[Ann Winterton in the Chair] — Abortion Law (Northern Ireland)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Mr. Watts.)

9:30 am
Photo of Martin Salter

Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mrs. Winterton.

When I was first elected to Parliament, I served on the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. Abortion law in Northern Ireland was an issue then and it will continue to be an issue until the Government fulfil their responsibility and grant equal rights to women in Northern Ireland. I have no doubt that this is an immensely controversial issue. Parliament has taken a fair old battering in recent months, but we right hon. and hon. Members are at our best when we do what we are sent here to do: to engage in the battle of ideas with mutual respect, particularly on difficult, controversial issues like this. I trust that this debate will be conducted with that in mind.

Photo of Martin Salter

Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)

No.

I well remember campaigning with colleagues from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on a cross-party basis for the Belfast agreement in 1998. I campaigned with Sinn Fein in the Falls road in the morning, with the Social Democratic and Labour party at lunchtime, and with the Progressive Unionist party in the afternoon in the Shankill road. [Interruption.] I am afraid that my colleagues from the Democratic Unionist party were on the other side of the issue at that point. One thing that came through in talking informally to people was that, yes, this issue-sadly, in my view-unites the vast majority of politicians in Northern Ireland.

Photo of David Taylor

David Taylor (North West Leicestershire, Labour)

Will my hon. Friend give way on that point?

Photo of Martin Salter

Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)

No, I will not.

The single exceptions are Anna Lo from the Alliance party and Dawn Purvis from the Progressive Unionist party. I have immense respect for those two people, who have shown great courage in standing up for what they believe in. Other politicians in Northern Ireland, particularly in the Assembly, share their views, but in the prevailing atmosphere people feel that it is difficult to express them, or they feel uncomfortable doing so. We all understand that; we are all under pressure from our electors.

We should all be concerned about this matter. It is a human rights issue. It is staggering that anyone can sit back and believe that it is okay to treat certain United Kingdom citizens as second-class citizens, purely on the basis of where they live. This is happening to women in Northern Ireland on a daily basis.

Devolution is a good thing, and I have no doubt that the devolution argument will be made today.

Photo of Martin Salter

Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)

No.

We did not devolve this issue to Scotland. There are, in my constituency and others, people from all over the UK, whether from England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, who have the right to travel to have heart operations or to see cancer specialists. However, somehow, a woman from Northern Ireland facing potentially serious medical complications or even worse cannot travel and be funded for abortion services in the mainland in England. How on earth can that be right?

It will be said that this is not a matter for the Westminster Parliament. However, a significant e-petition on the No. 10 website has been signed by many thousands of people, and my hon. Friend Ms Abbott tabled early-day motion 625. Of course, in May 2008, Northern Irish Members of Parliament had no compunction about coming to this place and voting to restrict the reproductive rights of my constituents, and they voted to reduce the abortion limit down to 12 weeks. I am afraid that anyone in this debate who trots out the argument that this is not a matter for Westminster has sold the pass.

Photo of Diane Abbott

Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington, Labour)

Is my hon. Friend aware that, in addition to tabling an early-day motion, I tabled an amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill on abortion rights in Northern Ireland, in response to which I received hundreds of letters from men and women in Northern Ireland, saying that, on this matter, the four major parties did not represent them and that they looked to the Westminster Parliament to be a voice for women there?

Photo of Martin Salter

Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)

I am well aware of the strength of feeling on this issue. We are nothing-we are pygmy politicians in this place-if we do not stand up for the rights of people who feel that they do not have a voice. My hon. Friend is right to articulate the fact that many women-many people-in Northern Ireland feel that they do not have a voice on this issue.

Photo of Bob Spink

Bob Spink (Castle Point, Independent)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the nearer to the people the decision is taken, the purer the democracy? People's views should be respected. The vast majority of people in Northern Ireland want to protect the unborn child and are absolutely right in holding that passionate view.

Photo of Martin Salter

Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)

I have great affection for the hon. Gentleman, but his argument blows apart if localism is taken down to its purist level, because the local decision of the individual woman herself is the one that we are defending.

