Sunday, March 12, 2023

UK crosses ‘thought crimes’ Rubicon after MPs outlaw prayer at abortion clinics

The House of Commons has approved the UK’s first “thought crime” law after MPs rejected a move to protect silent prayer in public places.

In a free vote, MPs rejected an amendment to the Public Order Bill by 299 votes to 116, a large majority of 183, to protect private prayer and consensual conversations within any “censorship” zone.

Among those to support the amendment were Home Secretary Suella Braverman and Attorney General Victoria Prentis.

Jeremiah Igunnubole, legal counsel for ADF UK, which has represented people who have been arrested for praying near abortion clinics, said the vote marked a “watershed moment for fundamental rights and freedoms in our country”.

He said: “Parliament had an opportunity to reject the criminalisation of free thought, which is an absolute right, and embrace individual liberty for all.

“Instead, Parliament chose to endorse censorship and criminalise peaceful activities such as silent prayer and consensual conversation.

“Today it’s abortion. Tomorrow it could be another contested matter of political debate,” he continued.

“The principle remains that the government should never be able to punish anyone for prayer, let alone silent prayer, and peaceful and consensual conversation.

“Thankfully, where the clause initially called for a prison sentence for those convicted of engaging in these peaceful activities near abortion facilities, the penalty now has been reduced to a fine.

“Nevertheless, it is extremely regrettable that Parliament, which exists to protect and champion the rights of the electorate, has taken a clear stance against fundamental freedoms, opening the door for nationwide thought-crime prosecution.” 

Clause 10 (formerly Clause 9) of the Public Order Bill criminalises any form of “influence” outside of all abortion facilities, including silent prayer. 

It makes prayer within a censorship zone punishable by an initial fixed penalty fine of £100, possibly rising to £1,000 if the accused is taken to court.

The legislation was drafted to remedy the mischief of guerrilla-style protest tactics deployed by such groups as Just Stop Oil, Insulate Britain and Extinction Rebellion, but it was hijacked by abortion activists in the House of Commons.

Instead of striking out the hijacking amendments, the Conservative Government granted MPs and peers a free vote.

A counter amendment to permit silent prayer and consensual conversations within the censorship zones was proposed by Andrew Lewer, Conservative MP for Northampton South, who told MPs that such activities were a “world away” from harassment.

“Police shouldn’t be asking ‘What are you thinking about?’” said Mr Lewer during the debate in the Commons.

“Censorship of this sort is a notoriously slippery slope. It might not be your thoughts that are criminalised today, but I think we should all be careful not to open the door to that tomorrow about some other opinions that people may hold about something else.” 

Sir John Hayes, Conservative MP for South Holland and The Deepings, said the Lewer amendment sought essentially to protect free speech.

He said: “This is about freedom – it’s not about the purpose of freedom or the location of it. It’s about the ability to think, and speak, and pray freely.”

He added: “We now have people arrested for praying, interrogated by the police, asked what they’re praying about, what they’re thinking. This is dystopian. It’s like a mix of Huxley, Philip Dick and all that.”

Danny Kruger, Conservative MP for Devizes in Wiltshire, told MPs they were “making a momentous step”

“We are crossing an enormous river,” he said. “What are we doing by saying that people should not be allowed to pray, quietly, on their own?” 

But Rupa Huq, Labour MP for Ealing Central and Acton who has campaigned for censorship zones, attacked the amendment.

She said: “Any person using medical services should be able to do so without navigating an obstacle course of people trying to impose their view of what is right into the process to dissuade and deter.

“Even in the reviled regime of Iran they got rid of their morality police. Why do we allow them here?”

Fellow abortion activist Stella Creasy, the Labour MP Walthamstow, wrote afterwards on Twitter that the censorship zones had been “protected from the sabotage amendment” and abortion clinic clients could “access an abortion in peace” as a result.

The most recent government review, undertaken by the Home Office in 2018, found that censorship zones would be an unnecessary and “disproportionate” restriction on rights given that harassment is already criminalised under existing legislation, and instances of harassment outside abortion facilities were found to be “rare”.  

The vote came just a day after Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, a Catholic pregnancy counsellor, was arrested for the second time for praying silently near an abortion facility in Birmingham where the city council has implemented a 150-metre buffer zone via a Public Spaces Protection Order. 

The arrest, attended by six police officers, comes three weeks after Ms Vaughan-Spruce was found acquitted by Birmingham Magistrates’ Court for an praying silently in her mind near the clinic in December.

The Crown Prosecution Service offered no evidence in court that any crime was committed and she was exonerated along with Fr Sean Gough, a Wolverhampton curate who had held up a sign reading “Praying for the Freedom of Speech”.