Scottish Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP has today called on the Scottish Government to go further and “give councils the power to protect women” accessing treatment at abortion clinics, after receiving confirmation that ministers would be open to councils applying to them for bye-laws on buffer zones.
When the Liberal Democrats raised the issue in July last year the Scottish Government committed to “monitor any reports about anti-abortion protests” and “consider whether there is further action that should be taken as a result”.
In a letter to Mr Cole-Hamilton this week, Minister for Public Health Joe FitzPatrick said:
“I recognise that anti-abortion protests can be distressing for women and staff attending hospitals or clinics. Councils in Scotland have powers under the Local Government Scotland) Act 1973 to make bye-laws so these offer local authorities a means of imposing measures suited to local circumstances – and that may include measures to restrict protest. I would encourage those councils who have concerns about abortion protests to consider whether making a bye-law would be appropriate in their area. Scottish Government would need to confirm the use of these bye-laws in each case where a council proposed to use them – and I would consider any proposal that came forward.”
In England, councils have the power to implement Public Space Protection Orders themselves, with Ealing using it to create a buffer zone around an abortion clinic.
Abortion protests have occurred outside clinics in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Larbert over recent months. Yesterday Glasgow city council confirmed it was in conversation with local authority body COSLA about taking forward proposals for buffer zones at a national level, given the “complexity” of the legal position.
Alex Cole-Hamilton commented:
“The Scottish Government have been exceptionally slow off the mark to address the intimidating protests outside abortion clinics across the country where women are seeking sensitive care.
“Unlike local authorities in England, councils in Scotland do not have the power to introduce buffer zones. I am pleased there is some movement in the government’s position and that the Minister is open to receiving bye-laws applications, but frankly that’s still not good enough.
“Councils should have the ability to respond to local circumstances and introduce buffer zones around facilities providing medical care, without having to ask SNP ministers for permission.
“Every patient should be able to access the medical treatment they need without fear of harassment or intimidation. The Scottish Government should be giving councils the power to protect women.”