This country has a proud history of allowing free speech but the right to peaceful protest does not extend to harassment or threatening behaviour. The law already provides protection against harassment and intimidation, and the police have a range of powers to manage protests. Like all members of the public, protesters are subject to the law and suspected criminal offences must be robustly investigated and dealt with by the police.
Following concerns about the tactics of protestors outside some abortion clinics, a review was instigated by Government in 2018. This review revealed that anti-abortion demonstrations take place outside a small number of facilities. In 2017 for example, 363 hospitals and clinics in England and Wales carried out abortions. Of those, 36 hospitals and clinics experienced anti-abortion demonstrations. With this in mind, I support the Government’s assessment that introducing national buffer zones would not be an appropriate response given the experiences of the majority of hospitals and clinics.
The Government has, however, taken steps through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act to give police the powers they need to better manage protests, enabling them to balance the rights of protesters against the rights of others to go about their daily business. It is also the case that Public Spaces Protection Orders have been implemented successfully to restrict harmful anti-abortion protests in Ealing, Richmond and Manchester.
It is for these reasons that I do not think New Clause 1 to the Public Order Bill is necessary, but I am assured that the Home Office continues to welcome any new evidence on this importance and sensitive issue, as this matter is kept under review.