Women in Northern Ireland have been waiting for more than 40 years to secure the same sexual and reproductive rights as women in the rest of the UK. The Abortion Act 1967 allows women in England, Scotland and Wales access to safe, legal abortion services. For women in Northern Ireland the situation is drastically different, because Victorian legislation-the Offences Against the Person Act 1861-is still in place there, which is a scandal. That means that women are only able to access abortion if their lives are in danger or if continuing the pregnancy would lead to severe and permanent harm. The penalty for obtaining an illegal abortion is imprisonment for life.

Northern Ireland women are living under a Victorian law created at a time of workhouses and child labour. Women were not even allowed the right to vote at that point, yet this law continues to govern the health and lives of women in Northern Ireland. The law in Northern Ireland is so restrictive that even a 14-year-old girl who had been raped or was a victim of incest, or even both, because that can happen, would not be able to access an abortion just because she had been raped or was a victim of incest. It is one of the most restrictive laws on abortion in Europe.

I have huge respect for people who raise moral issues in this Chamber and elsewhere, but it defies my comprehension that somebody could say to a 14-year-old girl who had been raped that they would, because of their particular religious beliefs and their own particular morality, force her to go through the agony of childbirth to satisfy their own moral code. I do not see what is particularly moral about that, but I respect people who have a different point of view.

Photo of David Taylor

David Taylor (North West Leicestershire, Labour)

I would guess that this is one of the rare debates in which my views and those of my hon. Friend are not closely aligned. Does he not accept that, with policing and justice powers on the point of being devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, it is quite probable that that Assembly will widen the laws to include reference to rape, incest and other issues? Is not that the forum in which these matters should be debated? He has been a strong supporter of devolution and I know that he still adheres to that point of view.

Photo of Martin Salter

Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)

I will touch on some of these points a little later, but I have already highlighted the inconsistency in respect of certain medical conditions: where there is no devolution people have a right for their travel to be funded, whereas in Northern Ireland that is not the case, solely in respect of abortion, even for rape victims.

For the vast majority of women in Northern Ireland who want access to safe, legal abortion services, their only option is to travel, either to the mainland or to other countries, such as Holland, and pay for an abortion procedure. Despite being UK taxpayers, women from Northern Ireland who travel to the mainland are unable to access abortion services that are available to women in the rest of the UK, free of charge through the NHS, which we all pay for, whether we are taxpayers in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. They have to pay for their own travel, accommodation and abortion procedures, which can amount to £2,000 or even more. That is not okay, although it is manageable if one has £2,000, but many people in Northern Ireland do not have access to such cash, so their choices are limited.

Photo of Emily Thornberry

Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury, Labour)

One way forward, which would not be popular with all of us-compromise is always required-might be to allow women from Northern Ireland to have a free abortion if they came to the mainland. In that way, abortion would remain illegal in Northern Ireland, but it would be legal for a Northern Irish woman to have an abortion in England. That would be illogical, but at least it would allow such women access to free abortions.

Photo of Martin Salter

Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, which is in the spirit of my early-day motion 1754 and early-day motion 625 tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington. That is the least that the Government should do-I am giving away the conclusion of my speech-and I do not want to hear Ministers washing their hands of the matter by trying to farm it out elsewhere.

I shall give a short case study, and I am grateful to organisations in Northern Ireland for providing me with the information. Susan-the name has been changed-is 37 and is married with four children. She has found that she is pregnant with her family's fifth child. She has recently moved back to Northern Ireland after living abroad for many years, and lives in a rural area where she has not built up a strong support network of friends, so she feels isolated. She believes that having another child would place unbearable pressure on her, her husband and their children. Since her husband lost his job 10 months ago, the family have been reliant on benefits and have no other financial or family support. That makes it impossible for Susan to raise £2,000 or £2,500 even to travel to the mainland to secure an abortion.

A myth surrounding abortion in Northern Ireland is that people there do not support a woman's right to choose. A survey by the Family Planning Association in September 2008 showed that almost two thirds of people-62 per cent.-in Northern Ireland support abortion following rape and incest, but it seems that our politicians do not. Furthermore, in its submission to the UN committee on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland called for

"the same access to reproductive health care services and rights in Northern Ireland as are available in Great Britain".

