So-called ‘buffer zones’ illustrate why politicians must protect freedom of speech

Parliamentarians should take notice of legislation that proposes a worse cure than the disease.

Often, we think of the Public Order Bill in the context of eco-warriors supergluing themselves to the M25 or to frames of portraits in the National Gallery or, closer to home, around the Speaker’s chair in Parliament. These events cause serious disruption to civil life and to people’s businesses, and rightly should be outlawed.

It is frustrating and disappointing then that Rupa Huq MP has capitalised on the desirable aims of the Public Order Bill to table an undesirable amendment, seeking to criminalise much more innocent – and lawful – activities. To complicate things further, Stella Creasy MP has now become the amendment’s sponsor at the eleventh hour.

Her amendment would introduce ‘buffer’ zones around abortion clinics which target peaceful demonstrators. She wants to make it illegal to interfere with the decision to access or give an abortion if someone is within 150 metres of an abortion clinic. The amendment defines “interferes with” so broadly it applies to those merely expressing an opinion or attempting to inform someone about abortion services.


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It is also problematic that the buffer zone extends beyond property visible to the public. Conversations about abortion in your garden (if the buffer zone is present) could be prosecuted.

As a Parliamentarian, I have three major concerns about this proposal.

First, laws exist to protect women from harassment at abortion clinics. If vigils and offers of support exceed the threshold of harassing or disruptive behaviour, police can issue Public Space Protection Orders and power under the Local Government Act 1972, Public Order Act 1987, Protection from Harassment Act 1996, and Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 Additionally, the Police, Crimes, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 – which became law in April – allows police to intervene when demonstrations create a serious disruption.

Secondly, the amendment is poorly drafted, and so risks extending the criminal law’s reach where such laws should not tread. As I mentioned earlier, the amendment could make it illegal to express an opinion outside of an abortion clinic or have conversations between neighbors who live in the buffer area. If they are visible, will doctors who live in the buffer area be charged with having a conversation about abortion on their driveway? What of midwifery colleges located in the buffer zone – could they be criminalised for teaching students about the merits and risks of abortion? People who pray peacefully could be sentenced to prison, while those who are obnoxious could go free.

It doesn’t distinguish between harm-causing and non-harmful activities. This is an important distinction because the harsh force of criminal law should never be used lightly or in an inappropriate way. Are we really willing to criminalize people we disagree with?

The buffer zone is not the only one that is arbitrary. As Rupa Huq herself conceded in the Committee Stage debate on this issue, “The distance need not be 150 metres. We just took that distance from Ealing[‘s censorship zone], because that is where the main road is…”. This blanket ban ignores the unique circumstances of every clinic and what would constitute a proportionate answer in each case.

It is also opposed to other provisions in the Public Order Bill that do not prohibit protest activities.

Finally, the amendment carries serious – and unintended – implications for freedom of speech. We pride ourselves on Britain’s longstanding tradition of liberalism and openness which necessitates the ability to challenge ideas, debate controversial opinions, and engage in protests. This tradition is not supported by criminalizing such activities, and it is unjustifiable in a free society.

These (and other) reasons have led successive Home Secretaries to believe that buffer zones are an overreaction to mainly passive activities, especially since the police already have the power to protect the public safety and curtail any protest activities that cause harm to others.

Doctors swear the Hippocratic Affirmation. They promise to do no harm. The amendment should be voted against by parliamentarians who should administer that medicine in public life.

 

Scott Benton, Conservative MP for Blackpool South is Scott Benton.