are not ‘protests’…Pro-lifers at peaceful vigils do not behave in a harassing or intimidating manner. They are simply praying and making it clear that help is available.”

That description was echoed in the findings of the Government’s review:

“The main activities reported to us that take place during protests include praying, displaying banners and handing out leaflets.”

The review went on to say that there were

“relatively few reports of the more aggressive activities described.”

Those examples included

“handing out model foetuses, displaying graphic images, following people, blocking their paths and even assaulting them.”

Such behaviour is entirely unacceptable and should, like all such activity on any issue, be tackled robustly.

There are existing laws to address personal intimidation and assault, as the then Home Secretary set out at the time of the review. There are also laws that allow local authorities to introduce local exclusion zones, where they believe that to be right. I note what the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton says about Ealing Council’s order, which has been in place since 2018. I therefore suggest that new clause 1 is wholly unnecessary for addressing the harm that has been outlined. It can be addressed, and indeed is being addressed, under current laws.

On balancing those rights, I note that new clause 1 is considerably wider in scope than the Ealing order. I would be grateful if the hon. Lady explained the reasoning behind the significant widening in the new clause. In particular, the Ealing order relates specifically to protests approving or disapproving of abortion services, but the new clause would criminalise only those who disapprove of abortion services. It seems that any person who wishes to facilitate the provision of such services within the buffer zone, for example by providing a physical or verbal presence in the zone, would not be criminalised by the new clause. That is a considerable difference from the approach taken in the Ealing order.

The Ealing order specifies that the people who are to be protected are service users—the women seeking the services—and those who work in the abortion clinics, but not protesters. Under the Ealing order, where there is a protest and a counter-protest at the same site, all protesters are treated equally, but that is not the case under subsection (1) of the new clause. It favours one side of a protest over another. That is an issue on which the Committee has heard evidence; I will come to that in a moment.

The Ealing order limits the offence to interfering, intimidating, recording or photographing service users or members of staff in the controlled area. New clause 1 contains no such limitation, which raises the question of whether a protester could be criminalised for photographing a counter-protester—not a member of staff or service user—when both are in the buffer zone, or indeed when one is in the buffer zone but the other is outside it.

On “seeks to influence” in subsection (3)(a), I draw the Committee’s attention to the evidence we received from Martha Spurrier of Liberty, who said:

“People are entitled, as part of their right to protest, to seek to influence people, as long as they do not do so in a way that is harassing.”––[Official Report, Public Order Public Bill Committee, 9 June 2022; c. 74, Q143.]

The new clause seems much broader than the Ealing order, and I would be grateful if the hon. Lady could explain why in detail.

Subsection (2) of the new clause specifies that the buffer zone boundary should be 150 metres from any part of the abortion clinic, or any access point to the site. The hon. Lady stated in evidence:

“The distance need not be 150 metres. We just took that from Ealing, because that is where the main road is, so then it is not in the eyeline.”––[Official Report, Public Order Public Bill Committee, 9 June 2022; c. 73, Q143.]

I think she expressed a similar view just now.

The map of the area covered by the Ealing order shows that it has a highly unusual shape. It is a fat T; it covers a long strip of main road along the top, and a section of the park in which the clinic is situated. Reports, including from the BBC, refer to it as a 100-metre buffer zone, rather than a 150-metre one. I would be grateful if the hon. Lady clarified the basis for that, and her understanding of how the measures would operate in different locations. Is it intended, as the drafting suggests, that the buffer zone be a 150-metre circle around the site, or does she envisage a more site-specific approach being taken, as was the case in Ealing? She referred to Ealing, but the new clause does not provide for a site-specific or case-by-case approach.

I draw the Committee’s attention to evidence we heard from Mr Sprague of Amnesty. On the management and location of buffer zones, he said:

“The mitigation measure or countermeasure that you might put in place to balance those two rights in a proportionate way might differ depending on the location. In the case you mentioned, it may well be the location of the pavement—I do not know where the clinic is—but for another clinic, there might be a more concealed side entrance or something else that could be used. You would have a different approach to maintaining the dignity and security of women having a perfectly lawful procedure, and managing a counter-protest. You could apply a different model depending on geography.”