It has been estimated that since the Abortion Act 1967 excluded Northern Ireland, about 70,000 women have travelled to England and overseas to have an abortion. For the past 40 years, women have voted with their feet.

Photo of Julie Morgan

Julie Morgan (Cardiff North, Labour)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I do not know whether he took part in any of the meetings with women trade unionists from Northern Ireland, but there was strong support among trade unions for the measures that he proposes. They said that they were looking to us to help them.

Photo of Martin Salter

Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. That is why we are here today.

A culture of secrecy continues to surround abortion in Northern Ireland. The majority of women who have abortions are unwilling to speak out about their experience because they fear the reaction from wider society, and sometimes from family and friends. The Family Planning Association is the only organisation in Northern Ireland that offers non-directive, non-judgmental counselling and support services for women and their partners or families who are faced with a crisis pregnancy. Its office in Belfast is picketed four days a week-I have seen videos of that-by anti-choice protesters, including protesters from Precious Life. Those protesters not only harass women going into the building, but intimidate them by telling them that they will be waiting for them when they emerge. When the women leave, the protesters follow them to bus stops and train stations, and thrust false information and graphic photos in their faces. That is not moral or acceptable, and I would not dream of doing that.

We have been reading about the harrowing case of Sir Edward Downes and his wife who chose to go to Switzerland to die. Would anyone with a shred of morality harass people who have made a brave, courageous, controversial but personal decision about their right to take their own life? I leave that hanging, because I find it one of the more revolting aspects of how the debate is conducted.

Abortion is upsetting for women, and they may be distressed and need to access the Family Planning Association's counselling services. Northern Ireland is a small community, and a woman being followed down the street and shouted at is hardly inconspicuous. Despite the false information that the protesters give out, the FPA's counselling service offers a welcome opportunity for women to make their own choice. That is what this debate is about-women in a small part of the United Kingdom having the right to make a choice that is available to women in the rest of England, Scotland and Wales.

The culture of secrecy also extends to politicians in Northern Ireland-I touched on this earlier-and many are unable to admit that they are pro-choice because of their party's stated anti-choice policies. I have had dialogue with Northern Ireland politicians who felt that they were in a compromise situation. The secrecy around abortion in Northern Ireland permeates every thread of society, and masks the reality of what happens to women when they are faced with an unplanned pregnancy. It adds to the anguish and struggle that they face when making the decision and raising the money, sometimes without the support of family and friends. Such women decide to access safe and legal abortion services behind a veil of secrecy, and that is not acceptable in 21st century Britain.

In the past year, two UN committees have stated that abortion law in Northern Ireland needs to be amended. In 2008, the United Nations committee on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women recommended that the UK should initiate a process of public consultation in Northern Ireland on abortion law. In line with general recommendation 24 on women and health and the Beijing platform for action, the committee also urged the UK to consider amending the abortion law to remove punitive provisions imposed on women who undergo abortion.

Regardless of whether the Government are devolving policing and justice, which includes abortion, to Northern Ireland, they should remember that to UN committees, Britain and the British Government are still responsible for the UK, which includes Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. By signing up to UN treaties, the Government have made a commitment to meet the obligations for all UK citizens, not just some. There is a strong and powerful argument that the Government are neglecting their responsibility to enable women in Northern Ireland to access safe and legal abortion services, as recommended by the UN committees.

I am sure that the Minister is aware that the Department for International Development supports the global safe abortion campaign, because that is stated on its website. The Government provided £4 million to the safe abortion action fund, and £6.5 million to women's health organisations. It is ironic to have one message for the developing world, and totally different values and messages for women in part of the United Kingdom. It is difficult to square that circle.

There is anecdotal evidence of women in Northern Ireland going online to buy medication to induce an abortion, even though that is illegal. Some women have accessed rogue websites, and received incomplete prescriptions or completely different substances. That could put their health in danger, and is a tragedy waiting to happen. The figures are there for all to see, and they show the number of deaths since 1967 as a result of people being so desperate that they will try illegal abortion methods. That is as much a moral issue as any other.

