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Public consultation: Abortion clinic safe access zones: non-statutory guidance

Advocacy  •  11 January 2024  • 7 min read

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Read the consultation details here: Abortion clinic safe access zones: non-statutory guidance – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

Read the Home Office guidance here.

The deadline for responding is 22 January 2024.

To view MSI Reproductive Choices UK’s full consultation response, click here. This was produced in collaboration with women’s rights lawyer Polly Jackman.

You can respond online (Abortion clinic safe access zones: non-statutory guidance – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) by email (sazconsultationinbox@homeoffice.gov.uk) or by post (SAZ Consultation Police Powers Unit 6th Floor, Fry Building, 2 Marsham Street, London, SW1P 4DF).

More details are available, including about accessibility requirements on the Home Office website.

What is the public consultation on abortion clinic safe access zones?

Last year, Parliament voted for Section 9 of the Public Order Act, to establish Safe Access Zones around clinics or hospitals that provide abortion services to protect women and providers from anti-choice protestors and harassment.

As a result, Safe Access Zones were signed into law last May, but despite support from Parliamentarians across all major parties in both Houses, and from 77% of the British public, the commencement of Safe Access Zones was delayed by the Home Office, with no update on the timeline for over six months.

The government has now announced that Safe Access Zones should be in place by the spring. and they have published their proposed non-statutory guidance on how the new legislation should be implemented.

The government is putting this guidance out to public consultation, inviting views from stakeholders and the wider public about how they would like to see Safe Access Zones enforced. The government has now announced that before Safe Access Zones are established there will be guidance for implementation published, and that this guidance will be put out for consultation. We encourage you to share your views with the government using the details below.

Our view on the guidance

MSI Reproductive Choices UK welcomes this long-awaited first step to implement Safe Access Zones, which were voted into law over six months ago. However, the proposed guidance as currently drafted is disappointing and, in places, deeply concerning.

Section 9 of the Public Order Act was passed by Parliament with cross-party support. The intention of Parliament was clear: that women and others entering abortion clinics (for example, frontline healthcare workers) should be protected from fear of harassment, alarm, and distress, and from those who seek to influence them or obstruct their access to healthcare. Alternative solutions to the problem of abortion clinic harassment have been explored and found unworkable, disproportionate, or both. The legislation was amended to make sure it was aligned with the similar legislation in Northern Ireland which had been found legally compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights by the UK Supreme Court.

As drafted, the guidance published by the Home Office undermines the intention of Parliament and the objectives of the legislation. The guidance does not reflect Section 9 of the Public Order Act, does not provide adequate detail in key areas, is contradictory, and appears to be in conflict with legal precedent in various judgements from the High Court, the Court of Appeal, and the UK Supreme Court. In some instances, far from providing clarity, this guidance will cause legal and operational confusion.

We are particularly concerned about:

  • The implication that anti-abortion activity imposed upon those entering a clinic is ever “consensual” and that this can ever be reasonably determined.
  • The assertion that “informing” or “offering help” and “discussion” outside clinics would ever be “consensual” in any meaningful sense, or that a reasonable person could conclude the intention of such behaviour is not to influence.
  • The assertion that so-called “silent prayer” has special protections under the Human Rights Act 1998 and that this could be a reasonable exception to Safe Access Zones.
  • The recommendation that abortion providers and hospitals produce, establish, and maintain signage, without details regarding how this would be enforced, resourced, or co-ordinated.
  • The impractical high threshold for enforcing Safe Access Zones, especially the emphasis on proving intention.

This guidance was drafted without engaging with abortion providers. While we appreciate the government moving forward with this essential legislation, the current draft includes many fundamental misunderstandings about the nature of anti-abortion harassment, the purpose of the legislation, and the reasons for its necessity. The guidance does not fully implement the will of Parliament or realise its intention when Section 9 of the Public Order Act 2023 was passed. We encourage Parliamentarians, including the MPs and Peers who developed this legislation and the Home Affairs Select Committee, to hold the government to account over its implementation process, its intentions, and its adherence to the spirit of the law.

We encourage the Home Office to consider evidence submissions from providers, health experts, women’s rights groups and, of course, from women themselves with great care and to re-evaluate its approach so that we can see evidence of its commitment to protecting women and girls.

Responding to the consultation

We encourage you to respond to the consultation with your own views, in your own words, as this will be more powerful than a standard template response. Personal experiences and insights will be important evidence for the Home Office in considering how to implement this critical legislation.

You don’t need to answer every question and short, simple responses are still very useful.

The guidance is structured in eight sections. The consultation document goes through each section and asks whether the respondent agrees a) that the section is clear and b) that the section accurately reflects the Safe Access Zone legislation debated and voted for by Parliament (Section 9 of the Public Order Act). This is followed by space to explain your answer.

In our response, we said that:

  • none of the sections are sufficiently clear and easy to understand
  • none of the sections accurately reflect the Section 9 (of the Public Order Act) offence.

In explaining your answers, please draw upon personal experiences. This might include experiences with anti-abortion groups, with accessing or working in healthcare, with harassment, with gender-based violence, with protest, or with the police. You may also want to consider some of the points that MSI Reproductive Choices UK made in our own submission, which has been produced in collaboration with Polly Jackman, a women’s rights lawyer.

You don’t need to answer every question or give detailed responses.

If you agree that no-one should face harassment when accessing healthcare, let the Home Office know why you feel the proposed guidance does not reflect the legislation that Parliament passed.

If you have questions please contact louise.mccudden@msichoices.org.


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