The hon. Lady responded:

“I totally agree; it should be considered case by case.”––[Official Report, Public Order Public Bill Committee, 9 June 2022; c. 74, Q144.]

I repeat that the new clause does not allow for that. Where we find a case-by-case and geographical approach is in the existing provisions, which have been applied by Ealing and others, and which sit in our existing law to manage such demonstrations and counter-demonstrations.

New clause 1(1), on the scope of the offence, proposes a new offence of interfering with abortion services within a geographical place—a buffer zone. Subsection (2) defines the buffer zone as a designated distance from an abortion clinic, but the new clause does not define abortion services or abortion clinics. I hope that the remarks I am about to make might assist the hon. Lady in considering its scope and application.

I am left entirely unclear whether the intent is, as set out in subsection (1), to encompass discussion of the provision of abortion services—that would mean discussing services wherever they are provided, subject only to such services being provided within the buffer zone—or, as subsection (2) seems to indicate, to include only abortion services provided in the specified abortion clinic. I am trying to draw out the difference between the provision of abortion services more generally, and the provision of specific services in an abortion clinic in an exclusion or buffer zone. I ask the hon. Lady to clarify the intent and extent of those two subsections.

I will draw on a real and practical example that may help the Committee to understand the issue. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service centre in east London is within 100 metres of a family doctor’s surgery, a couple of hundred metres of a midwifery campus, and a smaller distance of a girls’ secondary school. It is in an area of residential homes and retail, educational and other facilities. As I understand it, under new clause 1(5)(a), those working in the BPAS centre are protected from being criminalised under the new clause, even if they interfere by expressing an opinion that is within the scope of the new clause about a woman’s decision on whether to proceed with an abortion. However, what is the position of a doctor, midwife, social worker or schoolteacher working in the buffer zone? What would happen to, say, a secondary schoolteacher—someone with responsibility for preparing young adults for life—who teaches biology, religious education or other subjects? Or what if a home is in a buffer zone? Under the new clause, a parent, friend or partner who lived in the buffer zone and had an opinion on this subject could be criminalised for expressing it, even in their home. That does not seem to be the intention of the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton or a workable application of the criminal law; it would also be a grave extension of the criminal law from the public to the private space.

The new clause could have serious unintended consequences, and is therefore defective. Any criminal offence should be clearly defined and clearly targeted, but the new clause is neither. The same point applies to those inside the buffer zone who provide abortion services that are unconnected with those provided in the abortion clinic that is exempted from criminality in subsection (5). Under the new clause, people could be guilty of an offence if they provide abortion services that they are legally allowed to provide. I am not just talking about prescribing pills or operating; subsection (3) also covers advising or informing; that could include giving someone a leaflet—even an NHS-approved leaflet—to help them to access wider abortion services.

Abortion services can be provided virtually, through the post or at home, but the new clause seems to provide only for services delivered at a static physical location. That is reflective of an older mode of delivering abortion services. I respectfully suggest that new modes of delivery—post, pills, telephony, virtual face-to-face meetings and so on—need to be considered and reflected in the new clause. Given the virtual and varied delivery model in use, the new clause is both disproportionate and unworkable.

Finally, on the abortion clinic definition, clinics such as BPAS offer a range of services, including vasectomies. Under the new clause, the conditions for an offence would arise if a women was attending a clinic for a lawful termination. What if there were protests about a man attending a clinic for a vasectomy? It is important that provisions be proportionate, workable and necessary, and that, so far as is possible, they apply to all equally.

If the new clause is introduced in its current form, I will examine it in greater depth at a later stage. Today, I simply underline that the new clause fails to set out a public order context for the harm that is being defined and that the hon. Lady intends to prevent. There are already measures, which have been shown to work, that fully address these matters.

These are incredibly emotive and important issues. Women need to be advised and properly protected, and the topic needs to be fully addressed and considered with care. I hope that I have been able to illustrate in this short time that the new clause risks criminalising teachers, doctors, midwives, parents, friends and lovers who, when in a buffer zone, even when they are in their home, give advice or assistance, or even express an opinion about, the important, life-or-death matter of abortion. It is vital that women are able to get the support, advice and guidance they need to make the choice that is right for them. I do not feel that that is provided by the new clause; that ability would be undermined by it. As such, I will not support it.

