On 22nd November 2022, the House of Lords debated the Public Order Bill in the second day of the committee stage. The Bishop of Manchester spoke regarding two sets of amendments: firstly, in support of amendments to Clause 9, pertaining to access issues around abortion providers, and secondly in opposition to clauses remaining in the bill which would grant excessive police powers, particularly regarding the right to protest.
The Lord Bishop of Manchester: I rise to address Amendments 85 to 88, 90 and 92, to which my right reverend friend the Bishop of St Albans has added his name. He regrets that he is unable to be in his place today. I also have sympathy with a number of other amendments in this group.
It is a heated and emotive debate on this clause, and it was heated and emotive when it was added in the other place. The danger is that we get dragged into debates about whether abortion is morally right or wrong. Indeed, I have had plenty of emails over the past few days, as I am sure other noble Lords have, tending in that direction. As it happens, I take the view that the present law on abortion strikes a reasonable balance; in particular, it respects the consciences of women faced, sometimes with very little support, with making deeply difficult decisions.
Moreover, history teaches us that the alternative to legal abortion is not no abortion but illegal abortion, with all the evils that brings in its train. Others, including people of my own and other faiths, may disagree with me on either side but that is not the focus of your Lordships’ deliberations this afternoon. Rather, as the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, reminded us, we are seeking to weigh the rights of women to access legal health services alongside the rights of others to seek peacefully to engage, persuade or simply pray.
However much we may disagree with the causes and tactics of those protesting, we need to remember that in a democracy not everything that is unpleasant should in consequence be made illegal. Harassment and abuse of the kinds to which the noble Baronesses, Lady Fox and Lady Sugg, and others have alluded must be condemned in the strongest possible terms. The use of legislation, including on harassment, to confront inappropriate behaviour is absolutely legitimate, but it already exists. If such behaviour is becoming more widespread, let us see the police and local authorities use those current powers more extensively so that they can create a safe and respectful atmosphere for vulnerable women.
I understand that no one has ever demonstrated that widespread abuse is prevalent or that new powers are necessary. At the least, we need clear research, as the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, proposes, to underpin such extensive new measures. In line with other provisions of this Bill, many of which we have already discussed, there is a need for the Government and police to take proportionate action while maintaining the strongest possible safeguards for freedom of speech, expression and assembly. Those are at the core of our nationhood. I do not think that Clause 9, as drafted, takes that proportionate approach.
I respect the views of those noble Lords who take a harder line against abortion and the many who reject the position from a more liberal standpoint. However, I cannot accept that it is desirable to legislate against expression of opinion on the matter or providing advice and guidance, even if one is in one’s own home or a place of worship. I cannot believe or accept that seeking to provide information could be met with a six-month prison sentence. I believe Amendments 88, 89 and 90 would help set a better balance on these provisions around freedom of speech. They would leave those things that are genuinely egregious in the clause and extract those things that are not.
Amendment 85 clarifies that Clause 9 cannot apply within an area
“wholly occupied by a building which is in regular use as a place of worship”.
Again, I do not expect or demand that religious positions on abortion are respected any more than others, but I worry that a minister of a religion holding views that are mainstream within his or her faith tradition—and are demonstrably legal to hold—could be barred under this legislation from expressing that view within their own place of worship.
Viscount Hailsham (Con): I have some difficulty in understanding the thinking behind this amendment. If a sermon was being preached in a church or mosque, which is what we are being asked to contemplate, that sermon would not in any way impact on the person visiting the abortion clinic some distance away.
The Lord Bishop of Manchester: I thank the noble Viscount for his intervention. As the noble Lord, Lord Beith, said a few minutes ago, you might have a poster outside the church, mosque or temple saying that you are having a particular event on a particular day. It appears that would be caught by this legislation, but let us have the matter clarified by Ministers.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, and others for their principled note that good powers must protect those who hold views with which you disagree or even find deplorable. Abortion is contested and emotive. I do not dispute that, as a result, there may on occasion be actions and levels of disruption that fail the test of Christian or any other charity. I deplore it when that happens.
