As Parliament will be aware, concerns were raised with my predecessor about the tactics of some of the protest activities taking place outside abortion clinics in England and Wales. In response, she ordered an in-depth assessment to understand the scale and nature of the protests and to establish if more needs to be done to protect those requiring an abortion.
Understandably, there has been a significant level of interest in this review. The Home Office published a call for evidence in January this year and received over 2,500 responses. These came from a range of interested parties, including abortion service providers, abortion service clients, those engaging in anti-abortion demonstrations, police forces and local authorities. The review explored the existing laws to protect people from harassment and intimidation. It also considered the experiences of other countries in addressing problems relating to anti-abortion activities outside clinics and hospitals.
The review gathered upsetting examples of harassment and the damaging impact this behaviour has had on individuals. This behaviour can leave patients distressed and has caused some to rebook their appointments and not follow medical advice in order to avoid the protestors. In some of these cases, protest activities can involve handing out model foetuses, displaying graphic images, following people, blocking their paths and even assaulting them. However, what is clear from the evidence we gathered is that these activities are not the norm, and predominantly, anti-abortion activities are more passive in nature. The main activities reported to us that take place during protests include praying, displaying banners and handing out leaflets. There were relatively few reports of the more aggressive activities described above. Nevertheless, I recognise that all anti-abortion activities can have an adverse effect, and I would like to extend my sympathies to those going through this extremely difficult and personal process.
Through the review, we also found that anti-abortion demonstrations take place outside a small number of abortion facilities. In 2017, there were 363 hospitals and clinics in England and Wales that carried out abortions. Through the review, we found that 36 hospitals and clinics have experienced anti-abortion demonstrations.
Having considered the evidence of the review, I have therefore reached the conclusion that introducing national buffer zones would not be a proportionate response, considering the experiences of the majority of hospitals and clinics, and considering that the majority of activities are more passive in nature.
In making my decision, I am also aware that legislation already exists to restrict protest activities that cause harm to others. For example, under the Public Order Act 1986, it is an offence to display images or words that may cause harassment, alarm or distress. This Act also gives the police powers to impose conditions on a static demonstration if they believe it may result in serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community or if the purpose of the assembly is to intimidate others. There are also offences under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 when someone pursues a course of conduct which they know will amount to the harassment of another person.
Civil legislation also exists and can be used to restrict harmful protest activities. We have seen evidence that such legislation has been effective. Ealing Council recently introduced a Public Spaces Protection Order under the Antisocial Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 to restrict anti-abortion demonstrations. The Government will publish information on the current legal remedies that are available in tackling intimidation and harassment.
In this country, it is a long-standing tradition that people are free to gather together and to demonstrate their views. This is something to be rightly proud of. However, it is vital that how views are demonstrated is carried out within the law, and never more so than on such an issue that can have such a personal impact on individuals. This Government is absolutely clear that no-one should feel harassed or intimidated simply for exercising their legal right to pregnancy advice and abortion services, and I am adamant that where a crime is committed, the police have the powers to act so that people feel protected.
Where protesters are breaking the law, we will do all we can to ensure those people are brought to justice and for support to be provided to victims. I am asking the police to work closely with abortion service providers, offering advice on public safety and security, as well as helping to ensure that all incidents of intimidation and harassment are recorded and appropriate action taken. The police will also continue to actively engage in community discussions in areas facing heightened tensions.
We want to ensure that all those who are affected are properly supported. Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) have a role to play with their responsibility for commissioning victim support services. This year, the Government has allocated £68m to PCCs to locally commission or provide support services for victims of crime. I am asking PCCs to ensure that services are available and accessible to those affected by crimes that are committed during abortion clinic protests, regardless of whether the crimes have been reported to the police.
We are engaging with the Welsh Government on the outcome of the review.
While the evidence today suggests that national buffer zones would not be a proportionate response, I will keep this important matter under review.
I thank Members across this House for their engagement on this issue.
This statement has also been made in the House of Lords