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MSP behind abortion clinic buffer zone legislation suggests reason for mediation commission

MEDIATION between anti-abortion protestors and clinic users could have been commissioned to protect buffer zone laws from any legal challenge, the MSP behind the legislation has suggested.

The Scottish Government provoked a backlash last month when a contract award notice published online showed it had paid for the services of a civic mediation company – the Centre for Good Relations – “to support dialogue between parties who hold vigils and protests outside of abortion clinics, and those who are affected by them”.

Ministers quickly confirmed there were “no proposals whatsoever to hold meetings between patients and protestors as part of this process” and all that was commissioned was an initial scoping exercise.

The Centre for Good Relations has “met with various parties” to hear their views, the Government said, and there are now discussions ongoing as to whether mediation work should continue.

Gillian Mackay, the Green MSP behind the Safe Access Zones Bill, has now speculated that the Government may have felt it had to at least explore the idea of mediation to give the legislation the best chance of standing up to what is believed will be an inevitable legal challenge down the line.

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It is understood a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) – the legal mechanism used to enact buffer zones in England – was knocked back because the less restrictive step of mediation was not considered.

Mackay, who is not part of the Government and was not privy to any decision-making, said she fully empathised with campaign groups who reacted with horror when they saw the contract award, but admitted she could see the logic behind if it was to bolster the legislation’s legitimacy.

She told the National: “If you look at the PSPOs down south, I think one of them was knocked back because mediation was not a step that was taken before the buffer zone was introduced.

“The Government may have been looking at it as a less restrictive measure that would have to have been considered before going to buffer zones if this bill was to be challenged.

Gillian Mackay is leading on the proposed Abortion Services Safe Access Zones (Scotland) Bill

“I would hazard a guess that that is part of it, that having looked at other mechanisms – we don’t have the ability to have PSPOs up here – and how they [England] brought in the safe access zones, if one of them was knocked back for a less restrictive step not being considered, I think it would probably be sensible to consider all the other less restrictive options.

“I understand all the campaign groups who are asking why on earth would you want to put patients and protestors together. I cannot stress enough how much I empathise and relate to that view, but there was never a mediation conducted and what was commissioned was a scoping exercise.

“It shows the commitment of the Scottish Government to make sure this does pass with as few issues as possible.”

The consultation on Mackay’s bill – which would make it a legal requirement for there to be a 150m protest-free zone around clinics – closed last month after more than 12,000 responses were sent in.

She said there was a “surge” in response from those opposed to the legislation in the final days of the survey.

Earlier this week, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon chaired a second summit on the issue with the “most affected councils” – Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen – who agreed to investigate if the 150-meter zones could be brought in at local level.

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But the National revealed yesterday how the vast majority of Scottish councils are not considering bylaws which would implement buffer zones.

Only Aberdeen City and Edinburgh councils confirmed to The National that they are trying to establish if bringing in bylaws could provide a temporary solution, while Glasgow, which has seen many protests in recent months, declined to comment.

While different parties grapple with how to deliver the legislation in Scotland, we are awaiting decision of the Supreme Court in Northern Ireland as to whether buffer zone legislation there is within the devolved government’s powers. Mackay has already said this will have a bearing on how matters proceed.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “All women in Scotland should be able to access timely abortion care without judgment or intimidation. Last year, a working group was formed to explore possible ways to solve the problem of women being harassed outside abortion clinics as quickly as possible. A number of pieces of work have been commissioned by the working group to explore views in this area, including this work and research to develop a detailed picture of women’s experiences as a result of the protests.

“The Centre for Good Relations has met separately with various parties, including Back Off Scotland as patient representatives, to hear their views.

“There are no proposals whatsoever to hold meetings between patients and protestors as part of this process. The initial scoping phase is complete and we are currently discussing with the working group and the Centre for Good Relations whether this work should continue – not least, as representatives of some protesters appear determined to carry on with their activities without regard for their impact.

“This is only one of a number of actions being taken and the Scottish Government remains committed to national legislation, which is being discussed with Gillian Mackay MSP in relation to her proposed bill for safe access zones.”

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