I beg to move,
That this House
has considered public order legislation relating to family planning clinics.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I thank all the people who helped me to come up with the content of my speech, including the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, Marie Stopes International and our local campaign group, Sister Supporter.
I have been the MP for Ealing Central and Acton since the year before last, but I have been an Ealonian for 45 years, and this issue has been bothering me on my patch for the past three decades. It had the eyes of the world on Ealing just last month.
The Marie Stopes clinic in my constituency provides legal NHS abortions. It is on a busy thoroughfare, Mattock Lane, which borders a park. There is a prep school and an amateur theatre on the road, and West Ealing and Ealing Broadway stations are on either side of it, so a lot of people walk through it. In recent years, it has become simply impassable because of the pro-life protesters outside the gates of the clinic, who proposition women on their way in and out with distressing imagery. They have had me seething with rage since the ’90s. For the past two years, Sister Supporter, a counter-protest group, has been added to the mix. I am cheered to see those young women in their pink hi-vis tabards, because at a time when we are told that young people are not interested in politics, they are a shining counter-example of what people can do if they get active.
I find it uncomfortable to go down that street. I take my son to his theatre group there, and when he says, “Mummy, who are those people? What do they want? What are they doing?” it is quite difficult to explain. I will make a confession: I would rather none of those groups be there, because it is the women clinic users who are made to feel degraded.
I thank my hon. Friend for her excellent work on this very sensitive issue. Has she considered the additional psychological impact that the anti-choice protesters have on those women, who may already be traumatised by having to go through the process of a termination? Some of those protesters hand out plastic foetuses and rosary beads, and tell women who are about to go into the clinic that they will be haunted by their baby. Does my hon. Friend agree that that has a significant extra psychological effect?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend’s powerful point. It is perhaps the most difficult decision that those women have to make, and then they have all that moral guilt heaped on them. She rightly describes the visual aids that the protesters bring along. The women’s path is barred and their access is blocked; they are caught up in the crossfire.
This week, there has been talk all over the media about the harassment of women in Westminster, so some of these arguments are familiar. No woman should be in fear of going about their legal daily business, whether that is going to work in the Palace of Westminster or anything else.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this is not just about the women going into those clinics to seek advice about their medical situation, although they are the primary victims? It is also about the staff, who find it extremely intimidating and unpleasant to fight their way through those people.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I went to the other side of the barrage to speak to the staff of the Marie Stopes clinic, and people call out to them, “Mum, mum!” in a blackmaily type of way. They are caught up in all this, too. They cannot get to work. As we have been saying in relation to the harassment scandal, no woman should be in fear of going to their daily workplace in Westminster, and the same applies to the Marie Stopes clinic and BPAS clinics all over the country. Those women are trying to access totally legal healthcare, and the staff are trying to deliver it.
Last month, Ealing Council passed a motion to prevent harassment outside our clinic, which has been going on for 23 years—I was not keeping count. Women have been subject to intimidation and harassment in what are called vigils. As my hon. Friend Paula Sherriff said, they are told that they will be haunted by the ghost of their baby and are presented with misleading faux-medical leaflets. In the age of social media, the activity has been ramped up. Women are Facebook live-streamed as they come and go from the clinics. Those actions cross a line. They are not about changing the law. That is not protest but harassment.
My local police have long told me that public order legislation is insufficient to do anything about what they describe as a stand-off between the two groups. My friends from Sister Supporter would completely agree that they should not have to be there. If the first part of the problem went away, they would, too.
I am pleased that the Minister is before us today, because as he said on social media yesterday,
“Decisions on future police funding will be based on evidence, not assertion. Thx to all CCs and PCCs who have helped us update evidence.”
I hope he extends that to police practice. I have got some quotes from my local police force, which I will bring up later. I know that he has visited every police force in England and Wales as part of the Home Office’s demand review. I urge him to pop over to Ealing nick—it is not very far away from his seat of Ruislip. He is a near neighbour, constituency-wise.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way one more time. Am I correct in thinking that some of the anti-choice protesters have taken to protesting outside the offices of MPs who are pro-choice, bringing very distressing images and handing out leaflets and other alarming literature? Does she agree that such behaviour is reprehensible?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend, as always. At my office in Acton, a group called Abort67 unfurled huge graphic images of dismembered foetuses, so speaking out against abuse invites abuse. I was in Westminster on that day, but parents complained to me because there are two primary schools in the vicinity of our office and they did not want to walk their kids past all that. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point.
Rather like with the Westminster scandal, there is a sense that things cannot go on as they are. It is unsustainable. The evidence pack that Sister Supporter compiled for the
I went to the other side of the barrage to speak to the people at Marie Stopes Ealing. The clinic logs every incident. Comments such as “God will punish you” are made to service users. People have been grabbed, their entrance has been prevented and they have been called “murderer”. The plastic foetus dolls, which my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury described, are wildly inaccurate. The groups use graphic images designed to shock, and teddy bears—pink for a girl and blue for a boy.
