Scott Benton: Abortion clinic censorship zones would provide a chilling legal precedent for cracking down on freedom of expression

5 Jul

Scott Benton is MP for for Blackpool South.

Later today, the House of Commons is likely to debate Rupa Huq’s amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that would introduce censorship (‘buffer’) zones outside all abortion facilities in England and Wales.

This amendment calls for 150-metre ‘buffer’ zones around abortion facilities, within which it would be criminal to “interfere […] with any person’s decision to access, provide, or facilitate the provision of abortion services”. However, “interferes with” is very broadly defined and would include anyone who “informs or attempts to inform about abortion services by any means” within the zone.

This would effectively ban any form of peaceful demonstration or offering of practical, emotional, or financial support to people entering these facilities, and those found guilty of doing so would be liable, in the first instance, of up to six months imprisonment (a second instance could lead to up to two years imprisonment) and/or an unlimited fine.

Given the extreme penalties proposed by this amendment, it is unsurprising that polling released this week from Savanta ComRes of over 2,000 British adults has found that a mere 21 per cent supported such a radical change. It even found that that support for such a move was lowest among 18 to 34-year-olds, with just 15 per cent supporting the introduction of nationwide ‘censorship zones’ around abortion clinics.

The poll also showed that a majority of the general public supported either having zero restrictions on freedom of expression outside abortion facilities, or were satisfied with the restrictions offered by current legislation, which allow an individual to be charged if they are implicated in harassment, and under which local councils are authorised to introduce restrictions around specific clinics if they are experiencing ongoing public order problems.

Moreover, Dr Huq’s implication that already criminalised actions are characteristic of pro-life demonstrations is not only unfair but entirely inaccurate. Indeed, an extensive Home Office review into the topic of pro-life demonstrations concluded that introducing nationwide buffer zones “would not be a proportionate response, considering the experiences of the majority of hospitals and clinics, and considering that the majority of activities are more passive in nature”. It also highlighted that “legislation already exists to restrict protest activities that cause harm to others”.

Whether or not Dr Huq believes her desperate bid to quash pro-life wrongthink is right, British voters clearly disagree. Therefore a decision by Parliament to follow her line would be a flagrant violation of our duties as the caretakers of representative democracy.

If introduced, abortion clinic censorship zones would provide a chilling legal precedent for cracking down on freedom of expression, far beyond the issue of abortion rights. Indeed, many prominent human rights groups and campaigners, several of whom are pro-choice including veteran LGBT rights champion Peter Tatchell, the Manifesto Club, Big Brother Watch, Index on Censorship, and the Freedom Association, have spoken out against proposals for such zones.

Moreover, countless women have reported receiving life-changing support offered by pro-life groups outside these clinics. While many women en route to an abortion facility may already be sure of their decision, why does Dr Huq think she has a right to ban women from seeking an alternate path? Or from accepting help with finances, housing, legal advice, and protection from domestic abuse, which is at the root of many women’s initial decision to seek an abortion, even if they would ideally wish to go through with the pregnancy?

Take the case of Alina Dulgheriu, who decided to keep her baby after she “walked into the Marie Stopes clinic and a woman standing outside offered [her] a leaflet … and said she could offer help if [she] wanted it” – after she reportedly received no help inside the Marie Stopes clinic aside from the offer to end her pregnancy.

I hope that, regardless of their stance on the wider question of abortion rights, my colleagues on both sides of the House will vigorously oppose this amendment that threatens to further damage the delicate fabric of freedom in Britain, putting peaceful demonstrators at risk of financial ruin or imprisonment for peacefully exercising their fundamental human rights.

Scott Benton: It’s time for England’s football team to stop taking the knee

7 Jun

Scott Benton is MP for Blackpool South.

I recently watched England’s football friendly against Austria at the Riverside Stadium in Middlesbrough. Whilst, sadly, England’s performance wasn’t much to talk about, players ‘taking the knee’, and subsequently being booed by a large proportion of the crowd, was.

Since fans were allowed back into stadiums several weeks ago there have been a number of instances when fans have booed the practice. For example, the boos were obvious to hear from the Blackpool fans at Wembley during Sunday’s play-off final, and at the club’s home game against Oxford United several weeks ago, both of which I attended.

I don’t think I’ve spoken to a single person who doesn’t agree that racism is wrong, and there is always more that can be done to tackle it, both in football and in wider society. There are many examples of initiatives over the years that have been launched to do just that.

Whilst no country will ever be perfect and you can never account for the actions of every individual, I think the U.K. can be held up as one of the most tolerant and diverse countries in the world. Football, and sport generally, has also come a long way with regard to tackling racism over the last generation or so.

This time last year, we saw widespread vandalism and disorder from groups claiming to be ‘anti-racist’, including buildings being smashed up, police being attacked and historic monuments, including that of Winston Churchill outside Parliament, being attacked. The behaviour of these groups, particularly the ones acting under the banner of Black Lives Matter, did nothing to promote equality or race relations. In fact, all they did was promote division.