I do not believe that the Government whom I support do not care for women in Northern Ireland, or do not want to end the scandal of them being treated as second-class citizens in relation to their reproductive rights. The Minister may respond-Ministers have responded in this way in the past-by saying that this is not a matter for the Government any more. He may try to wash his hands of it, but I hope not. I say that it is an issue for this Parliament and for all Members of this House, as Northern Ireland Members have demonstrated by their willingness to restrict abortion rights for my constituents and those of other right hon. and hon. Members who are on the other side of the issue from them.

I ask the Government to commit themselves to extending the Abortion Act 1967 to Northern Ireland while they can still do so. I am not holding my breath for the response to that request, but if they will not do that, which they should, they could start by redressing the blatant inequality faced by women by providing funding for women who are forced to travel to access safe and legal abortion services, so that they can access them free of charge in the national health service that we all pay for. That is the very least that should be done.

Several hon. Members:

rose-

Photo of Ann Winterton

Ann Winterton (Congleton, Conservative)

Order. Before I call the next speaker, I make a plea for contributions to be as brief as possible, because I have received many names of people wanting to speak, and obviously many people have risen wanting to speak. We must also have the winding-up speeches, which may themselves have to be slightly curtailed. I call David Simpson.

9:51 am
Photo of David Simpson

David Simpson (Upper Bann, DUP)

I welcome you to the Chair, Lady Winterton. I congratulate Martin Salter on obtaining the debate. As he said himself, it is on an issue that is very controversial across the United Kingdom, including, of course, Northern Ireland.

Each time that the subject of abortion is debated or referenced in Parliament, I am struck by a number of things that quickly rise to the surface whenever it comes to those who style themselves as pro-choice. I am frequently struck by their thinly concealed anti-democratic, anti-libertarian and anti-human rights stance.

Why do I say "anti-democratic"? The answer is simple. On both sides of the House of Commons-on the Government and Opposition Benches-there is probably near unanimous agreement that Northern Ireland should have a devolved Assembly, with devolved powers, and that that should eventually include policing and justice powers, but of course for some hon. Members, the people of Northern Ireland are not to be trusted with the issue of abortion. Despite the fact that there is overwhelming agreement across the political divide, Northern Ireland, in the eyes of some hon. Members, is simply not grown up enough, mature enough, clever enough or modern enough to be trusted with that decision. The message being sent to Northern Ireland by some hon. Members could not be clearer: "We support devolution for you, but only in so far as you do what we like and what we want."

Photo of David Simpson

David Simpson (Upper Bann, DUP)

My speech will be short, so I will not give way.

What I have described is an anti-democratic stance. Why did I use the term "anti-libertarian"? Again, whenever the subject of abortion comes up, it quickly becomes evident that if hon. Members speak against abortion, speak in favour of tightening up abortion provisions or express a principled anti-abortion and pro-life position, there are some who cannot listen to that message respectfully but feel compelled to resort to name calling and demonising the people who do that. We have seen that in the past in the House.

Why did I mention an anti-human rights approach? Some people take the view that the solution to what they describe as the denial of a person's right to choose is to deny a child's right to live. I do not believe that, if anyone in the House were to say that a black or coloured baby, a Jewish baby or a baby from the travelling community should have its life ended, there would be a single Member of the House who would not be rightly outraged, no matter what justification was given by that person. However, there are those who tell us that a baby not yet born should have its life ended for no other reason than another person's right to choose. I cannot and will not support that kind of cruelty being visited upon the innocent. Rather than making Northern Ireland like the rest of the UK on this issue, it would-

Photo of David Simpson

David Simpson (Upper Bann, DUP)

No, I will not; I shall be finished in 30 seconds. Rather than making Northern Ireland like the rest of the UK on this issue, it would be far better if hon. Members were to campaign for the reverse and to show the same commitment to the life in the womb as they show for consumer parenthood and disposable babies. The abortion laws across the UK do need to be reviewed, updated and amended, but they need to be reviewed away from the current situation and the free-for-all that exists in many parts of the country. I urge hon. Members to go down that road, not the one that they are trying to map out for the people of Northern Ireland.