It is not just me who thinks this. Abortion has been legal in this country for 50 years. The week before last, with the help of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, I compiled a letter that was signed by 112 other MPs from five different parties, including four party leaders. It called on the Government to take action in the wake of the historic Ealing decision. The fact is that 50 years on, women daily have to run a gauntlet to have that procedure done. This is not simply an Ealing issue. It happens in Portsmouth, Doncaster and many other places. It is one of the few issues that has united MPs such as our leader, my right hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn, and Zac Goldsmith. Lots of people were queuing up to sign the letter. Anyone who has a clinic in their constituency is supportive of it, because they know what goes on there. The present system is unsustainable.
Make no mistake: the protesters are implacably opposed to abortion under any circumstances. Their tactics are emotive. As an illustration of the cross-party support for this issue, when the motion came to Ealing Council, every one of the 61 counsellors present, representing three parties, supported it, and just two people abstained. There was a reassuring degree of unanimity. Two Conservatives, who are medics—one a vet, the other a GP—and who fought me tooth and nail in the general election, pointed out that their anatomy classes have told them that the foetus drawings and the dolls are completely wrong, and ditto the bogus science in the information leaflets thrust into people’s hands. The mistruths include the description of how developed the foetus is at 24 weeks—it is shown as having fingernails and things when that is just not the case—and the statement that women get breast cancer as a result of an abortion, which is completely unproven.
I completely get the point about public protest. We have a long and honourable tradition in this country of many legislative changes coming about through protest by people such as the suffragettes, on the right to vote for women—the Levellers and the Diggers. If the Ealing protesters really want to make a point through public protest, surely they should stage it here at Parliament where there are 650 legislators, or at the town hall or somewhere similar. Harassment is not protest; it is unacceptable. Buffer zones are needed to stop the gendered intimidation that is going on. With this debate, I am calling for a durable and lasting solution, because the Ealing idea only goes so far. It is being talked about as a test case, but it must be more than that; it should be the start of a national answer to the problem.
The Home Office identifies three pieces of legislation that cover harassment and intimidation outside clinics, but each of them has gaps and problems; there are grey areas that we need to turn into black and white. The Public Order Act 1986 covers words or images that are “threatening, abusive or insulting”, or people behaving in such a way as to cause “harassment, alarm or distress”, but it does not apply to every case or individual, and does not account for the stress or the coercion of women into non-attendance; women have been found to be simply delaying the decision and having to come back another day when the protestors are not there. That Act is wanting.
The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 allows dispersal of individuals causing harm or distress, but only for 48 hours. If that had to be done every 48 hours over 23 years, there would be a total of 4,198 police actions; we came up with that with a calculator. That Act is also unsatisfactory.
A public spaces protection order, as proposed by Ealing Council, is more of a local byelaw type of thing that is used against antisocial behaviour, to move on street drinkers or drug dealers. Again, it is temporary and applies only to a certain number of streets. Imaginative use has been made of the order, and I salute Councillor Aysha Raza, who is in the Public Gallery, and Councillor Julian Bell, the council leader: they introduced a PSPO as a last resort to stop the 23-year campaign of harassment, but doing so was a long process. All the evidence had to be gathered, such as videos, clinic logs and testimony, through several years of work by committed volunteers, such as those from Sister Supporter, who would not take a no from central Government. We can do better.
My local police have said that they cannot wait for the PSPO to address the gaps in their powers, but they foresee problems. The pro-life people are often well endowed—from America, we believe—and they have said that when the order is implemented they will stage mass incursions and mount legal challenges. Furthermore, sections 12 and 14 of the Public Order Act have quite a high threshold to demonstrate “serious” damage or disruption and violence.
The Saturday after the council decision, I went with Sister Supporter to Mattock Lane. Many expected some kind of overnight change, but it had not happened because we are at the stage of the eight-week statutory consultation. Instead, there was an almost—I am sorry to put it like this—“West Side Story” stand-off, something like the Montagues and Capulets. There were six police who said to me that they would rather be doing other stuff than guarding women who should be able to go about their legal business in safety. The police recognised the physical and emotional trauma suffered by the women, and said that they would rather be dealing with shoplifting on the nearby high street, engaging with young people on neighbouring estates or carrying out weapon sweeps.
In January 2017, when I asked a question in the main Chamber, I was told that any such situation would inevitably require local police judgment of some sort. Our police in Ealing say that they have limited resources per ward—six police officers ties up the two Walpole ward officers plus four from outside, so that whole neighbourhood team is deployed to that one place. They say they would rather the protests were moved away from the gates of the clinic so a woman could get a taxi there and go straight in. With a radius of 150 metres or something like that, the protestors could not stop everyone at the perimeter.