Photo of Anne McLaughlin Anne McLaughlin Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control) 9:45 am, 21st June 2022

Thank you for allowing me to speak, Mr Dowd, despite my being a couple of minutes late. I am sorry, but I could not find room 10; I could find rooms 9 and 11 but not 10. I thought I was in a Harry Potter plot.

Photo of Anne McLaughlin Anne McLaughlin Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control)

Yes, but it does not have a number outside. I was unable to be here last week due to a diary clash, and I apologise for that, although I advised the Committee.

I recall that the previous week the Minister and others in the debate and here today suggested that there is some hypocrisy going on. That is my reason for saying a few words today. I want to explain why they are wrong in their assessment. That said, the measure applies to England and Wales only, so I will abstain in any vote because, as most colleagues know, the SNP does not vote on matters that do not directly impact on their constituents. However, I will put my name to a motion similar to this at the SNP conference later this year.

The position is not hypocritical, because there is a world of difference between somebody being harassed, as the Minister puts it, by protesters, and being told an airport is not doing enough for climate change. There is a world of difference between that and somebody being told with words, verbally, on a poster, or implied by presence, “You are killing your child. You individually are responsible for the death of your child.” That is what those protesters are saying.

I know women who have had abortions, and even those certain from the outset that it is absolutely the only and right choice for them, wrestle with their conscience, and they live with that decision forever. The guilt is there already; they do not need somebody else to make them feel even more guilty, yet that is what the protesters do. Even the ones who silently stand and pray quite often have posters with pictures of foetuses and the message that abortion is murder. It is cruel in the extreme.

Nobody changes their mind once they have got to the clinic. Nobody who turns up at the clinic and who is attacked by someone verbally, on posters or by their presence, stops and says, “Wait a minute—you are right. I am killing my child. I am going to cross the road to you and ask for your help.” That does not happen. It is fine for people to have those views and want to offer assistance, but not at that stage and in that way. That is why it is completely different from any other type of protest talked of in the Bill. I am sorry that I cannot vote for it. That is not much good for the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton, though others are not going to vote for it anyway. However, I do want to voice solidarity, because I support the gist of what she is trying to do.

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

Given the contributions so far, I will be brief. I want to add to what the hon. Lady has just said and to try to explain that this different, because it stops people getting the medical support that they need.

I have had cause to walk into the abortion clinic in Streatham. On that occasion, I was not getting an abortion but, I promise, if I had been what I saw would have made me feel very scared, guilty and inclined not to go in. Although the protesters were not shouting and yelling, they were judging. For many women—people—that judgment means they want to run away. It was worse when we came out than when we went in. The protesters do not know what has gone on inside, so the judgment when you come out is 10 times worse than when you go in, because the protesters think that you have committed murder. This is a very different matter; it is about getting medical attention that you are entitled to. It is about your legal duty to—

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Labour, Bootle

May I stop the hon. Lady? I remind hon. Members not to use the second person singular and use “you”. The occasional use of “you” is okay but we are now in the territory of multiple uses. Will people please stick to the protocol?

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

Forgive me, Mr Dowd. That was wrong of me. I am going off script, which is why I did that.

We heard in evidence from Liberty that it is supportive of this new clause, because these behaviours are harassment. Even if it is not verbal, it is definitely harassment. I have felt it myself, so I think that this is a very different order of thing. It is in the same category as the kind of debates we have had about people being prevented from getting their vaccines.

I will leave it there. I am very happy to support my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton, as many Members from across the House have done. There is a genuine debate to be had. My hon. Friend is doing an excellent job of keeping this conversation going; it is important that we continue to have it.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse The Minister of State, Home Department, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office) 10:00 am, 21st June 2022

Given the comprehensive nature of the speeches, not least that of my hon. Friend the Member for Dover, I will keep my remarks short. During the course of the Committee’s debates, it has been interesting to hear how Members have tried to strike a balance between the competing rights that we acknowledge exist in society.

The hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton put her finger on what is basically the entire point of the Bill when she asked, “When is a protest not a protest?” I think we can all agree that there is a case for the rights of the individual to be balanced when anybody faces harassment—people screaming at them, pretending to be protesters; effectively any sort of verbal assault—whether that is on entering an abortion clinic or, indeed, in the case of the women protesters in Bristol at the weekend. These are different situations where we, as democratic politicians, have a duty to try to balance the competing rights on display.

The hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton has campaigned passionately on this issue; I salute her for her indefatigable pursuit. Her new clause is very similar, if not identical, to one she tabled during the passage of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. The remarks made at the time by the Minister responsible for the Bill—the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. Friend Victoria Atkins—are essentially the same as our position now. We believe that a suite of existing offences can handle this harassment, as the hon. Lady knows. The Public Order Act 1986 makes it an offence to display images or words that may cause harassment, alarm or distress, attracting six months’ imprisonment or a fine. It also means the police can impose certain conditions on protests.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse The Minister of State, Home Department, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

I will give way in a moment. We also have the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, which makes it an offence for someone to pursue a course of action that they know will amount to harassment of someone else; again, this offence attracts six months’ imprisonment and/or a fine. There are also the PSPOs, which the hon. Lady talked about. We have three in operation—Ealing, Richmond and Manchester—that have successfully put an end to some of those harmful protests.

The hon. Lady can respond at the end to the points that have been raised. Before she does so, however, I would just say that there are some difficulties with the scope of her new clause, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dover pointed out. It goes much further than existing PSPOs and covers private dwellings and places of worship that fall within 150 metres of a clinic, as well as other premises where the behaviours she has described would not have the impact of interfering with access, but could be criminalised. That, I am afraid, would be disproportionate. As my hon. Friend said, it would also include doctors in surgeries within 150 metres of a clinic who offer advice to patients about abortions. That too would be disproportionate.

We believe that the argument the hon. Lady made strengthens the case for locally driven responses that take into account local facts, issues and circumstances, rather than a nationwide blanket ban. As my hon. Friend said, we reviewed this matter in 2018, with a further review in 2020. We will continue to keep it under review, particularly by engaging with the National Police Chiefs’ Council and local authorities as they see these events unfold.

Based on the evidence, we have concluded that it would not be proportionate to introduce a blanket ban. Obviously, none of the provisions in the Bill that we have talked about so far has imposed a blanket ban. They are all about imposing conditions when a protest crosses the line, as the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton says, into being something else—into being a crime. As the hon. Member for Glasgow North East knows, it is possible to impose such conditions in Scotland; we would like to mirror that in England and Wales. The hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton voted against Second Reading on the basis that the Bill would curtail the right to protest, but here we are with a new clause that puts a blanket ban on protests, rather than placing conditional controls on them that would essentially seek to balance competing rights.

We understand the intentions behind the hon. Lady’s new clause, and see her passionate campaigning. I know that she has support from across the House, and that the issue will emerge again, but for the reasons that we have set out, I am afraid that I urge her to withdraw the new clause.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

There is quite a lot of stuff to respond to there. There has been quite a lot of whataboutery. I will start with the hon. Member for Dover. She made a large number of points, and I did not want to stop her flow, because she was reading out her speech so nicely, but there were some misunderstandings. The new clause is not identical to the Ealing order. I think that I explained that the new clause is based on the British Columbia provision, and I am happy to work with the Government to iron out any wrinkles in it. The distance of the boundary of the buffer zone should depend on the situation of the clinic. I understand that the Streatham clinic is in a cul-de-sac, so the buffer zone there would be different.