9:56 am
Photo of Ann Cryer

Ann Cryer (Keighley, Labour)

I thank my hon. Friend Martin Salter for raising this subject. It is a very difficult one and clearly this Chamber is very divided. The difficulties faced by young women in Northern Ireland came home to me when I went to a meeting in Portcullis House; I think that it was last week. Baroness Blood chaired the meeting. When I heard her talking about the situation of young women in Northern Ireland-women of child-bearing age-I was reminded of the arguments that I had to sustain alone, with almost no support whatever from other people, regarding the forced marriages of young women in my constituency 12 years ago. When I was elected 12 years ago, many people were coming to me for help to get a marriage annulled or to get divorced because they had been forced into a marriage in Pakistan. I had to do what I could. I also had to contact the Islamabad high commission to put a stop on entry clearance for the person coming in.

I got very little support on that, for the same reasons that women in Northern Ireland are not getting much support now-because the politicians in Northern Ireland know that it would affect their votes at the next election if they supported young girls asking for the right to have abortions there or asking for help to come here. Still to this day, the girls I helped in my constituency will not talk about that situation, for the same reason that the girls in Northern Ireland will not. In Northern Ireland, it is probably referred to as "What will the neighbours say?" In Keighley, it was family pride and family honour that was afflicting them. So I feel as though I am in the deep end with this. I understand very clearly what the girls in Northern Ireland are going through. People can tell by my voice that I am finding it quite difficult to talk about this. However, I am here this morning to maintain the position that women in the UK have the right to control their own fertility and their own child bearing.

Photo of Ann Cryer

Ann Cryer (Keighley, Labour)

No, I am sorry. If I give way, I will not start again, because I am finding this so difficult.

At the moment, young women in Northern Ireland are denied a right that women in the rest of the UK are allowed to have. However, I want to go back a little. I will be 70 later this year and I was of child-bearing age during the period before David Steel's 1967 Act came in, so I know what the position was then. Many friends who had babies brought them up and were good mothers to them, but they had reservations about having them-they perhaps already had two or three children, so they had anxieties. At the time, women were not able to have a legal abortion.

Women have always been able to access safe abortions-the same must, and in fact does, apply as regards Northern Ireland-if they have the money and the wherewithal to find out where they are available, and David Steel simply ensured that there was a level playing field for all women. I suggest to Democratic Unionist Members that women in Northern Ireland today who want an abortion can get one if they have the money to come to this country for one. Those who do not have the money and who do not know how to get through the legal loopholes will not have an abortion. They will have to bring into the world a child that they do not want and that they will possibly have adopted at an early stage.

I have known women in such situations. In fact, I had a friend who performed an abortion on herself. She lost a great deal of blood and had to be taken into hospital. She had to put out all sorts of stories to explain why that happened. She had the beginnings of multiple sclerosis, and her condition deteriorated a great deal shortly after she performed the abortion. I am quite convinced that the two things were connected. Had she been able to have a legal, safe abortion, she would not have been forced into that situation.

I hope that the message that goes out from this Chamber is that the UK Parliament cannot go on in the present situation, with women in a small corner of the UK being denied the rights that are enjoyed by so many women in the rest of the UK. That is so unfair. I hope that Northern Ireland Members of Parliament will eventually change their attitudes. If we cannot achieve that, I hope that Ministers in this country will make available some facility to help girls who want to come to this country by ensuring that they can access abortions and that they have the money to travel here. The current situation is so wrong and so unfair on such girls, and I appeal to the Minister to look carefully at the issue to make sure that no one in the UK is denied an abortion simply because they do not have the money to catch a flight here.

10:04 am
Photo of Mark Durkan

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton.

Martin Salter said that we would be pygmy politicians if we did not do what we were sent here to do. What he advocates is certainly not something that I or my colleagues from other Northern Ireland constituencies feel that we were sent here to do. I hope that the implication of his reference to pygmy politicians was not that those of us from Northern Ireland are somehow less capable parliamentarians or legislators.

