During a debate on amendments to the Public Order Bill on 30th January 2023, the Bishop of Manchester expressed concerns regarding amendments to clause 9 of the bill:
Clause 9: Offence of interference with access to or provision of abortion services.
The Lord Bishop of Manchester: My Lords, in Committee I shared my concerns about Clause 9 as it then stood. I am grateful for conversations that have taken place since. I particularly thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Sugg and Lady Barker. The latter has listened patiently and sympathetically to me and my friends on these Benches at some length.
My concerns regarding Clause 9 had nothing to do with the moral merits or otherwise of abortion; they lie in my passion to see upheld the rights of citizens of this land, both to receive healthcare and to protest. Women must be able to access lawful medical interventions without facing distressing confrontations, directed at them personally, when they are identifiable by their proximity to the clinic or hospital. At the same time, anyone who wishes to protest in general about abortion law must be able to do so lawfully, with the least restriction on where and when they may do so.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Morrissey, for the proposals she sets out in Amendments 41 to 43, which build on the Australian example. Were they the only amendments put forward, they would have my support. However, what we now have in Amendment 45 is, I believe, something that strikes a more exact balance. It meets human rights requirements and contains sensible limits. It has widespread support and is, I believe, more likely to survive scrutiny in the other place. If it is moved, I intend to support it.
I accept the remarks of the Supreme Court regarding the necessity of proposed new paragraph (a) on influencing, but I have two brief questions on that matter on which I seek clarification. Much has been made in religious circles about whether silent prayer would be criminalised by this clause. We have heard it again tonight. As noble Lords might expect, I believe in the power of prayer, so I want to clarify on the record that the act of praying is not in itself deemed an attempt at influence, given that when I pray, I am trying to ask God perhaps to change the heart of a third party.
My second and rather less metaphysical question is intended to clarify that influence works both ways. Would a coercive and controlling partner, or ex-partner, determined that a reluctant woman should go ahead with an abortion and accompanying her against her wishes, be as guilty of the same offence as an anti-abortion campaigner?
Finally, I cannot support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Farmer. It would remove safe zones from this Bill without providing any obvious parliamentary process for us to re-engage with the issue in a timely manner.
Extracts from the speeches that followed:
Lord Hogan-Howe (CB): As I mentioned earlier in my question, I do not really think these are protests. Where there is not an order in place, the people protesting are directly outside the entrance or exit of these buildings, directly approaching the women who are going to seek a service. This is not about trying to convince the Government. It must be the least effective form of protest if it is trying to influence the Government. People in here are saying they did not even know there was a problem—so how can it possibly be that that has been an effective form of protest? I am afraid that is not really a sound argument.
If that is the best place where somebody can seek to influence someone, there is already a law saying that when someone is seeking abortion services, they should seek advice about other options. If they need financial support, adoption or any of the other things that might help somebody in these terrible circumstances—the dilemmas that I sure they must face—the law says they are entitled to that support from the medical advisers and from other people who will help them. The least effective way, surely, has to be shouting across the street or handing out a leaflet at the point where somebody is trying to get treatment and already has a dilemma. I cannot see that that is a sensible way to address the particular problem that we are talking about.
It seems that this gets worse at certain times of the year. More protesters turn up at abortion clinics during Lent. Why should women who have to go during the Lent period have to face more pressure than the women who go at a different period? That is someone else’s view.
I want to address the point about prayer. I think we all understand why prayer is particularly sensitive. Of course nobody wants to ban it, but not everybody finds prayer a supportive thing. I say this with respect to the bishop and as a Christian, but not everybody reacts in the same way. You cannot assume that a prayer expressed on the street is something that everybody wants to receive, and in my view they have every right to resist, or not to be faced with that dilemma. We have to keep that in mind too.
The only final thing I would like to say is that we have talked about behaviour in very general terms, but some of it has been abhorrent: handing out dolls in various stages of development, handing out protest leaflets that are very explicit on what people are complaining about, and judging people at a point when they have a very difficult decision to make. I say finally that this chanting carries on can be heard in the clinics—it is very obvious when you think about it, but I had not until the weekend. At the point at which women are receiving treatment, they can hear this chanting and hymn singing outside. Would you like it, in any medical treatment? It is just not acceptable and something needs to be done.
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