The Ealing PSPO came in relatively recently, in 2018, whereas the protest there has been going on since the ’90s. A great number of people thank me for the PSPO, and say that they can now use the pavement. The hon. Lady described BPAS in east London. I do not know the lay-out of that clinic, but she says that it is in a doctor’s surgery. Unusually, in this country, these services tend to be provided in stand-alone clinics. It is different in Scotland, where they are often provided in a hospital.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

Let me finish what I am saying. There are two main providers: BPAS and Marie Stopes, which runs the West London clinic in my constituency. They have stand-alone clinics, and these services are all that the clinics provide. The east London clinic is not known to me. I advise the hon. Lady to take a trip to the Marie Stopes in Maidstone, the nearest one to her, and look at the evidence logs. Getting the PSPO involved presenting the evidence logs.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

The Minister would not take my intervention; he said that I could reply to him in a speech of my own at the end of his. I say the same to the hon. Lady, because I have many points of hers to respond to.

Photo of Natalie Elphicke Natalie Elphicke Conservative, Dover

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way—

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

No, I said that I am not giving way.

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Labour, Bootle

Order. Hon. Members must ask the person speaking if they will give way, and should not carry on talking if the other person is still talking.

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Labour, Bootle

No. To be absolutely clear, when a Member is speaking, and someone wants to intervene, they ask if the Member will accept the intervention. If the Member carries on speaking, they have not agreed to the intervention. Could we follow that process? Otherwise, things will get chaotic.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

I was just saying that the situation is different in Scotland; in England, these services are not usually provided in hospitals. The hon. Member for Dover described a clinic in a doctor’s surgery, and said that the new clause would criminalise people—

Photo of Natalie Elphicke Natalie Elphicke Conservative, Dover

Will the hon. Lady give way on that point?

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

The hon. Lady is persistent, isn’t she?

Photo of Natalie Elphicke Natalie Elphicke Conservative, Dover

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. That is not what I said; I wanted to clarify, because I think that there has been a factual misunderstanding. I was describing the location of the BPAS centre, and mentioned the things around it—a doctor’s surgery, a school, a midwifery clinic. I was not saying that the BPAS centre sits in a doctor’s surgery.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

I think there has been plenty of misunderstanding of our two positions. I think that there are about 77 clinics across the country, including in Streatham and Bournemouth. Three local authorities have orders in place; that is a tiny number. I wanted to ask the Minister whether he knows how many prosecutions there have been under the Public Order Act 1986 and all the other bits and pieces of legislation that he cited. I think it is pretty much zero. Again, there was whataboutery; it was said that the new clause would criminalise people unnecessarily. [Interruption.] Yes, exactly; that stuff.

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Labour, Bootle

Order. Can we let people speak? I do not want shouting across the Committee. If people want to intervene, they need to ask to intervene.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

Thank you, Mr Dowd.

We have heard hypotheticals about the new clause criminalising x, y and z. It has been pointed out that these people are passive and very nice—they hold rosary beads, or whatever. There have been zero prosecutions in Ealing, because these people are actually quite law-abiding, and they have simply moved their protest to the other side of the road. They are complying with the law—I think there was one warning at the very beginning. As I say, the order has been renewed once, in 2018.

My worry is that we are going down a very American sort of route. There are very well endowed groups, largely from across the Atlantic, that fund things such as the research and statistics we have heard. There are several of those groups. There is one called 40 Days for Life that is active every Lent, which shows how these protests are sometimes sporadic. That is why it would be wise to have a consistent approach—I call it consistent, not blanket—where, under the rule of law, every woman has that protection, not just if they live in Ealing, Richmond or Manchester. Every Lent, 40 Days for Life pops up and does a 40-day running protest. Again, that is something that should not be there, but we do not know.

It is claimed that these protests are passive and that the protesters are only praying. I have been trying to explain how that can be intimidatory and psychologically disturbing to women. How many times do we sometimes cross to the other side of the road or go the other way because some bloke looks a bit dodgy? I am disappointed that the hon. Member for Dover, as a sister, did not understand that—although the Minister, as a robust bloke, might not get the same feelings walking down the street that we do. The French version talks about psychological distress, as well.

The hon. Member for Dover described it as peaceful, but that is utterly subjective—it can be quite sinister and chilling to see these people with their rosary beads. The entire thing is designed to affect a termination and to individually shame women. That is what it is about. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central, the shadow Minister, described this experience of running the gauntlet and the onslaught that people can feel, and she was going to a clinic as an observer. She was not even a user. There are examples from America of women staff of these clinics having had their cars booby-trapped. It is really quite alarming. We are going down that road.

