Georgia L Gilholy is a Young Voices UK contributor.
On Wednesday, Liz Truss rounded up a chaotic party conference by informing delegates that Conservatism is “about a belief in freedom.”
While this skin-deep claim ignores so many other essential pillars of Britain’s Tory tradition, there remain elements of our permissive society that urgently require an injection of liberty.
The overzealous Online Safety Bill has already faced widespread criticism that may behove its altering, but it is high time MPs reconsider the Public Order Bill’s plans to overhaul the limits on in-person interactions.
Dr Rupa Huq, an MP recently suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party following her racist remarks about the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is once again seeking to hijack the already problematic Bill in an attempt to revive her long-running campaign to prevent peaceful demonstrations outside abortion facilities.
Sadly the Northern Ireland Assembly already approved such laws back in March, while Holyrood will soon face a similar choice. Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs) already mandate censorship around clinics in several local authorities in England, including in Huq’s West London constituency.
Legal NGO Justice warns that the Public Order Bill itself would risk putting England and Wales neck and neck with Vladimir Putin’s regime in its ability to restrict protests “carte blanche”. Surely ramping up this Bill’s already draconian proposals against pro-life demonstrators in particular will render hollow our government’s consistent claims to oppose the “appalling” tactics of the Russian regime?
Dr Huq’s amendment proposes installing a 150-metre “buffer zone”, the size of 1.5 football pitches, around abortion facilities, within which even silent prayer or holding a banner may carry a two-year custodial sentence.
While those in favour of such oppressive limits of free expression often cite concerns of harassment and violence, they conveniently ignore the existing laws that proscribe such behaviour.
However, the law would plainly overstep genuine harassment or violence, with Dr Huq herself slamming the overall Public Order Bill as “illiberal legislation on public order and regulating protest.” She argued that the Bill “goes for the eye-catching and draconian, such as creating the offence of locking on”, which is so vaguely defined that “it could apply to people linking arms.”
Yet Huq seems keen to criminalise such behaviour if those who oppose abortion participate in it.
It follows the decades-long trend, criticised by Lord Sumption, in which demands are made for controversial political issues to be translated into questions of law for the courts rather than matters of personal discretion or genuine political debate. The move toward legalising every corner of life undermines community accountability, politicises justice, and paves the way for legally elevating fashionable causes above others.
If pro-choice activists genuinely think the displaying of banners, distribution of leaflets, holding of prayer vigils, and even the offering of help by pro-life activists endanger women’s “safety”, surely they will not fear further campaigns to ban the public expressions of such opinions outright?
This law does not just seek to restrict the political realm, but the person. Imagine I am a mother walking into an abortion clinic with my daughter. I may feel that for various reasons my daughter, who I probably know very well, is making the wrong decision in seeking an abortion and that she will come to regret it. Or maybe I am offering her help that could influence whether she decides to continue with the pregnancy.
According to Dr Huq, parents seeking to have a conversation with their own child might be just as guilty of an offence as someone who has violated ordinary harassment laws, simply because they may question whether an abortion is the best decision.
The supporters of this campaign cannot provide evidence that their constraints would be proportionate, necessary and justifiable because there is none. MPs across the House must come out against this unfair attack on free thought that risks embittering activists and individuals on both sides of this sensitive ethical question.