The officer I spoke to said: “I recognise the right to protest. It is not an offence, but the turmoil from calling ‘mummy, mummy’ to someone at the 11th hour is not constructive or useful.” He said that both groups have perfected what they can and cannot do. The argument is often that no prosecutions have taken place for 23 years, but that is because people know how to operate within the law. Also, women often do not want the hassle of giving evidence for a prosecution, which is similar to what is happening in the Westminster harassment scandal.
The police want the protests moved away from the venue so that the “angst” would not be there and so that they would not be policing the two sides from “coming to blows”. They also raised the issue of better funding and resourcing: in the words of that same beat officer, “It is difficult to pull your boots on if you don’t feel supported and appreciated.” The Minister wished for evidence on the ground, so I have brought him some today.
When the Minister responds, will he address the fact that his Government recently awarded an anti-choice charity called Life £250,000 from the tampon tax fund in what I believe is the largest award? Life’s website previously referred to termination as “murder”. I understand that the award is for specific activities, although one of the chief executives of the charity told me that if they were helping a woman who decided to go on and have a termination, they would withdraw any support from her, including housing. Particularly given the language that Life uses, is it helpful for the Government to fund such charities?
I am interested to hear that. I have seen the story on social media—although I have not seen the detail—and like my hon. Friend, I am waiting to hear what the Minister says about that anomaly.
Ealing has been talked about as a test case, yet local government has suffered in the past 10 years. Ealing Council has had a cut of £168 million—half its operating budget—since 2010. Everyone is trying to do more and more with less and less. That is why we need a national solution at a time of unprecedented austerity in local government. The attacks on the budgets of police and local government make me think that the best solution is a national one, with new legislation to tackle this ongoing gendered street harassment—that is what it is. It is about shaming women for choices they have made. No outside person can know why they made that choice; it may be for myriad circumstances. It is about controlling women in a horrible, public, misogynistic fashion.
Other criticisms I have heard of PSPOs is that they involve an arduous process. The burden is on the council to introduce the order and the police to enforce it. The conditions must be clear and well worded, so some direction from the top would be ideal.
The weight of expert opinion is substantial, even for a Government some of whose members have at times said they have had enough of experts. The law journal Legal Action concluded:
“Speaking to both sides on this issue, it is apparent that there is little or no common ground…The vote by Ealing Council, though, is one clear indicator of how out of step with mainstream…public opinion” the anti-abortion protesters are. It cites precedent from Victoria in Australia, where there is a 150-metre radius zone around such clinics. There are also examples from 14 American states, France and Canada.
The BMA wrote to me only today to raise its concerns about intimidation of patients and staff outside facilities. That is the British Medical Association, not the Socialist Workers Party or anyone like that. It says that it has raised the issue with the Home Office and the police, but continues:
“Unfortunately, their responses have not reassured us that the situation is being adequately addressed.”
It talks about the “intimidating manner” in which views are professed outside abortion services, especially as women may feel vulnerable already. It says that the staff are providing a “lawful and necessary service” and continues:
“We are…pleased…that you have secured the debate this afternoon, and we hope it will provide an opportunity” to address the issues.
Other groups that support the campaign include the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Midwives, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Women’s Aid, Mumsnet, the Family Planning Association and, as might be expected, Marie Stopes International. In fact, in a YouGov poll released today, 57% of MPs supported the Ealing approach to exploring the options for introducing a buffer zone, and only 24% were against. Petitions need to have 1,500 signatures to be brought to the council and debated; this one had an unprecedented 4,000 signatures, which shows the weight of public opinion in Ealing.
As a civilian in Ealing I have witnessed the situation for 43 years, and since becoming an MP, many people have contacted me. One said, “These protestors have become a permanent and unwelcome intrusion into our close knit, diverse and tolerant community.” Cars hoot their horns in support of Sister Supporter. Someone from a house opposite said, “I’m trying to put my baby to sleep”—we do not necessarily think about such things. People now swerve to avoid that road—that is what it has turned into. People do not want to go there because of this ugly situation. How are we doing for time?
I am grateful for that advice, Mr Evans. I will dispense with most of my remarks on the Human Rights Act. One of my constituents, who is a lawyer, believes that the condition of article 10 of the Act would be satisfied because freedom of speech can be curtailed if there is evidence of harm to others. This particular, very well-educated constituent tells me that in this case clearly there is, but I will not go into that in detail.
Given how difficult and stressful the decision is, it is vital that women are able to access confidential medical and psychological advice and support without fear of harassment or intimidation. There is anonymity in any other medical procedure, so why not here? People have used Facebook live to shame women in this way.
