Lois McLatchie Miller is Senior Legal Communications Officer for ADF UK, a legal advocacy organisation that promotes freedom of speech.
One year ago, as the walls caved in on Liz Truss’s premiership, a rogue amendment was introduced into Parliament while nobody was looking. It was an amendment that would inflict immense damage on the social legacy of any Conservative government: an amendment to criminalise silent prayer.
Inserted into the Government’s Public Order Bill (now Act), the amendment introduced “buffer zones” outside abortion facilities across England and Wales. Within these zones, any form of “influence” will become a criminal act. What does this vague terminology capture? It’s anyone’s guess.
We can all agree that harassment against women must be criminal (it already is). Equally, we should all be able to agree that it is outside of the state’s remit to ban conversations between two consenting adults in a public space, or thoughts and prayers in any location. Yet the sweeping nature of “influence” could see citizens prosecuted for engaging in just that.
If Conservatives of today cannot even protect the inner sanctum of the mind, it’s possible we’ve lost our way a little about what we’re trying to conserve.
Where “buffer zones” already have been introduced by local councils, police have been snapping up opportunities to act. A viral video sparked international outrage last winter when Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, a charitable volunteer, was arrested following a confession that she “might be”, imperceptibly, praying in her head.
After a court vindicated her for committing no crime, she was arrested again in March for the same action – praying, silently, in the confines of her own mind, within the large area of the “buffer zone”. Six police officers attended the scene.
Vaughan-Spruce isn’t alone. Father Sean Gough, a Catholic priest, was criminally charged for praying silently within the zone with a sign reading “praying for free speech”. He was further charged for an old bumper sticker on his car reading “unborn lives matter”.
A father of an army veteran will also face court in November for having prayed silently about his own experience of abortion outside a clinic in Bournemouth. His back had been to the facility to avoid any impression of trying to engage with the service-users.
Arrests over silent prayer have an Orwellian stench. They assume the ability of police to pry into the mind, criminalising those who simply hold a contrary view to that of the state – in this instance, on abortion.
The Home Secretary, for her part, has paid ample lip service to protecting freedom of thought. In her letter to her police force published on Twitter, she reminded officers that “silent prayer, within itself, is not unlawful”, and that “holding lawful opinions, even if those opinions may offend others, is not a criminal offence.”
4 in 10 Brits believe police are more interested in ‘wokeness’ than catching criminals, according to a survey carried out by Public First. The trajectory of Suella Braverman’s desired legacy is clear: “More police. Less crime. Safer streets. Common sense policing.” A return to a focus on real crime.
But “buffer zone” laws undermine her words at every turn. They endorse ideological policing and waste needed resources on arresting harmless individuals for their thoughts. And the real-time chaos that has broken out on our streets in recent days makes the contrast between Braverman’s goals, and reality, all the more striking.
On Saturday, London swarmed with protesters inciting grave crimes against a minority group. Some waved the flags of Hamas, a terrorist organisation, just days following their well-documented rapes and murders of innocent civilians in Israel.
The violence has overflowed. A terrorist incident in Hartlepool earlier this week claimed the life of a 70-year-old man. A Jewish man in Glasgow was hit on the head with a steak knife and had his kippah (skullcap) cut in half, while in Nottingham “f*** the Jews” was scrawled on a supermarket wall in an act of vandalism. Minorities across the country have been subjected to a catastrophic rise in offenses against them based on their race or religion.
Jewish people, and other innocents caught up in the conflict, do not feel safe on our streets.
Yet numerous, tone-deaf, ideological activists this week have taken it upon themselves to call for swift police action against…the peaceful prayers of Christian pro-life volunteers.
As expected, B has taken a hardline stance against the street chaos on Twitter, warning that “the police are coming” for those who promoted genocide and glorified terrorism. But besides the abhorrent chants, real incidents of antisemitic violence are mounting.
If events continue to unfold as they do, this Government’s legacy will be one that was detrimentally tough on false-crimes, thought-crimes, and not-crimes, but unable to crack down on the glorification of antisemitic terror. A police force that sends six officers to arrest a silently praying Christian woman, but lacks resources to stop our streets from flooding with violence, is not one that reflects the values of a Western democratic society.
Talk is cheap. For a real return to common-sense policing, the Government must clarify what is a crime, and what it isn’t, and act accordingly.