Ministerial Working Group – Abortion Buffer Zones minutes: April 2022

Minutes from the meeting of the group on 21 April 2022.

Attendees and apologies


  • Maree Todd MSP - Minister for Public Health, Women’s Health and Sport (Chair)
  • Ben MacPherson MSP - Minister for Social Security and Local Government
  • Gillian Mackay MSP
  • Professor Sharon Cameron - NHS Lothian
  • PI Neil Burns – Police Scotland
  • Dr Audrey Brown - NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde
  • Rachael Craik - City of Edinburgh Council
  • Kevin McKee  – City of Edinburgh Council/SOLAR
  • Anil Gupta – CoSLA
  • Sam Baker – Scottish Government
  • Zarah Kobbacy – Scottish Government
  • David Bell – Scottish Government
  • David McIlhinney - Scottish GovernmentSecretariat


  • Jon Ferrer - City of Edinburgh Council 
  • Keith Brown MSP - Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans
  • Cllr Kelly Parry – CoSLA
  • Elaine Galletly – Glasgow City Council/SOLAR
  • PI Norman Towler - Police Scotland
  • Sinéad Power - Scottish Government

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.

Minute of previous meeting of 23 February 2022

The group approved the minute of the meeting of 23rd February as an accurate reflection of the discussion.

Short update on proposed research and initial work on dialogue

Ms Todd noted that there had been particular concerns recently about large vigils at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital and that she had received a letter from clinicians there. She intended to respond to this and to offer a meeting with clinicians at the hospital.

Ms Todd noted that the Scottish Government was commissioning work on dialogue from the Centre for Good Relations. Initially there will be a scoping exercise, which will followed by an assessment. Previously concerns has been raised regarding whether dialogue would be possible; however it was agreed at the last meeting that dialogue would be a useful step in understanding the various views involved. However, it was noted that this would be progressed alongside the work on Ms Mackay’s Bill so did not need to delay that work. The preferred site to pilot this dialogue was identified as the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital and it was noted that it had been raised with relevant staff and they was interest, but their involvement was still to be confirmed.

The Scottish Government also reported that it had issued an invitation to tender for the research on buffer zones. The timescale for this research was between 18 and 24 months (although with an interim report expected), and this will be conducted while the group explores and progresses other work on buffer zones.

Member’s Bill proposals – discussion with Gillian Mackay MSP

Ms Todd asked Gillian Mackay MSP to talk about her draft consultation and proposed Member’s Bill.

Ms Mackay noted that she was keen to work closely with the group on her proposed buffer zones legislation. She noted that she was exploring how to provide suitable reassurance on a national level, working on a minimum expectation of buffer zones of 150 metres, but allowing councils to vary the distance to suit local circumstances. Ms Mackay confirmed that the 150 metre minimum was arrived at through working with BPAS and Back off Scotland. The group noted that in some places 150 metres will be a significant distance, whereas at other sites that could coincide with other points of entry or transport links to the site. It was noted that Ms Mackay was still considering whether the 150 metre zone should be measured from the entrance to the building or the edge of the site.

The proposed Bill would not be framed as being anti-protest, but would seek to ensure that protests take place in the right place and to ensure that access to healthcare is not impeded. Ms Mackay intended to launch a consultation after the local authority elections, with a closing date for responses at the end of July/beginning of August.

Most group members supported the proposals in principle, although there were mixed views on the most appropriate form of legislation, in particular whether there should be a fixed buffer zone perimeter in all cases or more local discretion. It was agreed that it would be important to ensure that any legislation was balanced and proportionate in respect of ECHR.

It was suggested that designated protest sites suitable within each hospital could be considered to allow the continuation of protests, but in a more suitable place. However there were concerns that this would not resolve the issues and would still be distressing for some patients and staff. There would also need to be further consideration as to whether attendees could be required to move to such areas as the protesters would want to be able to be visible to people using the services and so might refuse to move. Ms Mackay also noted that she intended to ensure the new legislation should not prevent trade unions from taking industrial action near a clinic site.

Ms Mackay noted that she had engaged with Claire Bailey MLA in Northern Ireland about her Member’s Bill. Ms Mackay felt that this would set a useful precedent in relation to devolved parliaments taking a lead on this issue. The group was interested in the Northern Ireland legislation, though they were aware that the circumstances on the ground in Northern Ireland would be different to those in Scotland.

The group also discussed the potential for including anti-vaccination protests in the proposed legislation. The group considered that it would be helpful to consider the experience of vulnerable families passing protesters in other areas. Ms Mackay agreed to consider this.

Timing of next meeting and any other business

The next meeting of the group was scheduled for 29 June 2022 from 11:15.

There was no other business.

Back to top