The Home Office eagerly awaits the outcome of Ealing’s action, but the extensive work to get to the council motion—working around antisocial behaviour legislation—should not be the norm. As a society, we should not be forced to rely on good Samaritans such as the valiant Sister Supporter and grassroots campaigners. It should be the job of Government to protect our citizens from gendered harassment—that is what these protests are. The Home Secretary is very supportive, and there is a clinic in Hastings. On Sunday I was with her at the Sky TV studios, and I was being “unliked” and she was being “liked”, but she said, “Let’s wait to see what happens in Ealing first”. I think we can go further.
There are other people who want to speak and I can make further remarks later, so I will finish for now.
I am grateful to Dr Huq for how she has spoken on this very difficult and sometimes emotional issue, but I believe that it is my duty to offer another point of view, so that Parliament hears both sides of this difficult issue. I would hope that the hon. Lady would listen to women who have benefitted from help from groups outside abortion clinics, who would be denied that help if buffer zones were imposed around those abortion facilities. I want to ask the hon. Lady whether she has talked to those women who say that they have benefitted from the offers of help by those groups outside the Marie Stopes abortion facility. If not, surely both sides of this story deserve to be listened to. It is very important that we listen to both sides. How does the hon. Lady account for the fact that if harassment were really occurring outside these facilities, it would be perfectly possible for Marie Stope to call the police, yet we see no ongoing prosecutions for harassment or instances where police powers to disperse crowds have been used? I would have thought that it would surely be easy and common for the police to intervene if harassment were indeed occurring.
The hon. Gentleman is very generous in giving way. Has he considered that the women going into those clinics will have spent many weeks, and potentially months, making their minds up? I am not aware of any specific help that they are given outside those clinics by people holding things such as rosary beads or giving them pictures of dismembered foetuses and things like that. I would be surprised if that would aid them in coming to a different decision.
That is a perfectly fair point. I know that it is an agonising decision for women. I remember talking to one of the women who stands outside those clinics. She was an elderly lady, the kindest, most gentle person that one could possibly consider. So many children call her granny, because they feel that this lady, who is the kindest and gentlest person—admittedly, a religious person; there is nothing wrong with that—would never hurt a soul. She is simply trying to express a point of view.
I agree that harassment is quite wrong. Given that the current law allows for individuals who harass others to be reported to the police, yet does not affect others who protest peacefully, does the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton not think that it is unwisely illiberal to introduce a measure that would simply exclude all vigils of this sort, regardless of individual behaviour? Surely, that is a sledgehammer.
In the case of Annen v. Germany—I know that the hon. Lady dealt with this point, but I am not sure she did so adequately—a pro-life advocate, Klaus Annen, engaged in peaceful protest outside an abortion clinic and was found by the European Court of Human Rights to have a right to engage in such activity under article 10, the right to freedom of expression. If so, and given the precedent, how does she expect the European Court of Human Rights, which we are fully signed up to and continue to support, to treat a legal challenge to buffer zones?
I want to end by reading out the testimony that was given to my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce, who cannot be here, from Kate—she does not want to give her full name, which is fair enough, for fear of retaliation. This is her testimony:
“I never wanted to go through with an abortion but I felt a lot of pressure from people around me who offered it as a no brainer solution.
On the way into the clinic at the Marie Stopes clinic at Ealing I was offered a leaflet by a woman who I spoke to briefly. She just told me she was there if I needed her. I then went into the clinic, still not happy about being there for an abortion, but under immense pressure from a group of people that were with me to go through with it.
Once in the clinic, while the group were distracted I leapt out of the ground floor window and cleared 3 fences to escape. I talked to the woman on the gate again, who offered any support I needed to keep my baby and this gave me the confidence to leave where I was supported by the group that this women worked with.
I didn’t find any aggression from the people offering support outside the Ealing clinic at all. They did have leaflets documenting the development of a baby, a fetus, in the early stages.
The potential introduction of buffer zones is a really bad idea because women like me, what would they do then? You know, not every woman that walks into those clinics actually wants to go through with the termination. There’s immense pressure, maybe they don’t have financial means to support themselves or their baby, or they feel like there’s no alternatives. These people offer alternatives.
I had my baby who is now three and a half years old. She’s an amazing, perfect little girl and the love of my life. I want MPs here today calling to introduce buffer zones to realise, that she would not be alive today, if they had their way.”
I agreed with them when they expressed their anxieties about very late terminations, but as soon as I suggested some of the ways that such late terminations might be prevented, they made it clear that they were opposed to almost all of those remedies. Their view appeared to be that all sex was wrong, except in the context of wishing to create a new life; that contraception was wrong because it enabled and encouraged sexual activity without such a purpose; that once conception had taken place, the life of the foetus was every bit as precious as the life of the woman in which it was growing; and that anything that interrupted that growing life—even on the morning after—constituted murder. They appeared unwilling to contemplate situations where a woman’s life depends on having a termination, and they claimed that a woman who has been raped can gain a sense of closure from giving birth to the baby that results from that rape.
