WE ARE all familiar with certain laws in force in the UK which are so absurd we assume someone must be sharing a bad joke.
The Licensing Act 1872 prohibits people from being drunk in a pub. Thankfully, the Nuclear Explosions (Prohibition and Inspections) Act 1998 forbids the detonation of nuclear weapons outside an armed conflict. The keeping of pigs in plain sight in one’s front garden is banned by the Town Police Clauses Act 1847. Most challenging for the police, it remains illegal to suspiciously handle a salmon.
To that wryly amusing list we may have to soon add the shameful example of the Public Order Bill, which is on track to risk banning both silently praying in the street and the offering of help to people who are receptive to such offers in a given circumstance.
I am referring to Clause 10 of the Bill as it stands. This Clause, unless amended, would introduce exclusionary zones of 150 metres around all abortion clinics in England and Wales where people would not be able to offer help to a woman who was reluctantly – or by coercion – going to have an abortion. The irony of the term ‘pro-choice’ here is lost on none.
Supporters of this law change argue that ‘buffer zones’ are needed because protesters gather and intimidate women. A Home Office Review published in 2018 found otherwise, concluding that ‘anti-abortion activities are more passive in nature. The main activities reported to us that take place during protests include praying, displaying banners and handing out leaflets’.
Advocates of this law change also claim that pro-life groups impede women going to have abortions. Naturally, they have provided precious little evidence for this accusation either. The original sponsor of the amendment, Rupa Huq MP, even linked it, in a House of Commons debate, to the abduction of Sarah Everard – remarks that were both highly inaccurate and crassly offensive.
A form of this dreadful legislation already exists. The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 allows local authorities to apply for Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) in situations where anti-social behaviour blights communities. These were primarily intended to replace dog control notices, though discussion also centred on their use in relation to alcohol-free zones. However, local authorities have also used the law to apply for ‘buffer zones’ around abortion clinics that have self-reported problems with pro-life volunteers.
In two of these, Birmingham and Bournemouth, the PSPOs are so poorly drafted that the police interpret them as banning silent prayer. The result is that a charity volunteer, Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, was arrested for standing alone inside a buffer zone in Birmingham, praying silently. It is worth noting the abortion clinic was closed at the time, as was the case at the same clinic when a Catholic priest, Father Sean Gough, was arrested while praying silently and holding a sign saying ‘Praying for freedom of speech’. While both have subsequently been cleared of all wrongdoing, the very fact that they were arrested sparked heated debate, with many pointing out that we are now living in a nation of ‘thought police’. Indeed as Ms Vaughan-Spruce said, ‘I’m glad I’ve been vindicated of any wrongdoing. But I should never have been arrested for my thoughts and treated like a criminal simply for silently praying on a public street.’
Meanwhile, in Bournemouth, Army veteran Adam Smith-Connor was issued a £100 fixed penalty notice for a similar ‘offence’ – standing silently and ‘praying for my son, who is deceased’.
There may be MPs who foresaw that the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 would result in arrests such as these, but it is highly doubtful. Therefore, as a version of these PSPOs is about to be expanded nationwide, we cannot say who else might get caught up in their web. There remains no evidence that disruptive pro-life activity at abortion clinics is so widespread that new powers are needed. It is reasonable then to assume that those liable to be arrested will simply be volunteers offering support to those women who express an interest in receiving it, or those who, like Smith-Connor, silently pray near an abortion clinic.
I would be happy to change my mind if the facts demonstrated otherwise, but the House of Lords recently rejected an amendment from Lord Farmer aimed at getting to the bottom of precisely this sort of information. In other words, Peers were happy to pass a law that no one – least of all the police and courts – have demonstrated is needed.
In short, legislation originally drafted with the motivation of updating dog control notices is now being used to arrest people standing silently within 150 metres of an abortion facility. It is a powerful lesson in the unintended consequences of ill-thought-out lawmaking, and the ease with which bad legislation can slip on to the statute book.
It is not too late for MPs to address this mistake and pull back from the brink. I urge my fellow Parliamentarians to remove, or at the least drastically amend, Clause 10 of the Public Order Bill – our fundamental freedoms such as the ability to pray and to help those in crisis pregnancies are of the utmost importance. We do not need this law.
Update: On Tuesday, the Commons voted on an amendment introduced by a group of MPs to attempt to lessen the negative impacts of the buffer zone clause that was added to the Public Order Bill. The amendment would have ensured that silent prayer and consensual communication were not made illegal outside abortion clinics – unfortunately, this amendment did not pass, with MPs voting by 298 to 117 against it.