Lords agree to censorship zones around abortion facilities

31 January 2023

Rebekah Moffett, Communications Officer, comments on the House of Lords debate on the Public Order Bill, in which a new clause could introduce nationwide ‘buffer zones’ around abortion facilities.

Last night (Monday 30 January), the House of Lords debated an amendment to the Public Order Bill which would introduce censorship zones around all abortion facilities across England and Wales.

Just last week, Lord Farmer proposed to scrap Clause 9, which would have imposed the so-called ‘buffer zones’ across the country, and instead introduce a review of existing legislation and ‘activities’ which already take place outside abortion clinics.

However, in a debate which ended at 10.30pm, the Lords rejected Lord Farmer’s proposals and instead agreed to a reworded amendment of the Public Order Bill, which would introduce nationwide ‘buffer zones’.

The Public Order Bill is set to have its third reading in the House of Lords on Monday 6 February and, as one of the government’s flagship bills, is likely to become law.

Redrafting the amendment

Amendment 45 was agreed on, which would change the wording of the clause. The clause, if the Bill is passed in its current state, would now criminalise anyone who acts “with the intent of, or reckless as to whether it has the effect of –

  1. influencing any person’s decision to access, provide or facilitate the provision of abortion services,
  2. obstructing or impeding any person accessing, providing, or facilitating the provision of abortion services, or
  3. causing harassment, alarm or distress to any person in connection with a decision to access, provide, or facilitate the provision of abortion services.” (Emphasis added.)

Now labelled ‘safe access zones’, the proposals still suggest that they are an area comprising 150 metres around an abortion facility. The new clause also states that no offence is committed if:

  1. a person inside a dwelling where the person affected is also in that or another dwelling, or
  2. a person inside a building or site used as a place of worship where the person affected is also in that building or site.

However, activities within other buildings appear not to be protected if they are witnessed by someone in the street, particularly someone on the way to the abortion facility, given that this clause dangerously makes it all about ‘intent’.

Still a threat to free speech

Given this redrafting, pro-life free speech is now under further threat of being censored.

The amendment states that it was drafted

“following concerns raised at earlier legislative stages in the House of Lords; and in light of the Supreme Court judgment of December 2022 regarding a comparable law in Northern Ireland and the need to ensure compliance with the Human Rights Act 1998.”

However, the wording of the new clause is clearly a disproportionate restriction on free speech.

During the debate, Lord Weir also commented:

“The alternative wording in Amendment 45 talks about making it a criminal offence to influence, but surely at the heart of the concept of freedom of speech, and the value of democracy, is the peaceful way in which people try to persuade others of their point of view? It should be a battle of ideas … but if we are criminalising expressions of opinion or influence, that is fundamentally wrong.”

Similarly, Lord Jackson of Peterborough spoke of his reservations of the new proposed Clause 9:

“This amendment does not actually exclude the outside of private property, so anyone who is in their private garden or their own car expressing their conscience could be criminalised. For a law which specifically proposes to limit fundamental freedoms of speech, expression and even thought, should we not be very specific about which behaviours are being disapproved of and where?

“Yet, this amendment is indiscriminately applied to every clinic in the nation. As noted, the prohibited behaviours are far too broad … Behaviours, such as standing silently as if praying, which are found to have influenced someone, are included. Quite how this applies is a moot point.”

Lord Cormack also spoke of the need to protect both free speech and freedom of religion:

“Can we not just pause, reflect and discuss, and see if Clause 9 is necessary, which I do not believe it is? … Nobody can stop my praying privately, because you do not know when I am doing it. It is important that we recognise that freedom of speech without freedom of religion is hollow and false. We have to preserve them both.”

Lord Sharpe, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office, has been steering the Bill through the House of Lords. Having told the House that the government had worked with both sides of the House on the debate, he still raised concerns that the new clause was likely to be tested in the courts – although stated that he believed it was “compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.” 

Review rejected

Sadly, Lord Farmer’s proposed amendment to the clause was rejected, although several Lords spoke out about the need for a review into what actually takes place outside abortion facilities.