It was at this point we started to see the football authorities promoting Black Lives Matter and using this in promotional material, on shirts and even with players ‘taking the knee’, which was facilitated by authorities at the start of every game. Whatever people say, players had no choice but to do this (imagine if one had refused to do it and the press they would have received). We even saw Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner photographed taking the knee.

What many of us realised – and what the football authorities seemingly didn’t – is that Black Lives Matter is a political movement and also promotes some disgusting and extreme policies, such as abolishing the nuclear family and defunding the police, as well as many others.

Whilst I don’t doubt that the football authorities had genuinely good intentions, I believe they were misguided and that they should have devised their own campaign at the time, rather than seemingly allying themselves with a political movement.

This was always going to end badly – and the first time fans were let back into the stadiums the gesture was booed. The FA and football authorities have held many previous anti-racism campaigns which have been well received and welcomed by all. It is time that the football authorities refreshed these campaigns and their approach to tackling racism, rather than persist with this overly political and divisive practice of taking the knee.

To suggest that fans “aren’t quite understanding the message”, as Gareth Southgate has recently, is an insult to their intelligence. Fans understand perfectly well – they are just sick and tired of being preached and spoken down to. They are there to watch a football match, not to be lectured on morality.

It is the football authorities and elements of the media who aren’t understanding the message. Find something we can all support and ditch this ridiculous empty gesture.

I’ll always passionately support England but the FA and England team need to review their approach to taking the knee fast to ensure that it doesn’t alienate the majority of decent football fans.

Scott Benton: We are right to reform the UK’s gambling laws – but we must not drive punters into the arms of the black market

29 Dec

Scott Benton is the MP for for Blackpool South. This is a sponsored post by the Betting and Gaming Council.

A year ago, I was proud to stand for election on a Conservative Party manifesto which pledged to review the UK’s gambling laws.

The 2005 Gambling Act, the manifesto said, was “increasingly becoming an analogue law in a digital age”. I agreed with that sentiment then, and I continue to do so today. And judging by the fact I managed to win my Blackpool South seat by defeating the sitting Labour MP, plenty of voters must share my opinion.

As the UK’s premier seaside holiday destination, my constituents know all about the importance of betting as a leisure industry, while our casino also attracts plenty of much-needed tourists to the area.

But they also know that the gambling laws must be fit for the 21st century – protecting the vulnerable while not spoiling the enjoyment of the millions of Brits who enjoy a flutter, and ensuring the industry continues to thrive and make a vital contribution to the economy.

So it was a great day when, earlier this month, my Tory colleague Nigel Huddleston kicked off the gambling review with a 16-week call for evidence, thereby honouring our manifesto commitment.

I took part in the Commons debate which followed, and used my contribution to make an important point. While reform is essential, the Government must be wary of doing anything which drives punters towards the illegal, online black market.

A report by the highly-respected PwC revealed that 200,000 customers used an unlicensed gambling operator last year, resulting in an estimated £1.4 billion in turnover. Those are people who will have received none of the protections or safer gambling messages prevalent in the regulated industry. And none of that money is returned to the UK Treasury through taxation.

PwC also found that unlicensed operators accounted for 2.5 per cent of gambling website visits, which amounts to an incredible 27 million visits. In addition, nine per cent – nearly one in 10 – of all gambling search results were for black market sites. And worryingly, 47 per cent of punters are aware of at least one black market operator. When you consider that 30 million Brits enjoy a flutter, that gives you an idea of how many people could potentially fall into the clutches of the unscrupulous black market if the Government gets the gambling review wrong.

In my opinion, a successful review will strike the right balance between protecting the vulnerable and not spoiling the enjoyment of the vast majority of people who enjoy a bet perfectly safely. It’s important to remember that, according to the Government’s own data, the rate of problem gambling is 0.5 per cent and has been stable for the past 20 years.

Conservative ministers are right to identify this as an issue which must be tackled, but it must not be at the expense of damaging a regulated industry which is – in my opinion – doing great work on safer gambling while also making a valuable contribution to the UK economy.

Scott Benton: Why we must win the culture war – and deliver a Blue Collar programme for the economy

8 Sep

Scott Benton is the MP for for Blackpool South.

Whilst the left-wing inspired anarchy which has afflicted cities in the US has not been repeated here, make no mistake that the political flashpoints of the summer (the BLM protests, the ensuing “statues debate” and the BBC’s decision regarding the Proms) are undeniable proof that Britain is in the midst of its own “culture war”.

This is scarcely something that a Conservative government, dealing with the biggest health and economic challenges in a generation, would have chosen to fight. But whether we like it or not, how it chooses to respond to this battle will shape the political landscape and our chances at the next General Election.

The increasingly-evident cultural divide in Britain was unmistakeable throughout the Brexit debate. The defining moment in that battle, December’s election, confirmed the seismic political consequences of this divide for both main parties as the historic class-based voting pattern was shattered in favour of a values-based realignment of British politics.

This spectacularly allowed us to knock down the so-called “Red Wall” and to gain seats that only a few years ago would have been unthinkable. The reasons for our success (Brexit and the intense loathing of Corbyn) were obvious, but with neither of these pull factors in play at the next election, it remains to be seen whether we can build our own “Blue Wall”.