We seem to be stuck in a groove in 2018. We have been told there was a review in 2018, but when I have asked questions about this, the Home Secretary has even said that it is under constant review. So what is going on? Have the Government shut the lid—“It was done in 2018; sorry, go away”—or is it under constant review? This issue is dynamic, and it needs to be looked at.

The conclusion in 2018 was that things are not bad enough. How many women are we saying need to be affected? How bad does the threshold have to be? It does not happen at every clinic all the time, but it could happen at any clinic. That is what we should look at. We are talking about 100,000 women a year, and there are other Members with clinics in their seats. Sir Bernard Jenkin and I are very misaligned on Brexit and loads of other issues, but he is my cosignatory on this new clause.

There is just so much I could say. The last time there was a vote on this issue was my ten-minute rule Bill, the Demonstrations (Abortion Clinics) Bill, which passed by 213 votes to 47. The hon. Member for Glasgow North East was saying that the SNP will vote against it. If Members had a free vote, it would be very different. We have seen with the Northern Ireland abortion stuff—

Photo of Anne McLaughlin Anne McLaughlin Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control)

We will not be voting against it. We will just be abstaining on it because it is our principled stance not to vote for it. I certainly support it.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

I totally get what the hon. Lady is saying. Subject to Supreme Court review, Northern Ireland is about to introduce protections for women using these clinics along these lines. Scotland is very sensibly consulting on this and having a serious conversation. Soon it could be only England and Wales that are in this invidious situation. All the other countries of the Union are going the right way on this.

What I meant is that the hon. Member for Glasgow North East said that the SNP will vote against it. When offered a choice, when not subject to whipping, Members who have clinics in their seats know the trouble caused to ordinary clinic users—to ordinary street users—all the time.

The hon. Member for Dover described the east London BPAS and the road it is on. Our Marie Stopes in west London is on a thoroughfare that has on it a kids’ theatre group—my son did Questors acting classes, so I had to take him down that road a lot—and a prep school, a private boys’ school. Lots of kids use the road, and the parents were saying, “Can you take this ugly stuff away from here? It’s embarrassing.” It is ordinary people, not necessarily women seeking abortions, who are grateful for what we have in Ealing. However, that using the orders was a last resort, because there was no other way—it was imaginative thinking outside the box: “Ooh, let’s use this ASBO legislation.”

We need a consistent approach, if we agree with consistency before the law and with the ability of women to use the public highway or the pavement unimpeded. After Sarah Everard, we said, “She was only walking home.” Every woman should be allowed to do that. Have we learnt nothing? This is a golden opportunity. Yes, there might be difficulties with 150 metres or 100 metres—I would say do it with an appropriate distance, depending on where the clinic is—but we could iron that out. The Minister, the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central, and I could work something out, with all the experts and the evidence that has been given.

The hon. Member for Dover cited very selective evidence. The Select Committee on Home Affairs, when my right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper was Chair, also had an inquiry and took evidence. It, too, concluded that something should be done. It seems a shame that the door was shut in 2018, although I have heard encouraging sounds about review. The Bill could therefore be improved.

As for the stuff about giving out leaflets, Conservative Committee members should speak to the Conservative party in Ealing—though it is no longer the opposition in the council; that is the Lib Dems since the elections. When we had the vote on Ealing Council in 2018, two medical professionals, doctors, who are Conservative councillors, spoke movingly in the council chamber on how the leaflets being given out are medically inaccurate—giving out completely bogus information: is it called fisking or filleting, or something?

Yes, people should have advice, counselling and all that stuff, but not on the day, when they are queuing up. All the research shows that people will postpone their procedure, possibly never to come back. For the people protesting—or harassing or praying, or whatever we call it—that is a victory, and we should not allow such people victory; we should allow women to use the street.

I could go on and on, but I think I have probably said enough.

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Labour, Bootle 10:15 am, 21st June 2022

Does the hon. Lady wish to press the new clause to a vote?

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

My ideal would be to sit down with the Government to make something better. I will not press the new clause to a vote today, because I think it can be improved—I take those points—so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.