Catholic Union President, Sir Edward Leigh, defended the right of people to silent prayer in a debate in the House of Commons yesterday.
MPs returned to debate the Government’s Public Order Bill, which was amended at the end of last year to include the introduction of buffer zones around abortion clinics in England and Wales.
In response to concerns that the law could be used to ban people from silently praying anywhere within 150 meters of an abortion clinics, an amendment was tabled by Conservative MP Andrew Lewer to make clear that silent prayer and consensual communication were exempt.
Despite significant support, including from the Home Secretary and Attorney General, the amendment failed to get enough support to pass. The Bill will now go back to the House of Lords for final consideration.
Catholic Union President, Sir Edward Leigh, was one of the MPs who spoke in the debate. A full copy of his speech can be found below, and on Hansard.
It is worth looking at what amendment (a) states. It states:
“No offence is committed under subsection (1) by a person engaged in consensual communication or in silent prayer”.
For the avoidance of doubt, amendment (a) goes on to say that nothing in it should allow people to be harassed or their decision to be changed, such as kneeling down and praying right in front of somebody’s face, or blocking the pavement, or indulging in any kind of harassing.
It is worth looking at what this amendment is, and it is worth considering the question put by the police officer to the lady. The police officer asked her, “Are you praying?” In other words, there was nothing she was obviously doing that was harassment or in any way objectionable. The police officer had to actually go into her mind—she was just standing there; I do not think it is even clear that she was kneeling—and that is surely what is dangerous about the measure.
In speaking to this Chamber, I am going far beyond what that lady was doing. Of course I am not indulging in any objectionable behaviour by expressing my thoughts. I am not harassing anybody, but everybody in this Chamber in a sense is being forced to listen to me, and I have spent 39 years no doubt irritating people and even boring them. They cannot shut their ears, but this lady was not actually saying anything, and the policeman had to go up to her and ask what she was doing. If we are going to have a law—a criminal law—it has to be capable of being effective.
The reason George Orwell’s novel “1984” resonates so much with all of us is that the state was trying to regulate not just people’s actions but what goes on in their minds. That is why, ever since that novel was written, people have felt that probably the most advanced form of totalitarianism is one where the state is trying to regulate not simply people’s behaviour, but their minds. What the debate is about is that those who oppose my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer) are determined to stop anybody indulging in any kind of protest, if it could be deemed to be some sort of protest, even if it is entirely silent.
The whole point of the Public Order Bill, as I understand it—this is why I support it—is that it does not outlaw peaceful protest. What the Government are addressing is people making that protest who are deliberately trying to obstruct the rights of other citizens by blocking roads or whatever. That is the point of the Bill. It has now been hijacked by people who want to stop completely silent peaceful protest.
The case of Livia Tossici-Bolt has not yet been mentioned. In the past few days she was told by council officers in Bournemouth that she would be fined simply for holding up a sign saying, “Here to talk if you want” inside a buffer zone. She was not holding up a sign with any graphic images, and she was not trying to intimidate anybody; she was simply saying, “Please, if you want to talk, I am here if you want any advice. This is a very difficult day for you.” For that she was stopped by the police. In other words, that lady was told that she could not offer other women who might, in some circumstances, be coerced into attending an abortion clinic, or who felt that they lacked the resources to complete a pregnancy, the opportunity to talk if they wanted to do so.
We must not criminalise such peaceful activity. Where are we going? Where will this stop? I believe—this is how I will conclude; I think that this is the shortest speech—that this is an entirely worthwhile, harmless, moderate amendment, and I hope that Members will support it.
*The House divided:
Ayes – 116, Noes – 299