Ealing LBC has become the first council to implement a public spaces protection order (PSPO) preventing protests outside an abortion clinic.
The council voted unanimously in favour of a “safe zone” outside the Marie Stopes clinic on Mattock Lane, London, after receiving the largest number of responses to a public consultation it has ever received.
Ealing’s leader Julian Bell (Lab) said: “I’m, personally, a practising Christian myself and so I think it’s important to recognise that this is about protecting women from harassment and intimidation. We’ve always been clear that that’s what this was about. It wasn’t a debate for or against abortion.”
The council reported receiving 2,181 online survey responses, as well as more than 1,500 emails and letters, before the consultation closed on March 26. Only 30 of those respondents reported holding pro-life views.
The council’s community safety team recommended the introduction of a safe zone in a report presented to council. The council voted at a full meeting on 10 October last year to “take all necessary actions within its powers… to prevent anti-abortion protesters from intimidating and harassing women”.
London mayor Sadiq Khan (Lab) said in a tweet after the vote: “I welcome this move from Ealing Council. I respect the right to peaceful protest, but behaviour that seeks to deliberately target women for harassment and intimidation should not be tolerated.”
According to the council’s guidelines, the PSPO will allow the council to act against “specified activities” according to section 59 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014.
Supporters of the anti-abortion campaigners claimed before the council meeting, however, that a PSPO would represent a “clear breach of the vigil participants’ right to free speech and freedom of religion”.
Tonight Labour-run #Ealing Council's Cabinet unanimously agrees UK's first #SafeZone around @MarieStopesUK clinic to protect staff and users from intimidation and harassment. More info at: https://t.co/NL2eucL5KF #EalingMakesHistory #BackOff #safezone #Ealinghour #BufferZone pic.twitter.com/qu6o7bCGlB— Ealing Labour (@EalingLabour) April 10, 2018
Alithea Williams, a spokesperson for the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), said: “The very wording of the council’s consultation presupposes that harassment is taking place, and there was nothing to stop ideological opponents of the vigils making submissions without substantive proof. The whole process has been designed from the start to ban a vigil that has been taking place without incident for over 20 years.”
Gary Malcolm (Lib Dem) disagreed with this statement at the meeting on Tuesday saying there was a “blind spot” as the protesters did not recognise that they are “overstepping the mark”.
Cllr Malcolm said: “[They are] standing at the entrance of the clinic, displaying images of foetuses and harassing women from leaving the clinic - but when you talk to the pro-life groups, they often say that that doesn’t happen. I’ve observed it myself and when you confront them on that they say ‘that shouldn’t happen’.”
Local MP Rupa Huq (Lab), who has previously called for a “national and permanent response” to harassment outside abortion clinics, said: “Tonight’s decision is not about the length of time or number of weeks to set limits or any of that but rather keeping women safe who have decided to go through with that process.”