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February 26, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – Another London council has entered into the current British debate around abortion and freedom of speech. Last year, Ealing Council became the first in the United Kingdom to ban, among other things, prayer outside an abortion center. Now Richmond Council has followed suit. 

Ealing Council banned pro-life witness outside an abortion facility via a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO). On 7 February 2019, in another even more broadly worded PSPO, Richmond Council criminalized any form of interaction with staff or visitors to a local British Pregnancy Advice Service (BPAS) abortion facility.

Richmond Council’s Regulatory Committee voted to introduce the PSPO despite grave concerns being raised by Liberty and other civil liberty organizations concerned at the implications for freedom of speech and assembly in the provisions of the order. At the very least, many see these PSPOs as being too broad and too vague to ever render them proportionate. For example, the PSPO makes it a criminal offense to make any offer of help to women near the center, and bans “directed” prayer and counseling outside it – whatever that might mean. 

Furthermore, individuals participating in the pro-life vigil have been accused of “harassing” and “intimidating” women outside this BPAS clinic.  In correspondence with the pro-life charity Good Counsel Network, however, Richmond Council could not substantiate these allegations made against vigil members. The council admitted that investigating council officers had only observed peaceful activities, such as the handing out of leaflets, prayer and the display of placards. In 2014, local police were forced to withdraw a threat to disperse the pro-life vigil using public order legislation precisely due to the lack of any evidence to what was being alleged against the vigil.

Richmond Council has sought to justify the PSPO on the basis of a local consultation result. Yet, concerns have already been raised about that process. These include the framing of the consultation questions, as well as a misinformed representation and, therefore, a subsequent misunderstanding of the actions of vigil members. There is also the troubling decision to exclude over 1,000 responses to the council’s consultation coming from supporters of the pro-life group Be Here For Me.

Elizabeth Howard, spokeswoman for the Be Here For Me campaign said: “It is shocking to see how Richmond has acted on allegation rather than evidence in bringing in this censorship zone…Harassment and intimidation is never acceptable outside abortion centers, and thankfully the council and police have wide powers to deal with any problematic behavior. However, expelling pro-life vigil members at the behest of noisy activist groups in the absence of clear justification is extremely damaging for our society”.

This latest development in Richmond comes only weeks after England’s Court of Appeal announced that it would be reviewing the PSPO that Ealing Council introduced outside of the Marie Stopes abortion facility last year. Despite this ongoing legal challenge, Richmond council’s PSPO is almost identical in wording to the Ealing one.

Last September, despite pressure from pro-abortion lobby groups, British Home Secretary Sajid Javid declined to introduce national “buffer zones”. In doing so, he pointed out that there is already a wide range of existing powers available to local authorities. In addition, police have the power to deal with any criminal behavior outside abortion centers. 

Many perceive the problem with PSPOs is that they shift the question of any perceived criminality to a vague notion of “detrimental effect” and, by so doing, has effectively prohibited a broad range of perfectly legal and even charitable behaviors. As was the case in Ealing, it is worth noting that not a single prosecution has been brought against anyone for peacefully witnessing in Richmond.

A crowdfunding appeal to cover the costs of the current legal challenge against Ealing Council’s PSPO has raised over £50,000. Richmond Council has anticipated that any legal challenge to this latest PSPO could cost the council taxpayer around £100,000. Interestingly, Richmond Council lost a challenge to another and equally controversial PSPO that would have criminalized local dog walkers if their dogs so much as urinated whilst out on a walk.

Ealing and Richmond Councils have both spent time and locally raised taxes to push through these ill-thought-through PSPOs. No doubt they will cost local taxpayers even more money as, inevitably, the PSPOs are challenged in the courts.  In using PSPOs against peaceful pro-life vigils there appears to be little sense of fairness or compromise on the part of both London councils. This is because an ideology lies behind these latest moves. It is one that is wholly pro-abortion and seeks not only to keep abortion freely available but also to silence any criticism of that procedure. 

This may be a tale of two London councils but it is a sad story with one message: pro-life witness is no longer deemed acceptable on the streets of Greater London.