I believe that there are good reasons for wanting to minimise abortions, and that the best ways to achieve that are providing good sex education in schools; ensuring that girls and women are confident about making decisions about their own bodies; educating boys and young men about treating women with respect and as equals; making various forms of contraception, including male contraception and the morning-after pill, freely and easily available; and ensuring that good-quality, non-judgmental and timely counselling is available to support women who are uncertain about whether to have an abortion.
I believe that if a woman decides to have an abortion, the swifter that abortion takes place, the less trauma it will cause to her or her relatives. However, it is also important that she feels confident in the decision she takes and knows that she has had the chance to change that decision, so she needs to know how to access immediate counselling. She also needs to know how swiftly after that counselling she will be able to receive a termination.
It is right that arguments and discussions should take place at hon. Members’ surgeries, at public meetings and in this place, so that all views can be aired and all issues can be explored in an objective and constructive manner. But all these difficult discussions and decisions are a world away from the binary arguments and confrontational persuasion techniques that demonstrators use with women who are usually in an emotionally traumatised state and have often come to one of the most difficult decisions of their lives. If we do nothing to protect those women at that sensitive time, we expose them to risks to their mental and physical health, and I believe that the time has come to act.
Abortion was made legal in this country 50 years ago, public opinion supports its current legal status and there is no majority in this House for doing away with a woman’s right to choose. We have had debates about time limits and so forth, but I think that every Member knows that if this issue were debated again on the Floor of the House, we as a Parliament would still want to ensure a woman’s right to choose. So what are these demonstrators doing? They are actually setting themselves up against the settled view of the House of Commons and, more importantly, of the public. Theirs is a sort of guerrilla attack on a woman’s right to choose. That is what is so problematic about it.
I first raised this issue some years ago. In 2015, I tabled an early-day motion about it and I went to visit clinics, including the BPAS clinic in Blackfriars, where, as my hon. Friend Dr Huq described, activists carrying enormous, disturbing and graphic posters were menacing staff and patients. People talk about patients being menaced, but I spoke to staff at that clinic and the demonstrations are very upsetting for them, too. Activists hand expectant mothers horrifying leaflets and film conversations with members of the public without asking for consent. At urban advice clinics, that is particularly troubling for women from minority communities, who will feel particularly ashamed and conflicted about what they are doing. Someone who tries to walk peacefully into a clinic to get advice has to face those threatening demonstrations. Activists try to disguise their activism as prayer vigils or peaceful protests, but in reality they take advantage of the protections afforded to those activities.
These demonstrations are problematic partly because, as I have said, it is as if activists, through guerrilla actions and threatening activity, are trying to roll back 50 years, but they are also problematic because they are modelled on American tactics. A growing number of family planning clinics in America have been closed following demonstrations, attacks and even bombings. I am not saying that demonstrations here go that far, but let us remember that there have been bombings in America and that medical staff, including doctors, who offer women this sort of support have found themselves threatened and attacked.
On family planning, we have seen cuts to the NHS and the closure of family planning centres across the country. We need to look at education—not just family planning support but education in schools, too. This debate is about protecting women who have made the most difficult decision of their lives. They will seek support in advance rather than doing so as they go into the clinic.
Yes, and the idea that people can be offered practical help from behind a horrible poster of a dismembered foetus as they go into a clinic is clearly false and disingenuous.
Of course people should have a choice. My generation of feminist activists did not march about this issue to impose a particular set of decisions on women; all we said was that women should have a choice. They are better offered that choice with proper family planning advice and with sex and relationships advice in schools. That is where people should be shown their options and shown how they can genuinely have a choice—not outside clinics by people holding banners and shouting at them.
We heard a story about a lady who says that demonstrators saved her baby’s life. I wonder. I do not say anything about the speech by Sir Edward Leigh, but I do wonder. What I have seen—I went to see it for myself—and heard about these demonstrations tells me that they are not a way to offer people practical advice.
Many of the groups involved also oppose contraception, sex education and even IVF treatment. The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children is running a homophobic campaign against kids being taught about sexual orientation. Other groups have links to the far right. So-called pro-life people had a “march for life” this year in Birmingham. They flew in speakers from the US. They brought in Jim Dowson of Youth Defence, who is linked with the British National party; he was a partner of the march for life. Sadly, although there are genuinely devout people in groups such as SPUC and 40 Days for Life, they have a history of using harassment and intimidation, because they have failed politically to win round public opinion. One leader of an anti-choice group calling itself Precious Life was convicted of harassing the director of a Marie Stopes clinic in Northern Ireland.