Photo of Martin Salter

Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)

Let me make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that I said that we would be pygmy politicians if we shied away from debating this issue. I respect his arguments and I am delighted that he has been given an opportunity to set them out.

Photo of Mark Durkan

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that because many of us in Northern Ireland get a bit fed up with British politicians who seem to think that they are the political Gullivers while we are intellectual Lilliputians, who cannot understand or deal with these issues ourselves and who need the wisdom and intervention of British politicians and international instruments.

I make no apology for standing here as, among other things, an Irish nationalist. As far as I am concerned, an Irish national Parliament should legislate on this issue for the whole of Ireland. I mentioned international instruments, and a protocol has been fully promulgated in the European Union making it clear that no European instrument or law will override the right of the Government and the Parliament of Ireland on abortion legislation. I speak from that very clear perspective and I make no apology for that.

My hon. Members for Reading, West and for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) made several points. I fully accept that there is conscience on both sides of the debate, and the sooner we all recognise that the better. That was strongly reflected in some of the remarks by the hon. Lady.

Reference was made to the call by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland to introduce the same rights as in Britain. The Good Friday agreement, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, provides for strong equality measures. Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 names seven different grounds for equality protection, one of which is disability. Many groups representing disabled people fundamentally object to the amended 1967 Act precisely because it permits abortion practically right up to birth in the case of foetal abnormality. Foetal abnormality is used to cover a wide variety of issues and disabilities. In many cases, the Act sends the signal that those with disabilities would have been better off not being born. I know many disabled people, not only in Northern Ireland, who fundamentally object to that dimension of the Act.

The hon. Gentleman said that the law in Northern Ireland is one of the most restrictive pieces of such legislation in Europe, but the 1967 Act, which he advocates should be extended to Northern Ireland, is one of the most liberal, if not the most liberal, in Europe. Why should we resign ourselves to that?

The hon. Gentleman said that those of us who voted to amend the 1967 Act last year, when the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 was going through the House, had sold the pass and did not have the right to object to the extension of the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland. I simply point out to him that there was a full, clear and present threat to use the 2008 Act-this was the intent of many Members of the House-to extend the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland Members faced that very real threat and we were within our rights to seek amendments to mitigate it.

However, if the hon. Gentleman was trying to suggest that there should be some new constitutional compact fully to declare that this Parliament will never attempt to extend the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland, while Northern Ireland Members will stay out of subsequent legislation, that is a separate debate that we need to have. He cannot, however, say that we do not have the right to vote on the 1967 Act while he and other Members reserve the right to say that they will extend it to Northern Ireland.

Photo of Martin Salter

Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)

Let me make it clear that that was not the point that I was making. I was merely pre-empting an argument, which has been made in the past, that Westminster politicians have no right to discuss the issue. I was pointing out that Northern Ireland politicians felt that they had the right to vote on legislation that affects my constituents. At no point in my contribution-the hon. Gentleman will be able to check the record-did I question their right to campaign against the 1967 Act.

Photo of Mark Durkan

I do not want to dwell on that, because I want to conclude, but I was taking up the hon. Gentleman's point. He said that those of us who had voted to amend the 1967 Act had sold the pass and therefore had no right any more to object to Westminster extending the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland. Well, we do object to the 1967 Act as it stands and we object to its extension to Northern Ireland. If he wants to carry that argument, it brings us into the case for some new constitutional compact here, which may well be worth looking at.

The hon. Lady suggested that politicians in Northern Ireland do not want to deal with the issue because it would affect our vote. The politicians who are elected by people in Northern Ireland come here on the basis of clear and credible positions. The issue is much discussed and debated in Northern Ireland, in the Assembly, on the airwaves and elsewhere. The suggestion that there is total secrecy and radio silence is wrong. There are contradictions in the arguments that are being made by my hon. Members because on the one hand the hon. Gentleman says opinion polls show that well over 60 per cent. of people favour the extension of the Abortion Act, yet on the other hand the hon. Lady says that we are failing to legislate on the issue because we fear for our vote.