Lord Farmer himself began:

“I return to my point that the Bill is not about the rights and wrongs of abortion. It is the Public Order Bill and, as such, is how Clause 9 should be viewed. Is there sufficient public disorder to warrant such an incursion into citizens’ civil liberties? The answer is that we do not know. Therefore, we need a review.”

Lord Shinkwin also agreed that a review would be beneficial before introducing any law that could seriously curtail free speech:

“Suffice it to say, it frightens me, because it threatens freedom of conscience and creates a precedent with potentially huge ramifications, which should surely alarm and unite all of us who value democracy. Some noble Lords have mentioned urgency—even emergency legislation. This is why we cannot afford to rush headlong without a review—just a review, not a final decision—being conducted first so that, in line with subsection (4) of the new clause proposed by Amendment 44, the proportionality of the measures proposed in Clause 9 can be carefully considered in the round, taking the views of all the stakeholders, including, of course, abortion providers, into account. We talk in this Chamber about the danger of passing legislation with unintended consequences. This clause proves our point perfectly. It has danger written all over it.”

Baroness Fox also mentioned the need for a new review into the goings on outside abortion facilities:

“In 2018 the Home Office asked the same questions we have asked tonight, did an extensive review of vigils around abortion clinics and concluded that introducing national buffer zones would not be a proportionate response considering the experiences of the majority of hospitals and clinics and that the majority of activities are more passive in nature. People who wanted this clause say, ‘No, that is out of date and completely wrong. The 2018 review does not hold’. Fine; let us have a 2023 review. That is all I am saying, let us find out; I am adamant about that.”

In fact, the reality is that pro-life volunteers who stand outside abortion clinics offering support and taking place in prayer vigils are usually the ones who face harassment. Lord Jackson also agreed that if pro-lifers were the ones causing threats, violence and harassment, there would be more evidence. The reality is, it simply doesn’t exist:

“In the age of iPhones and social media, if the sort of harassment claimed by the other side of this debate were so prevalent, we would see much more of it on social media and wider media networks, but that is not the case. Last autumn, the Government yet again reiterated that that was their settled view. Since 2018, they have continued to keep the matter of abortion-related protests outside clinics under review.”

Bishops fail to speak out

Once more, bishops in the Church of England failed to say anything to prevent pro-life speech from being censored.

Previously, even the Archbishop of Canterbury has failed to define the Church of England’s position on abortion, and allegedly supports the use of ‘buffer zones’. The House of Bishops in the Church of England have previously made clear that they believe that 98% of abortions in this country are morally wrong, and despite this clear position, bishops in the House of Lords have consistently failed to speak out on the issue, or protect the right for Christians to stand for life.

During the debate, the Bishop of Manchester spoke of his concern for free speech, saying: “My concerns regarding Clause 9 had nothing to do with the moral merits or otherwise of abortion; they lie in my passion to see upheld the rights of citizens of this land, both to receive healthcare and to protest.” But if referring to abortion as ‘healthcare’ was a slip of the tongue, what followed was more worrying. He followed it up by expressing his support for Amendment 45 and his reasoning for rejecting Lord Farmer’s proposal of a review:

“I cannot support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Farmer. It would remove safe zones from this Bill without providing any obvious parliamentary process for us to re-engage with the issue in a timely manner.”

Church should support pro-life free speech

The Church of England allegedly opposes the vast majority of abortions. But this strong opposition seems to be nowhere in practice. A few more voices from the bishops could have stopped or amended this dangerous clause to the Public Order Bill.

If Christians are serious about upholding life, then we need to be allowed to offer support, pray for and even influence those who may be seeking an abortion. In reality, those attending abortion clinics for an abortion are very rarely the victims of harassment and intimidation by those standing outside abortion facilities. More often, the volunteers themselves face victimisations and harassment from members of the public.

Let’s keep praying that freedom of speech would be protected in this country, and the right to offer help to vulnerable women in crisis pregnancies would be protected and upheld.

Give thanks for those Lords who are recognising the value that pro-life support groups offer. Let’s pray not only that more in Parliament would recognise this, but that the very people who purport to protect life – and have the answer to the fullness of life – would be both more vocal and active in supporting pro-life causes.

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