Despite a recent act of parliament creating safe zones of 150 metres around abortion clinics in England and Wales, the home secretary has this week issued draft guidance which undermines key aspects of the law, seemingly on the advice of right wing think-tank Policy Exchange.
Intimidation of women at abortion clinics
Over the past few years the presence of individuals and groups holding ‘vigils’, distributing false information such as abortion possibly causing breast cancer, and hovering on street corners in silent prayer, has increased.
This activity reflects less the views of the majority of the British public, a record 76% of whom support the rights of women to choose for themselves, than religious groups funded by American counterparts such as 40DaysForLife, March for Life and the Alliance Defending Freedom. The latter has been designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Centre since 2016, and was instrumental in the repeal of Roe vs Wade in the US.
Cunning legal remedy to protect women
In response to this increasing intimidation of women, Stella Creasy MP tabled an amendment to the public order bill which was making its way through parliament.
This bill, originally intended to build on previous legislation to curb protests by groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil, introduced new offences and expanded the criminalisation of certain types of protest, including clauses to protect property and to “restrict inference with the use or operation of any key national infrastructure in England and Wales”.
Creasy’s creative amendment to this act to include the harassment of women outside abortion clinics in the legislation, if voted in, could be used to protect women, and not just the fossil fuel industry, against disruptive protest.
MPs voted 297 to 110 in favour of the amendment. It became clause 9 of the Public Order Act 2023 and was signed into law in May 2023 introducing safe zones around abortion clinics. The clause ensures that “interference with any person’s decision to access, provide, or facilitate the provision of abortion services within the 150 zone is an offence”.
The police can now enforce these zones and there is a penalty for law breakers of an unlimited fine.
Cleverly attempts to spike clause 9 for abortion clinics
Despite being law since May 2023, clause 9 has yet to come into effect as government guidance notes have, until this week, not been issued, and communication with clinics, which have faced ramped up intimidation tactics since the law passed, has been strangely lacking.
Finally, the Home Office non-statutory guidance notes were published this week.
The notes advise police that the “offence would require more than mere mention of abortion or the provision of information” going on to say that “prayer should not automatically be seen as unlawful” as it’s protected under the Human Rights Act. It stresses that silent prayer should not be an offence “under any circumstances”.
This last point is especially concerning given that MPs specifically voted down Lords amendments attempting to allow silent prayer outside abortion clinics.
This draft guidance therefore undermines the expressed wishes of parliament and dilutes the protective intentions of the clause.
It is highly concerning that post legislation guidance notes can contradict the law itself and go against the essence of a recently and democratically passed act of parliament.
Policy Exchange = policy change
Whilst clause 9 of the act has been watered down, clause 7 of the same act was used for the first time just last month to sentence a 57-year-old father of three to six months in prison just for taking part in a Just Stop Oil peaceful slow march.
In June of last year, Rishi Sunak credited right wing think-tank Policy Exchange with co-drafting Priti Patel’s Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts Act 2022.
The American branch of this organisation, The American Friends of Policy Exchange, funds the UK wing and in 2017 received donations from ExxonMobil.
Policy Exchange then went on to produce a report which inspired the 2022 act, significantly restricting the right to protest in the UK particularly in regard to anti-fossil fuel protests.
The public order bill 2023 was proposed to build on this and that’s when Creasy took the opportunity to table her amendment.
In the interim between the amendment being voted for and the act becoming law, Policy Exchange produced a document with some advice to the government concerning Creasy’s clause 9.
Despite clause 7 imprisoning peaceful protesters, the document produced by Policy Exchange titled ‘Amending the Public Order Act’ describes clause 9 as “draconian” with “sweeping limitations on freedoms of speech, assembly and religion”.
They recommended that clause 9 should be amended to “limit its scope to threats, intimidation and harassment” and Cleverly has sought to oblige, even if it has meant defying democracy.
Answering the prayers of protesters
However, in doing so, he may have opened a useful little loophole for campaigners who are facing increasingly harsh consequences for their actions.
As Cleverly advises that silent prayer should not be an offence “under any circumstances”, creative protesters can now focus their minds on finding interesting ways to test this assertion.
The Lord surely works in mysterious ways.
The Home Office is currently consulting on these new non-statutory guidelines for safe zones around abortion clinics