Other councils could now use Public Space Protection Orders to ban peaceful vigils

A London borough council has been accused of suppressing free speech after backing a proposal to ban prayer vigils outside abortion clinics.

Councillors in Ealing voted to stop the Good Counsel Network holding its daily vigils outside the Marie Stopes clinic on Mattock Lane.

Labour councillor Binda Rai, who brought the motion, said the decision could have “national implications”, adding: “I’m absolutely thrilled that there was such huge support in the chamber for the motion, and right across the parties.”

The BBC reports that only two councillors abstained.

The ban also has the support of local Labour MP Rupa Huq, who accused people at the vigils of “weaponising rosary beads“.

The council may now use a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) to enforce the ban. The orders, introduced in 2014, were criticised by the Guardian, which warned they could be used to criminalise “public activities that are merely considered unusual or unpopular, or with which the council disagree.”

Pro-abortion campaigners in Ealing have accused protesters of harassing women, something the Good Counsel Network strongly denies. Clare McCullough, the group’s founder, said if they were truly harassing people, they would already face prosecution under existing laws.

“I’m amazed at the lengths people will go to stop pregnant women from looking at the alternatives,” she said. “We try to make sure women are not being pressured into abortion. We’ve had hundreds of women accept help outside Marie Stopes.

“Harassment is a crime. If we were harassing anyone we would be arrested. In fact, what we’re trying to do is help women to have an alternative, if they’re willing to accept it.”

She also accused councillors of abusing PSPOs:

“Most lawyers would agree those orders were not put in place for this kind of issue. They’re not there to suppress freedom of speech.

“I think it would be a grave misuse and would have implications for all kinds of groups who are protesting all kinds of things.”