The Times – More scrutiny needed over power to ban prayers

 In Be Here For Me

Ealing council in London will consider implementing a public spaces protection order (PSPO) this evening that will make it a criminal offence to pray outside the Marie Stopes clinic on Mattock Lane. More generally, the order will make it a crime to engage in “any act of approval/disapproval or attempted act of approval/disapproval, with respect to issues related to abortion services, by any means”.

The wording used by the council is so expansive that it covers even private conversations between family members on the topic of abortion. And for good measure, the same order is set to criminalise “playing or using amplified music, voice or audio recordings”. No listening to your voicemail messages on speakerphone then, or you might just get nicked.

Surprisingly, it is easy for a council to criminalise this kind of unquestionably legal behaviour. While PSPOs have not received much attention since their introduction in 2014 to tackle anti-social behaviour, some councils have started to deploy them in intriguing ways.

Richmond used an order to criminalise riding bicycles in a manner that would “give reasonable grounds for annoyance”, among many other things. Another London borough council, Hillingdon, used an order to make it a criminal offence simply to gather in groups of two or more “unless going to or from a parked vehicle or waiting for a scheduled bus at a designated bus stop” in Hayes town centre.

All councils have to do to implement a PSPO is satisfy themselves that a fairly straightforward two-stage requirement is met. The first stage asks whether the activities in question have a “detrimental effect” on the quality of life – which could mean just about anything – and the second essentially asks whether it is reasonable and proportionate to bring in the measure. And of course, no council would ever consider acting unreasonably.

PSPOs have been on the radar of civil liberty groups for some time as they are seen as ripe for abuse. The concern has become more acute as they seem to be increasingly aimed at “cleaning up the streets” rather than dealing with anti-social behaviour. Windsor caused a stir recently when it said it would use a PSPO to clear the town centre before the forthcoming royal wedding. But as the legislation provides only a narrow route to challenge the orders in court, councils have been shielded from any real scrutiny.

The proposed PSPO in Ealing is the result of a co-ordinated campaign to ban any pro-life protest from outside the clinic. However, Ealing council may well have gone too far with this PSPO. Along with criminalising prayer about abortion, it will also prevent charities from offering support to pregnant women who want to continue with their pregnancy. And it is likely to result in a legal challenge in which the High Court would consider the PSPO regime for the first time.

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