Dear Council Leader Julian Bell, Deputy Leader Ranjit Dheer and the Ealing Safer Communities Team,
I am responding to this consultation by email as I believe that the online form is framed primarily to legitimise the censorship of vigil attendees. The council website itself says to "ensure your responses relate to the questions asked in the consultation" while also admitting that the purpose of the 'consultation' is to obtain "your opinion on the behaviours in the safe zone and how these may have had a detrimental effect on the quality of life of those who live, work in, or visit the area, as well as people using the clinic". I do not consider this to be a full or neutral consultation on the issue, and I wish for this opinion to be noted.
The consultation is open to abuse from people who ideologically object to the presence of pro-life groups outside of Clinic as it does not require any substantive proof to be submitted along with the responses. Therefore, I am very concerned that the council will be unable to discern fact from fiction when reviewing the responses to the consultation.
Furthermore, the wording on the consultation page suggests a pre-existing bias, and that the exercise is simply legitimising a preconceived conclusion. In categorically stating that there has been harassment, the council risks slandering its own residents. Without proof, this is damaging rhetoric from a body that should maintain neutrality on such issues and act solely on verifiable, concrete evidence.
The consultation would appear to be the result of an effective lobbying effort by the largest abortion provider in the country; BPAS. BPAS stand to gain financially from the implementation of so-called ‘buffer zones’ across the country, and it is concerning to note that the council has not acknowledged this reality in its consultation documentation.
Moreover, a consultation on the implementation of such a costly, draconian imposition that bans citizens from everyday activities should be the result of a proven ‘problem’, including substantiated evidence of criminal behaviour. I have not seen this evidence presented by campaigners, nor by the council itself in its report.
Below, I wish to address some of the specific consultation questions:
Please tell us to what extent you agree or disagree with each of these proposed prohibitions, and also state the reasons for your response.
People protesting, namely engaging in any act of approval/disapproval or attempted act of approval/disapproval, with respect to issues related to abortion services, by any means, including, without limitation, graphic, verbal or written means, and including, for the avoidance of doubt, prayer or counselling
The vigils are not ‘protests’. They are vigils. They include prayer for the good of all, including facility staff, the offer of practical help for women, and the free exchange of ideas. Nobody I know who attends vigils considers it to be a 'protest'.
I wholeheartedly disagree with a restriction on any citizen ‘engaging in any act of approval/disapproval’. It is ill-defined and too broad. For example: a mother would be prevented from having an open discussion with her daughter about having an abortion that day. Or a member of the public, having seen a young woman being pressured into going into the facility by an abusive man, would be prevented from expressing ‘disapproval’. More broadly, a complete ban on expressing a pro-life worldview would effectively censor a widely-held opinion from the public square. This restriction is patently ridiculous, unjustifiably broad, and unnecessarily restrictive.
Banning counselling in particular would actively remove help that is offered at the point where it is needed most by vulnerable women. To do so would leave many women facing a coerced abortion without a lifeline. Banning charitable assistance from parts of the borough constitutes unacceptable authoritarian overreach that could only be justified in the most extraordinary of circumstances.
Banning any signage in the area, including signs that might say, 'Pregnant? Need help?' would constitute a disproportionate attack on freedom of expression and the right to receive information. It would damage our democracy by removing free speech from the pavement at the place where it is most relevant.
Lastly, to ban prayer would remove a fundamental right from residents and visitors, including women visitors to the facility who ask for others to pray with them. Once again, this ban is both disproportionate and too vaguely-worded to be considered anything but authoritarian overreach.
Interfering, or attempting to interfere, whether verbally or physically, with a service user or member of staff of the Clinic
I totally disagree with this proposed prohibition. It is so vague that it could mean almost anything, and as such it has no place in a public order criminalising behaviour. It should be made abundantly clear to the public which particular behaviours are unacceptable and why.
Intimidating or harassing, or attempting to intimidate or harass, a service user or a member of staff of the Clinic
Nobody supports genuine harassment or intimidation. When such behaviour does occur, it should be dealt with under the existing provisions in law on a case-by-case basis, referring to concrete evidence to prove an offence. I would like to note here that pro-life vigils do not 'harass' outside of the Mattock Lane Clinic, as is clearly demonstrated by the absence of police arrests and/or prosecutions over two decades in Ealing.
Recording or photographing a service user or member of staff of the Clinic whilst they are in the Safe Zone
Pro-life vigils do not photograph facility users or employees. However, if a criminal offence is being committed against a member of a vigil, it is entirely reasonable to take photographic or video evidence of this. Once again, a vague, blanket ban on such activity is unworkable in practice. If there are genuine issues with a person unlawfully recording facility users or a members of staff, it should be dealt with under the existing provisions in law.
Displaying any text or images relating directly or indirectly to the termination of pregnancy
I totally disagree with this proposed prohibition, as it would constitute a direct attack on the freedom to speak and the freedom to receive information. It is unclear on what 'indirectly' means in this context, and leaves it open to subjective interpretation. This is brazen public censorship.
