Dear Home Secretary,
I am writing to respond to your so-called consultation on ‘protests’ outside abortion clinics.
A consultation only in name
I am responding to this consultation by email as I believe that the online form is framed primarily to collect allegations and testimony against vigil attendees. It is not collecting substantiated evidence of wrongdoing. The ‘consultation’ is not framed to encourage a full response from the public about the merits and dangers of buffer zones. As such I believe this is not a proper consultation on the issue and I wish for such a view to be noted.
The title of the consultation itself suggests bias, and that the existing format is simply legitimising a pre-conceived conclusion. Besides, vigils have been branded as simply a ‘protest’ when in fact they are often a mixture of charitable outreach, expression of religious belief and the free assembly of citizens among many other things.
There have not been widespread calls for new powers from police or legal experts; instead, the consultation is the result of an effective BPAS lobbying effort, an organisation that would gain financially from the implementation of so-called ‘buffer zones’.
Moreover, a national consultation on the prospect of such a 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 Home Office itself.
Why buffer zones would be bad for society
In addition to the direct effect on women who rely on the help of vigils, I believe the implementation of national ‘buffer zones’ would be bad for society.
There are wide-ranging powers available for authorities to keep public order and protect the public from genuine harassment and intimidation. Such powers are already so wide-ranging and discretionary that civil rights campaigners have consistently criticised them.
Existing public order powers include local injunctions to prevent nuisance or distress, and include powers of arrest as well as criminal behaviour orders for problem individuals. There are wide powers to prosecute assault and harassment in the Criminal Justice Act 1998, Protection Against Harassment Act 1997 and in the Public Order Act 1986. The police also have powers of dispersal under the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2014 and the Public Order Act 1986.
Having noted the existence of such wide-ranging powers, it would be an unnecessarily draconian measure to institute ‘buffer zones’; this is especially the case given the lack of arrests, injunctions, and prosecutions of vigil attendees over decades of helping women.
Moreover, as civil rights groups have noted, the notion of ‘buffer zones’ is in direct contravention of the principle of ‘minimal criminalisation’. This principle holds that the state shouldn’t look to criminalise its citizens unnecessarily. I am deeply concerned that the state is looking to impose a ‘one size fits all’ approach to very particular circumstances all over the country. Furthermore, criminal charges should follow proven criminal behaviour, whereas ‘buffer zones’ risk criminalising thousands of citizens for otherwise legal actions.
So-called ‘buffer zones’ would violate many human rights 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 share information. Buffer zones would compromise the exercise of those rights.
‘Buffer zones’ would also be bad for democracy too. The right of free assembly of citizens, freedom of speech and the right to protest would all be violated by ‘buffer zones’. I agree with the judges in Handyside v UK: “Freedom of expression ... is applicable not only to "information" or "ideas" that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population. Such are the demands of that pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which there is no "democratic society".
I note that the government’s recent policy announcements on the danger of safe spaces at universities would be contradicted by the introduction of ‘buffer zones’.
In summary, I believe the proposal to introduce so-called buffer zones to be unconstitutional, bad for society, violating of human rights, damaging to charitable outreach and based on little or no substantiated evidence. I wholeheartedly reject the proposal to introduce ‘buffer zones’.