Ealing Council launched a public consultation on its proposed PSPO outside a Marie Stopes abortion clinic. The draft PSPO would prevent all pro-life gatherings and vigils in the vicinity of the clinic. Here is a summary of our response to the consultation below.
Dear Ealing Council
We have grave reservations about your planned PSPO, and believe that it is not justified under existing Statutory Guidance.
We visited the site for several hours, and found the protests to be respectful and calm, and not disruptive or harassing. There was one vigil member by the gate, who offered a leaflet to women entering the clinic, and two elderly women praying several meters away. We believe that this is the normal set-up during the week. The women entering the clinic who did not want a leaflet said ‘no’, or just ignored the protester, and they were not pressured. We saw no evidence of any significant detrimental effect on the quality of life in the neighbourhood, in terms of noise or blocking the pathway.
Inasmuch as there are incidents of harassment, such as the display of offensive imagery, the use of offensive language, or obstruction, these appear to be a matter of certain individuals, rather than the habitual practice of the main groups present. These incidents should already be covered under the criminal law (including the Public Order Act offence of causing harassment, alarm and distress). Where there is evidence, these incidents should be documented and prosecuted.
The planned PSPO would prevent all pro-life groups from approaching women entering the clinic. The main group concerned claims that hundreds of women attending the clinic have accepted their support, which suggests that their presence is not entirely unwelcome for all those attending the clinic.
The current images on display show the foetus at various developmental stages. These do not appear to be designed to alarm or distress. The image in the council briefing which is offensive (of a dead foetus), is held by a particular member of a group that attends for a few hours a month. The lady in question is also shown without this image, so it may have been a one-off incident. It may be more appropriate that this individual should be prosecuted, for this incident, rather than criminalising the display of imagery as a whole.
The council’s proposed ‘Designated Area’ (in which vigils would be permitted) is so far from the clinic that it would not perform the stated function of allowing women visiting the clinic to approach the pro-life groups. For example, women visiting the clinic from Ealing Tube station would not pass the designated area. It therefore does not work as an alternative to the present arrangement.
The goverment’s new Statutory Guidance imposes stricter conditions on the circumstances in which a PSPO can be lawfully issued. Specifically, the guidance states:
‘the council should give due regard to issues of proportionality: is the restriction proposed proportionate to the specific harm or nuisance that is being caused? Councils should ensure that the restrictions being introduced are reasonable and will prevent or reduce the detrimental effect continuing, occurring or recurring. In addition, councils should ensure that the Order is appropriately worded so that it targets the specific behaviour or activity that is causing nuisance or harm and thereby having a detrimental impact on others’ quality of life.’
The activity of silent prayer, or offering leaflets, could not reasonably be seen as ‘causing nuisance or harm’. It is important to make a distinction between genuinely harmful activities, and activities that are unwelcome or which people find annoying. The current PSPO does not make this distinction. Therefore, it is our view that the PSPO as it is currently worded is not justified under the existing powers.
Read on: See also our opinion piece, ‘Against the abortion clinic PSPOs’