This is not about people expressing an opinion. I am a Member of Parliament; I believe in healthy and vigorous debate. This is about people trying to threaten and harass staff members and women—members of the public—who seek desperately needed advice, and perhaps making those women too frightened to step over the threshold of a clinic to get the advice they need. It would be entirely wrong if, 50 years after it agreed that women should have a right to choose, this House failed to say now that that right to choose should be meaningful and should not be disrupted or opposed by these demonstrations. We have to look at ways of making women seeking advice and staff members in clinics safe, and there is no doubt that we have to look at the question of zones.
It is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I join others in congratulating Dr Huq on securing the debate, and on the way in which she framed an argument that she clearly feels passionately about and has done for a number of years. If I heard her rightly, she informed the House that this has been going on for 23 years—an extraordinarily long time. I should say, I have sat and participated in some rubbish debates in this Chamber, but this has been a good one, in the sense that both sides of a highly sensitive argument have been presented with both passion and dignity. I congratulate all Members who have participated.
I say to the hon. Lady—she will know this from a brush-by in the Sky studios on Sunday—that the Home Secretary takes a personal interest in this issue and has made it quite clear that she will monitor closely what is happening in Ealing and consider whether further action is needed, if that is where the evidence points us. The Government are absolutely clear that it is unacceptable that anyone should in any way feel harassed or intimidated simply for exercising their legal right to healthcare advice. She put it well: harassment is not protest. I think we all agree on that, so let us send that message clearly.
Where such behaviour occurs, I am clear that the police and local authorities should take action to deal with it, making full use of their powers to protect both patients and staff; that goes to the important point made by Ms Abbott. As well as ensuring that full use is being made of existing powers, the Government will explore whether any further action is needed to ensure that clinic staff and patients can go about their lawful business free from harassment, offence or alarm. I will go on to talk about existing powers; I was interested in what the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton said of her doubts about whether they are fit for purpose.
The Government are clear that the rights to share views and to peaceful protest do not extend to harassment. We believe that the law provides protection against such behaviour, but we are open to the argument. All protestors are subject to the law, and the police should act when they have evidence that crimes have been committed. It does seem clear that few complaints are made to the police by those attending healthcare clinics, which is the point made by my hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh. However, my feeling is, and I recognise, that the reasons for that may include those who access the clinics wanting to maintain their privacy, and that having to give evidence in a court of law may be a deterrent in this situation.
I strongly urge anyone—as I hope all Members would—who suffers any kind of harassment or intimidation at the hands of protestors to contact the police. I also call on abortion clinics to contact the police if they witness such behaviour towards patients and their staff. Information provided helps the police to take action. I know that the national police lead, Deputy Chief Constable Rachel Swann, has previously written to forces to remind them of the importance of investigating such alleged crimes sensitively.
The hon. Gentleman will understand that at probably the most vulnerable time in a woman’s life, the last thing she wants to do is present herself to a police station. That may account for the low level of complaints from women who have been harassed.
I totally understand that point, and I think I was sensitive to it in my remarks, but it is still the responsible thing to remind people that if we want the police to take action, they need information. This is absolutely not easy because of the context, but it is still a point worth making.
I would like to say a few words about the actions of pro-life groups, which have received criticism here. I should say that everything we have heard about accusations of intimidation and harassment is a million miles away from the experience I had, which was similar to that of Sandy Martin. Three ladies came to talk to me in Harefield library in my constituency about their deeply held views on the other side of the argument—the pro-life side—which were rooted in their deep faith and conviction and presented with great calmness and dignity. That was a million miles from what we are talking about happening on the pavements of Ealing, and was rooted in faith that I am sure all Members would want to respect.
However, it seems that in recent years there has been an escalation in the adoption of extreme tactics by pro-life groups in the UK; the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington was right on that. Tactics such as those used by the American anti-abortion movement—displaying graphic images, the wearing of video equipment to film locations and direct engagement with individuals entering health clinics—are a feature of that. The police recently assessed that pro-life demonstrations do not ordinarily result in crime or disorder, and it is rare that police intervention has been called for. I am also aware that pro-life groups deny harassment and intimidation.
I thank the Minister for considering the point. However, whether or not a member of a pro-life demonstration intends to harass, the fact that they produce leaflets and push forward their views to women who are entering these clinics at a moment of extreme emotional vulnerability constitutes harassment. The only way to avoid such harassment is not to have demonstrations at such locations.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. I simply place on record something he has already heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough: pro-life groups deny harassment and intimidation and claim that they seek only to dissuade and offer support to those seeking the services of family planning clinics. There are clearly deeply held views on this. I have no doubt about the upset some of those actions can cause, which have been expressed powerfully, not least by the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton, but by other Opposition Members as well.
