Proposals for buffer zones around abortion clinics backed by majority of MPs
MPs have supported proposals to introduce buffer zones around abortion clinics and hospitals in England and Wales.
The House of Commons voted 297 to 110, majority 187, in favour of an amendment to the Public Order Bill in a bid to offer greater protection to women by preventing protesters from gathering.
The move, pushed by a cross-party group of MPs, would introduce buffer zones around abortion clinics and hospitals where it would be an offence to interfere, intimidate or harass women accessing or people providing abortion services.
Those convicted could face up to six months in jail for a first offence or two years for further offences.
A buffer zone would apply to an area which is within 150 metres from any part of an abortion clinic or access point to any building or site that contains an abortion clinic.
MPs were given a free vote on the matter.
Clare Murphy, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), said in a statement: “Every year around 100,000 women are treated by a clinic or hospital for an abortion that is targeted by anti-abortion protests.
“These groups attempt to deter or prevent women from accessing abortion care by displaying graphic images of foetuses, calling women ‘murderers’, and hanging baby clothing around clinic entrances, causing women significant distress. Today’s vote will bring an end to this activity.”
Louise McCudden, MSI Reproductive Choices’ UK advocacy and public affairs adviser, said: “Today’s vote marks a huge victory for reproductive rights.”
Labour MP Stella Creasy (Walthamstow), who moved the amendment, earlier said the change would “not stop free speech on abortion”.
She told the Commons: “It simply says that you shouldn’t have a right to do that in the face of somebody – and very often these people are right up in front of people – at a point when they have made a decision.”
Ms Creasy added that 50 clinics have been targeted by protesters but only five have managed to get public spaces protection orders (PSPOs), designed to prevent specified things being done in a restricted area.
Senior Tory MP Sir Bernard Jenkin backed the change as he said the Government’s current policy meant “women should be harassed outside abortion clinics before” a protection order can be implemented.
But fellow Conservative Fiona Bruce said the buffer zone proposal has “grave implications, indeed threats, to freedom of thought, conscience, speech, belief and assembly”.
She said: “It has implications far more widely than on abortion alone. It potentially criminalises even those who simply peaceably stand near abortion clinics and who do so mainly on the basis of their faith-based beliefs.”
Although she acknowledged harassment and intimidation around abortion clinics “has to be addressed”, she said there are existing laws and “there have been relatively few if any reports of this”.
Conservative former minister Sir Edward Leigh said he would be unable to support the Public Order Bill with the buffer zone amendment.
The MP for Gainsborough told the Commons: “We’re talking about people who are just trying to raise awareness about support available… to women facing difficult pregnancies with nowhere else to turn to.
“We’re going to criminalise these grandmothers but so much of the Just Stop Oil people walk free.”
Sir Edward added: “There’s no need to change the law with this amendment. I would have supported this Bill but if new clause 11 gets included in this Bill I can no longer support this Bill and many pro-life MPs will be in the position I am.”
Home Office minister Jeremy Quin, who opposed the amendment, described new clause 11 as a “blunt instrument”.
He said: “Within those 150-metre buffer zones there could be houses, there could be churches, but this would be a national decision covering all clinics.
“It is entirely possible to support totally a woman’s right to an abortion and also view protests outside abortion clinics as abhorrent, while still believing that the current legislative framework provides an appropriate response.”
The Bill as a whole attempts to crack down on disruptive protests.
It includes a new offence of obstructing major transport networks, interfering with key national infrastructure – such as railways, roads and printing presses – and new powers for police to stop and search people to seize items intended for so-called locking-on.
Lock-on tactics have been repeatedly employed by groups such as Insulate Britain and Just Stop Oil, and include protesters gluing or otherwise attaching themselves to roads or other areas to cause disruption.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman accused opposition parties of being a “coalition of chaos”, adding: “It’s the Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati, dare I say, the anti-growth coalition that we have to thank for the disruption that we are seeing on our roads today.”
But shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper branded Ms Braverman’s words “astonishing”, adding: “The Home Secretary actually talked about a coalition of chaos, we can see it in front of us as we speak.”
MPs voted 283 votes to 234, majority 49, to give the Bill a third reading, with Conservative MPs David Davis, Sir Charles Walker and William Wragg rebelling to oppose it.
It will undergo further scrutiny in the House of Lords at a later date.
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