Clause 10 of the new Public Order Bill has been condemned by Bishop John Sherrington, the Lead Bishop for Life Issues for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, over concerns it will lead to the curtailment of freedom of speech for people of faith.
The clause, set to be signed into law, criminalises a range of activities within a 150m perimeter of an abortion facility, otherwise known as a ‘buffer zone’.
In a statement 'The Public Order Bill: A Step Too Far', Bishop Sherrington argues: “Throughout this Bill’s passage through Parliament, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has reiterated our concern that that this proposed legislation, despite any other intent, constitutes discrimination and disproportionately affects people of faith.”
Commenting on what could be illegal within a ‘buffer zone’, he says: “These could very easily include many things that should never be criminalised such as prayer, thought, peaceful presence, consensual communication and practical support if they are deemed to influence or interfere with access to the clinic.
“Politicians went so far as to vote down an amendment which would have protected silent prayer and consensual communication in such spaces”, he added, “and that would have initiated a review into whether such legislation was needed.”
Bishop Sherrington cites a 2018 Home Officer Review which found that there were already adequate laws in place to prevent the harassment of women, adding “we condemn all harassment and intimidation of women”.
He adds: “There is little, if any, evidence that vigil participants engage in these behaviours. The broad formulation of Clause 10, coupled with this lack of evidence, makes it both disproportionate and unnecessary.
“We have also stressed that its implications could extend beyond the perimeters of a ‘safe access zone’ and it raises serious questions about the state’s powers in relation to the individual in a free society, both those with faith and those without.”