In terms of police powers and management of protests, the police have a duty to facilitate peaceful protests by providing a lawful and proportionate policing response that balances the needs and rights of protesters with those of people affected by the protest. Rightly, Ministers have no power to direct or control police operations, but I am absolutely clear that women seeking medical advice or interventions in such circumstances should not be harassed or intimidated by the illegal actions of protesters.
As I said before, we believe—but we are open to the arguments on this—that the law provides protection against such behaviour, and the hon. Lady referred to the legislation. Sections 4A and 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 make it an offence to display words or images that may intentionally or unintentionally cause harassment, alarm or offence. The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 includes criminal offences that protect individuals conducting lawful activities from harassment by protesters. That Act also allows for a person to take civil proceedings in respect of harassment.
The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 provides the police with dispersal powers in public places, which can be used to disperse individuals or groups who are causing others to feel harassed, alarmed or distressed. The police also have powers under the Public Order Act 1986 to place conditions on the location, duration or numbers attending a public assembly. They can use those powers if, in their professional judgment: the assembly will result in serious public disorder, serious damage to property, or serious disruption to the life of the community; or the organiser’s intention is to compel others to act against their own rights. How and when any of those powers is used is an operational judgment for the police; there is no getting round that. They will judge each case on its merits, and will ultimately decide whether to use the powers available to them.
However, as part of our work to ensure the existing powers are used to the full, I will ask the relevant national police leads to ensure that the most appropriate tactics and best practice are being used. I will go further than that and extend an invitation to the hon. Lady: if she has good arguments and good evidence to support the argument that that package of legislation, which reads robustly to me, is somehow not fit for purpose, I am open to listening to her and the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, if they want to make a case.
I thank the Minister for the tone he is adopting. Does he agree that it is imperative that, given that we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Abortion Act 1967, the Government of the day adopt a pro-choice position, so that women are given a range of options if they have an unplanned pregnancy? By giving a charity that is firmly anti-choice a huge sum of money, they are in fact adopting an unfortunate bias.
Let me push back on that gently. As the right hon Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, who speaks for the Opposition, said, we have a settlement in this place that we have come to. We have found a balance and a compromise, and I think any shift in that will be subject to personal votes in the future. To the point about the funding for the charity Life, that falls outside my Department, so the hon. Lady will forgive me if I read from the brief. It is basically set out in the grant agreement that Life will not be able to use the tampon tax grant of £250,000 to fund its counselling service or its Life Matters education service, and it is prohibited from spending the money on any publicity or promotion. The grant—as I think the hon. Lady mentioned—is for a specific project in west London to support vulnerable, homeless or at-risk pregnant women who ask for its help. All payments will be made in arrears and on receipt of a detailed monitoring report, but I will make sure that the hon. Lady’s concerns are expressed directly to the Minister responsible.
I will say something about public spaces protection orders because, as the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton says, the local authority in Ealing has decided to consult on issuing such an order outside the Marie Stopes UK healthcare clinic in the borough. Public spaces protection orders, under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, can be used by councils to stop people committing antisocial behaviour in a public place, applying restrictions on how that public space can be used. I apologise for the dryness of the prose, but there are clear legal tests that must be met. In particular, the behaviour that the order is seeking to stop must: have had or be likely to have a detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality; be likely to be persistent or continuing in nature; be or be likely to be unreasonable; and justify the restrictions imposed.
It is for the London Borough of Ealing to determine, in consultation with the local police and any other community representatives, whether a public spaces protection order is justified. The Home Secretary and I will watch developments, and the response to them in the consultation, with interest.
I would like to give the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton a chance to respond and close the debate, so I will conclude. It has been a good debate on a highly sensitive issue. As I have made absolutely clear, the right to peaceful protest should not extend to harassment or intimidating behaviour.
I think I have made that clear. The right to peaceful protest is incredibly important and is fundamental to our democratic process, but it cannot extend to harassment. The hon. Gentleman said so in his remarks, and there is agreement in this place. It is unacceptable that women seeking their legal right to healthcare, advice and support encounter such situations, and I expect any such cases to be robustly investigated and dealt with by the police.
The bottom line is that we are talking about vulnerable women at a point of very high vulnerability. The last thing we should want or accept is for them to feel any more vulnerable at that point in time, and when protest creeps into harassment, that is completely unacceptable. As I said before, it is essential for any democracy that individuals have the right to peaceful protest and freedom of speech, but with those rights comes a responsibility to ensure that individual views and protestor actions do not cross the boundary into criminal acts.
