Two-tier policing?

If the Government caves in on its buffer zone guidance, it will be mandating two-tier policing

Artillery Row

There are few factors as important for public order as confidence in the police. Members of the public are able to desist from taking matters into their own hands when confronted with criminality precisely because they trust the state to act on their behalf without fear or favour. However, we must not take this for granted. If people lose trust in the police’s willingness or ability to police with impartiality, there is a danger of civil unrest. It is thus vital the Government ensures the police not only conduct themselves without prejudice but are seen to do so. Recent protests in London on Saturdays have demonstrated already how frayed people’s trust in the police not to be “two-tier” has become.

The true litmus test for police impartiality comes in its response to minority groups who may be unfashionable, and therefore ‘soft’ targets for an uncompromising response, but who nonetheless have the same rights as the rest of us. One such group is those pro-life campaigners who are so disturbed by what they perceive to be the greatest human rights scandal of our age that they sometimes gather close to abortion clinics to express their support for the rights of the unborn.

Of course, these campaigners are a far cry from those pro-Hamas protestors who gather similarly outside the Israeli embassy or Foreign Office to object, often in an aggressive and intimidating manner, to Israeli or FCDO policy. As the Government’s own review of abortion clinic ‘protests’ in 2018 found, few involve genuine harassment and, where they do, sufficient laws already exist to deal with such unacceptable behaviour. No, these peaceful gatherings more often involve activities such as praying silently or peacefully offering practical help to women who may wish to continue their pregnancy but, under coercion or through financial hardship, feel unable to do so.

In late 2022 and early 2023, a vocal group of MPs successfully hijacked the Government’s Public Order Bill to introduce ‘buffer zones’ around abortion clinics in order to prevent people with pro-life views from “influencing” a woman’s decision to access abortion services or causing distress to those who choose to do so. This was a controversial measure that will leave peaceful pro-life volunteers facing greater restrictions than groups such as ‘Just Stop Oil’ for whom the Bill was intended. However, the word “influencing” is subjective and so the Home Office has sensibly taken its time to draw up non-statutory guidance concerning the implementation of these zones. It published a draft version before Christmas.

For those of us concerned about free speech and equality before the law, the guidance is not perfect. For one thing, it ought to ensure the law is applied equally so that, within buffer zones, abortion clinics and abortion supporters are themselves not able to influence pregnant women, who may be unsure about their decision, to go ahead with an abortion. This is no mere theoretical question. In 2018, Walsall Integrated Sexual Health Services was criticised for displaying an NHS poster that, next to images of heels and lipstick on the one hand and a baby’s dummy on the other, asked the question ‘Would you swap this for this?’ The poster conveyed the impression that motherhood was a form of drudgery to be avoided. Surely such posters, if displayed outside abortion clinics, could influence women far more than the offer of practical help in case a woman wished to keep her baby? The law must be applied consistently.

However, overall, the guidance rightly seeks to balance Section 9 of the Public Order Act with human rights laws that allow freedom of expression, assembly and conscience. To give one example, the draft guidance states “The Government expects the police to follow the College of Policing’s wider guidance on managing protests when policing activities outside abortion clinics and hospitals”. This is manifestly sensible – time and again, attempted prosecutions of pro-life volunteers outside abortion clinics have failed; in bringing charges, police have failed to duly balance human rights with local Public Spaces Protection Orders. Pro-life campaigners should not be subject to more rigorous policing than anyone else.

And yet, the abortion lobby is unhappy with this nuanced guidance, pressuring the Home Secretary to toughen it up so rights afforded to Hamas’ cheerleaders will not be permitted to those who will not conform to its shibboleths. At a time when this same lobby is waging a major campaign that would de facto permit women to perform their own abortions up to birth via an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill, there is a suspicion that the abortion industry wants not merely to prevent harassment, as they claim, but to silence all opposition to its increasingly extreme objectives.

In its response to the draft guidance, leading abortion provider Marie Stopes International bizarrely disputes that “‘offering help’ and ‘discussion’ outside clinics would ever be ‘consensual’” despite countless testimonies of grateful women who have been enabled to keep their babies because of such help. It also objects to proposed protections for silent prayer, a requirement to erect signage to demarcate buffer zones (but how else will the public know where they may pray or freely express their views?) and the “emphasis on proving intention” in the guidance (seemingly Marie Stopes would prefer a legal system with a presumption of ‘guilty until proven innocent’).

The question now is whether the Home Office will cave in to the illiberal protests of the abortion lobby and clamp down on a soft target much easier to suppress than the anti-semites on the streets of London who, ironically, are following in the footsteps of the anti-semitism of one Marie Stopes herself. If the buffer zone guidance is toughened up to deny those with pro-life views the freedoms granted to far more sinister groups, the Government will be mandating two-tier policing and signalling to the public that you can protest against the fate of babies in Gaza but not those in the womb here at home.

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