Playing or using amplified music, voice or audio recordings
I disagree with this proposed prohibition. Nobody supports loud, amplified music and pro-life vigils do not use these means. However, what justifies removing the right of local citizens to use voice or audio recordings played at a reasonable level?
...the restrictions that would apply in the proposed Safe Zone
I totally disagree with this proposed prohibition. This PSPO would violate multiple human rights and fundamental freedoms all at once. The Human Rights Act 1998 guarantees the ability of all people to practise freedom of public assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom to receive information. The so-called 'Safe Zone' is in fact a censorship zone which would unjustifiably interfere with the lawful exercise of these rights.
Within the Safe Zone, we propose that an area is provided for people to congregate, impart information, and engage in peaceful prayer or protest, from either the Pro-life or Pro-choice standpoint. This would allow clinic users who wish to do so, to approach the represented groups for advice or support. This is identified on the map as the green-shaded area outlined with a green boundary and labelled ‘Designated Area’.
However, the following restrictions will still apply in the Designated Area. Please tell us to what extent you agree or disagree with each of these proposed restrictions, and also state the reasons for your response.
A person shall not be part of a group or groups which together total four or more persons at any one time
I absolutely disagree with the proposed restriction as it violates the right of free assembly.
No individual poster, text or image, singularly or collectively greater that one sheet of A3 paper may be displayed within the designated space
I absolutely disagree with the proposed restriction as it violates the right to freedom of expression and the right to receive information.
A person within the Designated Area must not play or use amplified music, voice or audio recordings.
I absolutely disagree with the proposed restriction. As noted above, the playing of an audio recording at a reasonable level should not be banned without a specific reasons being provided. This constitutes a clear attack on freedom of speech.
Towards addressing the behaviours identified in this consultation, to what extent do you agree or disagree with...
...the scope of the proposed Designated Area
I would like to object to this flawed idea of a ‘Designated Area’ in principle. If this PSPO is a response to genuine instances of harassment and intimidation, such behaviour is entirely unacceptable and should not be permitted anywhere in the borough, let alone near the Clinic. However, it is clear from the patent lack of evidence that a PSPO is entirely unnecessary, and that this ‘Designated Area’ has been introduced in an attempt make the measure seem more proportionate. The fact that the council has resorted straight to a PSPO before attempting to utilise other, less draconian alternatives shows that the council is acting unreasonably and without due regard to all the interests at stake.
...the restrictions that would apply in the proposed Designated Area
I totally disagree with the further restrictions that would apply within the proposed ‘Designated Area’. The restrictions within the ‘Designated Area’ are further censorship within a censorship zone. Again, the premise behind the ‘Designated Area’ is poorly thought through and in fact makes a mockery of the behaviours that the council have cited as inherently 'distressing'. The council is saying on one hand that prayer or religious images distress women and should be banned within the 'Safe Zone', and yet on the other that they are explicitly allowing for such behaviours within that very ‘Safe Zone’. Either behaviours are unacceptable or they are not. The reality is that vigils are peaceful, quietly prayerful occasions where practical help is offered to women.
If you have any other views/ suggestions on how best to address the behaviours mentioned in this consultation, please state them in the space below.
It would be far more proportionate to charge specific individuals with crimes that can be proven to have been committed. The law allows police significant discretion to use powers against those seen to be harassing others. Where there are ‘problem’ individuals in the borough, the council can use wide-ranging powers already available to ban these individuals from specific areas, or ban the activities that cause genuine trouble. Banning all residents from the activities outlined in the draft PSPO would be extraordinarily draconian and entirely disproportionate. I am unaware of the council or the police using other, more appropriate and targeted powers prior to the proposal of the PSPO.
I believe that the PSPO in Ealing will only displace the ‘issue’ and is thus the wrong tool to deal with any perceived ‘problem’. Pro-life vigil attendees will still witness to their beliefs outside the PSPO area, and if such witness is distressing to the point of needing a PSPO, the council will need to ban such activities from the entire borough by logical extension. A PSPO will not remove vigils from the borough, but will make them less accessible to women who need the help that is offered.
Do you think the proposed restrictions in the Safe Zone may unfairly impact on your day-to-day activities?
Yes. The proposed PSPO is inherently unfair as it makes otherwise peaceful, legal, reasonable and often charitable activity, criminal.
Do you think the proposed restrictions may have an impact, either positive or negative, on any group of people with a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010?
Yes, at least two groups of people with protected characteristics will be negatively affected; those wishing to practice their religion and pregnant women.
The proposals will clearly have a detrimental effect on those who wish to pray in public, as such behaviour would be criminalised in the ‘Safe Zone’. The proposals will also completely remove support and assistance available for pregnant women at the gate of the Clinic.
In summary, I believe the proposal to introduce a PSPO to be draconian, bad for society, in breach of fundamental human rights, damaging to charitable outreach and largely based on spurious allegations. I wholeheartedly reject the proposal to introduce a PSPO.