If we are to do exactly that, we must understand the instincts of those who switched to us from Labour. The evidence suggests that they are economically more left-wing than the average voter, but considerably more right-wing than average on social issues: in fact, they are more socially conservative than loyal Tory voters and Tory MPs.

As December’s election was a “values election”, predicated on Brexit, we were able to break through and convince many of these socially conservative, life-long Labour voters to support us for the first time, and to abandon the Labour Party whose social values are a world away from their own.

The leap of faith that many of these voters took should not be taken lightly. Many of these people have long had (and continue to have) doubts about our party’s economic values and commitment to public services, and have far more in common with Labour’s values on these issues. Such was the lure of Brexit, however, helped by our sympathetic positioning on public spending and levelling up, that they entrusted us with their vote.

If the next election is fought on traditional issues of the economy and public services (particularly if a post-Covid economic recovery is sluggish), a moderate Labour Party may tempt back some of these same voters who naturally gravitate leftwards on the economy. On the other hand, the social and cultural values of the contemporary left could well be the means by which we keep those voters’ support.

Whilst the Government does not wish for a “culture war”, then, it may well be the determination of many on the left to engineer one which paradoxically allows us to demonstrate that we share Red Wall voters’ values and are truly on their side.

Throughout the summer my mailbag has been full of correspondence on issues such as the lawlessness of some of the BLM protests; the revulsion of seeing the Union Flag set alight on the Cenotaph; the absurdity of those wanting to rewrite our history by tearing down statues, and the alienation felt by many at the actions of the BBC in wanting to chip away at our national culture.

The vast majority of my constituents in my Red Wall seat are sick and tired of those who are embarrassed by our culture, and who want to apologise for Britain’s past. They are yearning for the Government to stand up and be courageous in dismissing this nonsense that is directing the national conversation and political narrative.

Sentiments like those expressed by the Prime Minister on the Proms are very welcome and we need more social commentary and reassurances from the Government on issues such as these, but ultimately, ministers are judged on their actions.

Take the situation on the south coast: if the Government cannot use the current legislative and diplomatic tools at its disposal to stem the tide of illegal immigration then it must completely redesign our asylum and immigration policy so that it can.

Likewise, if the BBC cannot get its own house in order and demonstrate that it is able to occupy its privileged position as an impartial national broadcaster, then the Government must embark on reform, starting with scrapping the licence fee.

The emotive reach of social issues means that they will remain politically pivotal for as long as they dominate the conversation, but if we are going to retain the confidence and support of our new voters on these issues, we must do more than merely sympathise with their deep concerns.

A Conservative Government with a large majority should not shy away from having the political and intellectual confidence to lead the debate on cultural issues and to deliver reform on law and order, sentencing, immigration/asylum and the BBC. These are all policy areas where our new and traditional supporters alike demand a tough approach.

Although social values are increasingly likely to drive voting patterns longer-term, the upcoming autumn budget will dictate the short-term political weather. There was a collective sigh of relief in my Red Wall constituency when the Prime Minister ruled out a return to austerity: we simply have to fulfil our spending commitments on the NHS and schools, which were so instrumental in reassuring those former Labour voters who switched to us.

Whilst I think it would be a mistake to break our manifesto commitment on the triple lock, slashing international aid would be met with almost universal acclaim in constituencies such as mine.

It is only through wealth creation and economic growth, however, that we will make a significant impact on the deficit. We must deliver our commitment to levelling up by prioritising regional growth through a meaningful industrial strategy which aims to reduce the north-south divide through a laser-like focus on transport investment, incentives to locate in “left-behind areas” (including enterprise zones and freeports), training and skills.

Real investment, however, at a time of huge pressure on the public finances, doesn’t come cheap. If we are serious about levelling up, there will inevitably be difficult decisions about taxation, which will present some unpalatable choices for colleagues.

Rather than shy away from these choices, we should relish them. The current situation (as well as Brexit) affords us with a once in a generation opportunity to deliver an economic strategy which can tackle the inherent structural weaknesses that have hampered the UK for decades: an approach which makes political as well as economic sense, as it repositions the Party’s economic policy far closer to the public (and our new and traditional voters).

The cultural and economic challenges facing the UK have changed, as has the political geography. Conservatism must adapt to face these challenges and not only reflect the nation’s mood, but also demonstrate that we are the only party which is able to protect the values that people cherish, and provide the means through which their lives can be improved. The economic orthodoxy and social liberalism of the past (Cameron’s “Notting Hill” modernisation) is not what our core voters, and especially our new converts, want. Indeed, it never was.

Repositioning our party to meet these cultural and economic challenges, and in doing so, striving to ensure that we maintain our recent gains, will challenge the ideology of many colleagues.

The prize for successfully doing so, however, is enormous. By building a lasting coalition of our new and traditional supporters, based on their shared cultural values and a blue collar economic programme, we can create a truly one nation party that is able to occupy the common ground for years to come – and in doing so cement our own “Blue Wall”, thereby locking Labour out of power.