However, there is a point of principle here going far beyond matters of abortion. Clause 9 is so broad and non-discriminate in its approach that it sets unfortunate precedents. I have real concerns that if we pass this clause into law in anything like its present wide form, we will see demands arise for exclusion zones, buffer zones or whatever they may be called in all manner of other locations and for all manner of purposes. I will listen with care to the rest of this debate, but I urge further concern in the approach to this part of the Bill. I hope Ministers will reflect on this and bring back some revised wording at a later stage.
Extracts from the speeches that followed:
Baroness Hoey (Non Afl): Briefly, on Amendments 98 and 99 in the name of noble Lord, Lord Farmer, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, identified well that Clause 9’s fundamental deficiency is that it introduces wide-ranging law changes, which would set significant precedents in other areas of the public realm, without demonstrating evidence that such a change is needed based on empirical evidence. The noble Lord has spoken of stepping back and reviewing, and I think he is right. Surely the only responsible course of action for the Minister and the Government is to properly consult on these proposals before introducing such sweeping and, I believe, reckless changes to the law.
The amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, would give the Secretary of State powers to introduce buffer zones around clinics only after a thorough consultation process has taken place and determined that there has been a significant change in the nature of protest since the last review, which took place only in 2018. I remind noble Lords that we have had two years of a pandemic and lockdowns since that review. As we have heard from many other noble Lords, at the time of that review the Home Office found that buffer zones would be disproportionate. At the very least, it is incumbent on Ministers to consult on what has changed since 2018 before introducing sweeping changes to the law in the way that Clause 9 will legislate for; that is very similar to what the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, said.
We do not need this whole Clause 9. However, if we are going to have it, no matter how supportive some Members of this House are of a woman’s right to choose, I believe that this is just not the way to go. In the long term, it will really affect freedom of speech and civil liberties in this country.
Viscount Hailsham (Con): Amendment 85 is in the names of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester and my friend the noble Lord, Lord Beith. I almost always agree with him but on this occasion I am bound to say that I think he is wrong. With the exception of the point he made about the poster outside the church, I have very great difficulty in seeing anything that could be said within the church that could interfere with somebody seeking access to an abortion clinic, save for that which has been addressed by Amendment 97, in the name of my noble friend Lady Sugg.
As to the penalties provided in Clause 9(4), I am much more relaxed and would not seek to argue against some amelioration of the sentences set out in the Bill. In general, I think that Clause 9 is a proportionate response to a very serious mischief, and I hope that we will not water it down substantially.
Baroness Barker (LD): My Lords, I made an extensive speech at Second Reading so I shall confine myself to just a few points of reflection on the debate today. First, the rest of the Bill is about protest; this is about the harassment of people seeking a legal health service to which they are entitled, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester reminded us. There are those of us who believe that women have the right to access those services freely and safely. Our amendments try to ensure that this whole clause addresses just that and, indeed, narrows it down. There are those who do not believe that such a service should exist or that people should be able to access it. They have very much exaggerated what this clause is about and its potential implementation. The noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, said in her introduction that all the evidence is that this activity does not stop access. I have no knowledge of any such evidence, and she did not give us any, but I have to ask: if it is not effective, why do people continue to do it, day after day?
Lord Paddick (LD): There are other places and other times when those opposed to abortion can make their views known and can seek to influence others. If freedom of speech is to be protected at all times and in all places, why are only noble Lords allowed to speak in this debate? Advise and persuade someone not to have an abortion all you like—for example, by talking to the providers of abortion services to ensure that they include “pro-life” choices in clinics—but do not do so when someone has decided to go to an abortion clinic and is about to enter.
Similar arguments apply to Amendment 92 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, supported by the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey. Amendments 98 and 99, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, and supported by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, helpfully point out the Home Office review conducted in 2018, which many noble Lords have quoted. It concluded that buffer zones would be disproportionate, which is at least helpful in understanding the Government’s reluctance to support this clause, as it might be portrayed as yet another U-turn.
