It’s another day, another roadblock on the M25. Ordinary people trying to get this country back on its feet are stopped from getting to work, urgent appointments, even hospitals, because of radical protestors supergluing themselves to roads. The Public Order Bill was introduced to deal with such scenarios.
But the immediate, daily pressure of civil disruption may have pushed this legislation through the House of Commons with worrying haste. Inconsistencies within the Bill reveal a society moving not towards democratic public order, but authoritarian censorship of minority views.
The most alarmingly disproportionate restrictions against the freedom to protest in the Bill aren’t targeted against ambulance-blockers but against people who hold pro-life views.
Clause 9 of the Bill goes so far as to criminalise “advising”, “influencing”, “informing”, or even just “expressing an opinion” outside an abortion facility, with a potential two-year prison penalty.
Harassment is completely inappropriate and unacceptable and no woman – or man – should be harassed at any stage of life. But this Bill now bans the mere expression of opinion.
As drafted, a parent, teacher, or social worker, could be criminalized for “advising” a confused teen within a clinic’s buffer zone or in their own home or school. Mere peaceful presence amounts to intimidation.
A Home Office Review in 2018 found that instances of harassment outside abortion facilities in our country are rare, and where they do occur, police already have the powers to respond appropriately. Pro-lifers mainly, it was found, engaged in silent prayer, or offered leaflets about charitable help for those wanting an alternative to abortion. The review concluded that national buffer zones would be a disproportionate infringement of civil liberties and this was affirmed by Home Office Minister Kit Malthouse as recently as June 2022.
There’s paltry evidence that pro-life groups are now harassing women when they offer crisis pregnancy support. Perhaps all that has changed is the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the USA, which brought abortion back into the purview of states’ legislatures and to the forefront of so-called culture wars.
On our shores it has redoubled efforts to silence real conversation. Pro-life opinions might not be widespread today but that’s no reason to target those who hold them with disproportionate bans. Indeed, it’s unpopular speech that needs most protection.
The ‘Buffer Zone’ clause does not protect access to abortion facilities – prohibiting access already breaches existing law. Rather it would, for the first time, ban involvement in a decision to access abortion facilities. It bans people holding certain views from advising in that process, offering information about alternatives, or even voicing an opinion. And it prohibits the decision-makers from hearing about all options available. The Bill would interfere with the process of thoughtful consideration.
At root, this clause represents state interference in matters of our hearts and minds.
To those who say this decision should be made without anyone’s influence, I would argue that this is unrealistic. From the moment a woman learns of her pregnancy she is under a barrage of influence from a pro-abortion culture. At an individual level her workplace may be unforgiving of career breaks, the father might have refused to take responsibility, and family members might be pushing her one way or another. This Clause will not and cannot ban influence, rather it would shut down awareness of other options.
Before removing fundamental freedoms of speech, protest, religion, and assembly, the Government should take time to investigate and report on what is actually happening outside abortion clinics, as they did in 2018. Harassment is completely unacceptable and, if a review proves that more powers are genuinely necessary, so be it. But when it comes to benign activities like prayer, the Government must remember its manifesto commitment to free expression. This is not a totalitarian state which locks up dissenting voice: we must get the balance right.