The Marie Stopes clinic in Ealing provides legal NHS abortions. It is on a busy road which borders a park. There is a prep school and an amateur theatre on the road, and two stations on either side of it, so a lot of people walk by. In recent years, it has become impassable because of ‘pro-life’ protesters outside the the clinic, who proposition women on their way in and out with distressing imagery. For the past two years, Sister Supporter, a counter-protest group, has been added to the mix. I am cheered to see those young women in their pink hi-vis tabards, because at a time when we are told that young people are not interested in politics, they are a shining counter-example of what people can do if they get active.
I find it uncomfortable to go down that street. I take my son to a theatre group there, and when he says, “Mummy, who are those people? What do they want? What are they doing?” it is difficult to explain. I would rather none of those groups be there, because it is the women clinic users who are made to feel degraded. It is perhaps the most difficult decision those women have to make, and then they have moral guilt heaped on them.
Ealing council passed a motion to prevent harassment outside the clinic, which has been going on for 23 years. Women have been subject to intimidation in what are called ‘vigils’, told they will be haunted by the ghost of their baby and presented with misleading faux-medical leaflets. In the age of social media, activity has been ramped up. Women are Facebook live-streamed as they come and go from clinics. Those actions cross a line. They are not about changing the law. That is not protest but harassment.
Local police have told me that public order legislation is insufficient to do anything about what they describe as a stand-off between the two groups. Sister Supporters would completely agree that they should not have to be there. If the first part of the problem went away, they would, too.
At my office in Acton, a group called Abort67 unfurled huge graphic images of dismembered foetuses, so speaking out against abuse invites abuse. Parents complained to me because there are two primary schools in the vicinity of our office and they did not want to walk their kids past all that.
There is a sense that things cannot go on as they are. It is unsustainable. The evidence pack that Sister Supporter has compiled includes statements from residents, photographic evidence, video transcripts and the leaflets that have been distributed by the pro-life lobby, which includes groups such as Abort67, the Good Counsel Network and 40 Days for Life. Their claims have been meticulously fact-checked, and they have been found to be lying.
I went to the other side of the barrage to speak to people at Marie Stopes Ealing. The clinic logs every incident. Comments such as “God will punish you” are made to users. People have been grabbed, their entrance has been prevented and they have been called “murderer”. The plastic foetus dolls are wildly inaccurate. The groups use graphic images designed to shock, and teddy bears – pink for a girl and blue for a boy.
Abortion has been legal in this country for 50 years. With the help of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, I compiled a letter signed by 112 other MPs from five different parties, including four party leaders. It called on the Government to take action. This is not simply an Ealing issue. It happens in Portsmouth, Doncaster and many other places. It is one of the few issues that has united MPs such as Jeremy Corbyn and Zac Goldsmith. Anyone who has a clinic in their constituency is supportive of the letter, because they know what goes on.
Make no mistake: the protesters are implacably opposed to abortion under any circumstances. Their tactics are emotive. As an illustration of the cross-party support for this issue, when the motion came to Ealing Council, every one of the 61 counsellors present, representing three parties, supported it, and just two abstained. There was a reassuring degree of unanimity. Two Conservatives, who are medics – one a vet, the other a GP – and who fought me tooth and nail in the general election, pointed out that their anatomy classes have told them that the foetus drawings and the dolls are completely wrong, and ditto the bogus science in the information leaflets thrust into people’s hands. The mistruths include the description of how developed the foetus is at 24 weeks and the statement that women get breast cancer as a result of an abortion, which is completely unproven.
I get the point about public protest. We have a long and honourable tradition of many legislative changes coming about through protest by people such as the suffragettes … If the Ealing protesters really want to make a point through public protest, surely they should stage it here at Parliament where there are 650 legislators, or at the town hall or somewhere similar. Harassment is not protest; it is unacceptable. Buffer zones are needed to stop the gendered intimidation that is going on. I am calling for a durable and lasting solution, because the Ealing idea only goes so far. It is being talked about as a test case, but it must be more than that; it should be the start of a national answer to the problem.
The Home Office identifies three pieces of legislation that cover harassment and intimidation outside clinics, but each of them has gaps and problems; there are grey areas. The Public Order Act 1986 covers words or images that are “threatening, abusive or insulting”, or people behaving in such a way as to cause “harassment, alarm or distress”, but it does not apply to every case or individual, and does not account for the stress or the coercion of women into non-attendance; women have been found to be simply delaying the decision and having to come back another day when the protestors are not there. That Act is wanting.
The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 allows dispersal of individuals causing harm or distress, but only for 48 hours. If that had to be done every 48 hours over 23 years, there would be a total of 4,198 police actions. That Act is also unsatisfactory.
A public spaces protection order, as proposed by Ealing Council, is more of a local byelaw used against antisocial behaviour, to move on street drinkers or drug dealers. Again, it is temporary and applies only to a certain number of streets. Imaginative use has been made of the order, and I salute Councillors Aysha Raza and Julian Bell, the council leader: they introduced a PSPO as a last resort to stop the 23-year campaign of harassment, but doing so was a long process. All the evidence had to be gathered, such as videos, clinic logs and testimony, through several years of work by committed volunteers, such as those from Sister Supporter, who would not take a ‘no’ from central Government. We can do better.
My local police have said they cannot wait for the PSPO to address the gaps in their powers, but they foresee problems. The pro-life people are often well endowed – from America, we believe – and have said that when the order is implemented they will stage mass incursions and mount legal challenges. Furthermore, sections 12 and 14 of the Public Order Act have quite a high threshold to demonstrate “serious” damage or disruption and violence.
After the council decision, I went with Sister Supporter to Mattock Lane. Many expected some kind of overnight change, but it had not happened because we are at the stage of the eight-week statutory consultation. There were six police who said to me that they would rather be doing other stuff than guarding women who should be able to go about their legal business in safety. The police recognised the physical and emotional trauma suffered by the women, and said they would rather be dealing with shoplifting on the high street, engaging with young people on estates or carrying out weapon sweeps.
The police want the protests moved away from the venue so that the “angst” would not be there and so that they would not be policing the two sides from “coming to blows”. They also raised the issue of better funding and resourcing: in the words of that beat officer, “It is difficult to pull your boots on if you don’t feel supported and appreciated.”
Ealing has been talked about as a test case, yet local government has suffered in the past 10 years. Ealing council has had a cut of £168 million – half its operating budget—since 2010. Everyone is trying to do more and more with less and less. That is why we need a national solution at a time of unprecedented austerity in local government.
The Home Office eagerly awaits the outcome of Ealing’s action, but the extensive work to get to the council motion – working around antisocial behaviour legislation – hould not be the norm. We should not be forced to rely on good Samaritans such as Sister Supporter and grassroots campaigners. It should be the job of Government to protect our citizens from gendered harassment – that is what these protests are.
Rupa Huq is shadow Home Office minister for crime and prevention. This is an edited extract from a Westminster Hall debate.