Ministerial Working Group – Abortion Buffer Zones minutes: December 2021

Minutes from the meeting of the group on 9 December 2021.

Attendees and apologies

Group members

  • Maree Todd MSP, Minister for Public Health, Women’s Health and Sport (Chair) Ben MacPherson MSP - Minister for Social Security and Local Government
  • Professor Sharon Cameron, NHS Lothian
  • PI Neil Burns, Police Scotland
  • PI Norman Towler, Police Scotland
  • Dr Audrey Brown, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde
  • Jon Ferrer,City of Edinburgh Council 
  • Rachael Craik, City of Edinburgh Council
  • David Bell, Scottish Government
  • Sam Baker, Scottish Government
  • Agnes Munyoro, Scottish Government
  • Secretariat, David McIlhinney - Scottish Government


  • Elaine Galletly, Glasgow City Council/SOLAR
  • Anil Gupta, CoSLA
  • Cllr Kelly Parry, CoSLA

Items and actions

Welcome and introductions

The Minister for Public Health, Women’s Health and Sport welcomed attendees to the meeting and attendees introduced themselves.

Overview of the reasons for establishing the group

Ms Todd set out that the group was set up to bring together key public sector stakeholders to address concerns around protests/vigils outside abortion clinics raised by patients and NHS staff. She noted the need to take everyone’s rights into account, but also did not want women to feel harassed or intimidated when they are accessing healthcare and so wanted to find a way forward.

Dr Audrey Brown and Professor Sharon Cameron gave the group some background on the frequency, size and nature of protests/vigils outside the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, the Glasgow Royal Infirmary and the Chalmers clinic. They also discussed the impact the protests had on some patients and staff. While NHS Lothian and NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde were the most affected by protests/vigils, some other board areas had experienced some protests/vigils.

In addition, it was noted that there had also been protests outside vaccination clinics, so the group may wish to consider these protests as well.

Draft remit – discussion on the group’s aims, membership and proposed remit

Ms Todd asked for views on the draft remit for the group and suggestions for areas to the group should make progress on. Group members were generally supportive of the proposed short and longer-term actions set out in the draft remit paper which had been circulated.

It was noted that there was dispute between the groups on both sides around the scale of the problem and some of the incidents which had been reported. It would therefore be helpful to gather more information on the locations, size and timings of protests/vigils, potentially with help from NHS Boards. It was agreed that it would be useful to commission independent research to look at protests/vigils to gather more robust and objective evidence on the impact of the protests/vigils on patients and others.

It was agreed that work was also needed to seek to agree what statutory powers were available to restrict gatherings and any reasons why the powers have not been used for this type of protest/vigil. This would help the group to identify any gaps in current legislation.

On short-term actions, there was discussion about whether mediation or dialogue between the parties would be effective and what outcomes could be achieved from this. It was noted that initial discussions with mediators suggested that traditional mediation may not work well, but that some initial discussions with individual parties (such as vigil organisers, pro-choice campaigners and NHS staff) may help indicate if all the parties would be willing to engage in dialogue with other parties and consider some compromises. While there could be benefits in having independent mediators, it was noted that there had previously been a Police liaison officer who regularly spoke to those gathered opposite the Chalmers clinic and this helped with some issues. Therefore this option could also potentially be explored further.

Agreement on next steps/priority areas of work to progress

The group agreed that legislation would take a long time to take forward so some of the other areas discussed could be taken forward more quickly and could help the group consider what legislative changes might be appropriate. The group noted Gillian MacKay MSP’s intention to bring forward a members bill and would consider in future how best to contribute to the development of the bill.

The group agreed that it was important to consider what actions are causing harassment in what areas and to take a proportionate response, balancing the ECHR rights of all those involved. There was consensus that it was important to encourage patients and others affected to report any incidents (probably either to the Police or the NHS Board, but Councils may also have a role) to ensure that public bodies have a good picture of any concerns; there would be further discussion on how best to do this.

The following action points were agreed and would be progressed in time for discussion at the next meeting:

  • the Scottish Government would develop a draft specification for the proposed research on impacts of the protests/vigils
  • the Scottish Government would prepare a draft paper on current statutory powers and gaps and seek input from group members
  • finally, it was agreed that there should be a more fleshed out proposal for encouraging dialogue between the parties

The group would also consider further other people who could join the group or give advice. It was suggested that a Justice Minister should also be involved in the group in future.

Timing of next meeting and any other business

Ms Todd suggested that meetings should be planned for every two to three months, with the next meeting likely to be in early February [post-meeting note – this has now been scheduled for 9 February 2022].

There was no other business.

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