Even if “passive activities” is not a contradiction in terms, passive activity can leave patients distressed and cause some to rebook their appointments and not to follow medical advice in order to avoid protesters.
Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con, Minister of State): It is obviously clear—today’s debate makes it even clearer—that there are very strong views on both sides of the argument. Many noble Lords want the clause to become law, and many want to alter or to delay it. Amendments 80 to 97—tabled by the noble Baronesses, Lady Hoey, Lady Fox, Lady Watkins, Lady Barker and Lady Hamwee, my noble friend Lady Sugg, the noble Lords, Lord Ponsonby and Lord Beith, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans—all seek to make an array of changes to Clause 9, be that by raising the threshold for the new offence or by seeking to clarify the clause in some way.
Amendments 98 and 99 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, seek to introduce buffer zones pending the outcome of
“a consultation … to determine if there has been significant change in”
protests “outside abortion clinics since” the Government’s last review. Amendments 87 to 93 look to ensure that only activities relating to abortion services within a buffer zone constitute an offence, while Amendments 88, 96 and 97 seek to ensure that activities within private dwellings and places of worship are exempt. Amendments 80 to 82 seek to provide a person within a buffer zone with the opportunity to defend their actions and
“to strengthen the burden of proof required to establish an offence.”
As I said before, I thank all noble Lords for their interest and ideas to amend the existing clause in its current form, particularly their well-intentioned attempts to tighten what was described in the other place by the Minister as a “blunt instrument”. It remains the Government’s view, based on legal advice, that this amendment does not meet our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights and would require a Section 19(1)(b) statement to be provided. That said, after having been brief, I am now even more keen to meet noble Lords in the coming days, and I encourage them to meet me so that we may discuss the next steps for the clause. For now, I invite noble Lords not to press their amendments.
Amendment 80 withdrawn.
Amendments 80A to 98 not moved.
Clause 9 agreed.
Amendment 99 not moved.
The Lord Bishop of Manchester: My Lords, first, I declare my interest as co-chair of the National Police Ethics Committee for England and Wales, though I am speaking on my own behalf. I want to focus my remarks on the amendment opposing the question that Clause 12 stand part of the Bill, to which I am a signatory, but also on those opposing the questions that Clauses 10, 11, 13 and 14 stand part of the Bill. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for the way they have introduced this debate.
It is deeply concerning that the Bill seeks to extend suspicion-less stop and search powers to the context of protest. If brought forward, such measures would open a Pandora’s box for the further misuse of such powers that have in many contexts caused trauma, both physically and mentally, particularly to those in marginalised communities. The proposers of these clauses may have in mind the current environmental protesters, who appear, somewhat unusually, to include a large proportion of those from white, middle-class backgrounds, notably one of my own clergy. But history tells us that such powers, after a short time, are almost invariably and disproportionately used against minorities, especially ethnic minorities.
I would not be involved with the police in the way that I am if I was not passionate that our forces should gain and hold the confidence and respect of all sections of our society. But I know all too well how fragile that respect and confidence are. Police powers that are not grounded in suspicion create suspicion, and they create suspicion in those parts of society, as the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, has so eloquently indicated, where we can least afford it.
We must note when considering the Bill’s creation of a new stop and search power in relation to specified lists of protest offences that there is—as has been referred to—no agreed position among police forces that such a power is either necessary or wanted. When you add to this the fact that the definition of “prohibited objects” is so broad—the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, has referred to bike locks, but it could be posters, placards, fliers or banners—I am not sure about jam sandwiches, but I suspect it fits in somewhere; all could become suspect. How would the police ascertain that such objects were in fact for use at a protest? There are lots of legitimate reasons why you have household objects with you. The Joint Committee on Human Rights states:
“A suspicion of such an offence, even a reasonable one, in the course of a protest represents an unjustifiably low threshold for a power to require a person to submit to a search.”