Finally, I assure hon. Members who have taken part in the debate that both the Home Secretary and I will carefully consider the important points made. We will monitor developments in Ealing to see the outcome of the decision to grant a public spaces protection order. I will ensure that the national policing leads responsible for the issue are made aware of the concerns expressed, and ask that they and local authorities make full use of their existing powers to prevent that kind of behaviour. I will also explore with my officials and the police whether any further action needs to be taken to ensure that clinic staff and patients can go about their lawful business free from harassment, offence or alarm.
I listened carefully to the Minister and was encouraged by the way he is on side regarding tactics and practice. We have had a good debate. I am grateful for contributions from my hon. Friend Paula Sherriff, who was very thoughtful, and my hon. Friend Sandy Martin, who described a real-life case in which the other side came to visit. Sir Edward Leigh asked me whether I had spoken to the other side. I took a leaflet from them the other day and I was horrified by the factual inaccuracies in it. If that advice is lying leaflets, I do not think it is useful or constructive. I have also been pitted against the other side in TV studios several times. I think that they peddle emotion. It is an emotive subject, with strong feelings on both sides, but we need some factual basis to arguments here, and that is often lacking.
We are conflating different things. We should take out the wrongs and rights of abortion, which has been legal for 50 years, as my right hon. Friend Ms Abbott pointed out. The debate is about the safety of women; surely we can all agree that women should be able to access confidential, NHS-provided facilities without loads of people in their face, annoying them. It should not be about the nuances of the number of weeks or about abortion, because that is legal. It is a given, and by the time those women get to the clinic they have made that decision. They have been through the agonising other stuff, maybe at the GP’s surgery or somewhere else. As my beat police officer said, weaponising rosary beads at the 11th hour is not really useful or constructive. I think there is a bit of a myth about the number of women who have been “saved”; figures show that this only delays their going to the clinic, and that they come back on another day, although there may be some cases where it happens.
I have spoken to both sides, because I am MP for both sides and represent both. I do not think these women are protesting; they are trying to impose their view on the women who are trying to access services, and are trying to stop a termination at any price. We do not know why those women are there; they may have been raped. No outside observer can know those things.
This has been done in America, Australia, Canada and France. I have enormous respect for Sister Supporter, so I do not want to diss the organisation, or want what I am about to say to be misinterpreted, but as the police officer said, “In some ways, the sides are both as bad as each other.” The thing is that one side feels that it should not have to be there at all. It is the pro-life people who will not budge, and do not accept that their actions are harassment. Harassment is in the eye of the beholder, and if someone is made to feel uncomfortable, then it is harassment; these things are legally drawn up.
In summary, I ask the Government to bring forward legislation to introduce buffer zones outside clinics and pregnancy advisory bureaux, not to stop protest. The protesters can take their protest elsewhere: there is Speaker’s Corner, the House of Commons and other places. The women accessing clinics are not seeking debate. They are just trying to have a medical procedure done. Any other procedure would be done in complete anonymity, but they are filmed on Facebook livestreams, or their ex-partners are told, “This is what she’s up to.” There are some horrible, threatening examples that I do not want to go into the details of here.
Religion is often dragged into the debate. I bumped into the vicar of St Mary’s church, Acton, the Reverend Nick Jones—Nick the Vic—in the street on Sunday, and he said, “Good on you for the stuff you’re doing.” He reminded me that David Steel—Lord Steel as he is now—is a devout Christian. There is nothing Christian about the way the anti-abortion lot have spoken about me on social media and elsewhere. They are anti-abortion, yet they keep saying about me, “I wish her mum had had one.” But I am a big person and quite robust—sticks and stones and all that.
The Government should look at what further action can be taken to ensure that women can attend sensitive healthcare appointments, and that healthcare workers can do their jobs without fear of harassment or abuse towards patients or staff; my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington put it very well. In particular, I believe the Government should consider the experience of other countries; this issue is not unheard of.
Returning to section 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998, it is unclear whether we will remain subject to that; I think some on the other side do not want us to. A legal opinion that I have says:
“if the evidence collected by Sister Supporter about the distress caused to women using their clinics stands up to scrutiny, this could persuade a court that the anti-abortion activists’ rights under articles 10 and 11 are outweighed by those of the users of the clinic”, oddly under article 8, the right to a private and family life. Privacy has gone out of the window when protests are livestreamed on the internet. The Government should consider examples from elsewhere and consult with health service providers, patients and police about the potential to offer buffer zones around clinics.
I was a little disappointed that the Minister did not really address the points about the savage cuts to police and local government budgets. He will probably say that that is for another Department and not him, but I hope he has heard those words.
The courage of Sister Supporter and the queen of the suburbs, my home borough, where I have been for 45 years, have led the way. Let Her Majesty’s Government and the nation follow by finishing the job. Whatever happened to “Thou shalt not judge”? That is where I will end.
I thank hon. Members for the common courtesy and moderation shown throughout the debate, and I thank everyone attending.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered public order legislation relating to family planning clinics.