There are serious risks here for people’s ability and willingness to exercise rights that are fundamental in a democratic society.
The Bill attempts to address what it refers to as “public nuisance”. But its scope is too broad—arguably, any form of protest risks “public nuisance”. Indeed, in these very halls of Parliament, four suffragettes chained themselves to statues to bring attention to their demands for votes for women; we must ask ourselves whether our contemporary context allows space for similarly important issues to be protested on. As things stand, these clauses risk a disproportionate interference with people’s Article 8, 10 and 11 rights as set out in the Human Rights Act.
This country has long prided itself on being a democracy, this Parliament is at the heart of that, and one of our duties is to ensure that the rights and freedoms necessary to such a system of governance are not undermined. Those rights and freedoms include the right to peaceful protest. Therefore, should these provisions remain at a future stage, I will vote to oppose the questions that Clauses 10 to 14 stand part of the Bill.
Lord Coaker (Lab): My Lords, I rise to speak to the clause stand part amendments in my name. In doing so, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester for their supportive remarks and the views that they have expressed, which I very much support.
Stop and search can be a frightening experience; it can be intrusive and intimidating. There are real concerns, as the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, outlined, about disproportionality, and a point that nobody has yet made is that it can be used against children, worries which matter so much in any democracy.
I am going to spend a few minutes going through this. The Chamber is not packed, but a lot of noble Lords will read our deliberations in Hansard, and this is one of the most important parts of the debate in Committee that we are going to have, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester outlined.
Despite these concerns, Parliament has given police the power to stop and search with suspicion for items such as offensive weapons, illegal drugs and stolen property. In its recent report, the Joint Committee on Human Rights accepted that stop and search with reasonable suspicion was appropriate in certain circumstances. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, are arguing through their Clause 10 stand part notice, is it right that these stop and search powers should be extended to peaceful protest? For example, new paragraph (g) inserted by Clause 10—I urge noble Lords to reread that clause—extends stop and search powers to an offence of
“intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance”,
when we know how wide the scope of “causing public nuisance” can be. Can the Minister explain what, in the Government’s view,
“intentionally or recklessly causing a public nuisance”
actually means? We would be passing this in new paragraph (g).
By creating a risk of causing serious inconvenience or serious annoyance through your actions in the course of a protest, or preparation for or travel to a protest, you would have to submit to a search under the Bill. How would an officer know my intention? Extending the stop and search powers to cover searches for articles connected with protest-related offences risks encounters between the public and the police where there is little or no justification. Does the Minister agree with that? People on their way to protests, marches, rallies or demonstrations are at risk of being searched in case they are equipped to commit one of those offences—or so the police believe.
Lord Paddick (LD): My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have participated in this debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, questioned the area in which suspicionless stop and search could be operated. Marches that occur in central London traditionally start at Marble Arch, go down Park Lane and sometimes through Oxford Street and Regent Street. The number of people who could be subject to suspicionless stop and search as the result of that sort of demonstration is mind boggling.
In his real-world experience as adviser to the police on these issues, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester talked about these powers being invariably used disproportionately. The Minister has said nothing to reassure the Committee that the powers will not be used disproportionately, with the damage that will be caused to the reputation, trust and confidence in the police.
The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, made the valid point that the powers can be used against children. Public nuisance is such a wide offence. I also raised the offence of being present in a tunnel. How can someone go equipped to be present in a tunnel? There was no answer about that.
Before this, there were two elements to suspicionless stop and search. The Minister talked about Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which is to do with serious violence. The other was Section 44 of the Terrorism Act, which the Conservative Government repealed because it was being used disproportionately. The Government withdrew suspicionless stop and search in relation to terrorism because they considered that its impact on trust and confidence in the police was disproportionately negative. It does not exist any more in relation to terrorism, but this Government want to introduce it in relation to people exercising their lawful right to protest.