10:11 am
Photo of Robert Key

Robert Key (Salisbury, Conservative)

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton. I had the good fortune to grow up in a loving family and I speak as a father and grandfather, whose fourth grandchild is due in a month. I also speak as a Christian and I therefore believe that every cell of every human body is sacred. I support the stated position of my Church, the Church of England, which is strong opposition to abortion. For me, one abortion is one too many and represents a failure of all of us.

There are, however, many Christians and people of faith of other religions who balance their opposition in principle to abortion with the view that God is compassionate towards the needs and suffering of pregnant women and those around them. I respect the differences between the countries of the United Kingdom and see them as a strength, not a weakness. Therefore, I do not for a moment seek to undermine the perhaps more conservative traditional social attitudes in one part or another of the United Kingdom. I think that it is a shame that there are not more women in the debate, but that is a feature of our Parliament. I also think that we should recognise that we live in a male-dominated society with a male-dominated Parliament and Churches. I sometimes wonder whether men should vote at all, or even speak, on these issues in public. After all, all pregnancies are caused by men and it is women who take the grief.

I have never subscribed to the view of those who argue that abortion is a matter of a woman's right to choose, as if women had an exclusive right. To me it is a partnership between a woman, a man, a child and, indeed, God. However, it is the mother who is pregnant and who will give birth and raise the child. I believe that Parliament cannot wash its hands of the issue, any more than the issue of abortion itself can be wished away. We are talking about discrimination against half the population of Northern Ireland-the female half. That is institutional, financial discrimination by the British Government against women who have paid their taxes and national insurance contributions. I am therefore ashamed that in our United Kingdom we treat women in Northern Ireland differently and penalise them financially.

However, it is rather worse than that. The situation faced by women in Northern Ireland has become tainted by a very nasty atmosphere of punishment and revenge by those who think that they are morally superior. I do not know of any women taking the decision to have an abortion lightly. From the figures, it is not naughty schoolgirls who have most of the abortions; 70 per cent. of them involve women aged 20 to 34-years, one would have thought, of some discretion and common sense. Of course, 64 per cent. of all terminations in England take place at under nine weeks' gestation. However, the fact is that in 2008 1,173 women were forced to travel to England from Northern Ireland for termination of pregnancy. In parenthesis another 4,600 came from the Republic of Ireland.

There are far too many abortions in our country and we have all failed to find the answer. We continue to let down generations of young people of both sexes, and we need to address that. We should start by stopping the financial discrimination against women in Northern Ireland who face substantial costs of £2,000 and more when they have already paid their taxes. It is time that we stopped punishing women and started educating men.

10:15 am
Photo of William McCrea

William McCrea (South Antrim, DUP)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton.

I believe that when Members of Parliament dare speak about abortion on demand they will soon find themselves engulfed in something of a hostile environment. I remember the last debate that was held in the House on this subject, and I can assure hon. Members that anyone who either mentioned an opposite point of view or pro-life position or even happened to quote a verse from the scriptures was totally laughed at and mocked in that debate. I am delighted that this is a more sane and normal debate.

I appreciate the fact that Martin Salter brought the issue up. I have no objection to the matter being discussed. The question is how it is resolved, which is a matter of the opinion of the people of Northern Ireland and their elected representatives, and should be left as that. However, when many people champion the cause of minorities across the United Kingdom, it is regarded as laudable.

I want to champion the cause of the minority: the unborn child-the child who has not the ability to speak in the House. We will hear a lot of talk about human rights and the right of the woman. I have never heard, of course, whenever we have talked about the rights in this debate, about the right of the unborn child. Somehow, they do not seem to have rights, or those rights seem to be lesser compared with others.

Photo of Gregory Campbell

Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry, DUP)

Is not my hon. Friend touching on the very nub of the issue? The debate and resolution will be found only when all of us, as adult parliamentarians, balance the plight, needs and concerns of women who find themselves pregnant, whom we have got to have a concern for, and the plight of the unborn child, whom very few people appear to stand up for and speak for.

Photo of William McCrea

William McCrea (South Antrim, DUP)

I thank my hon. Friend for that point.

It is also interesting that out of the 18 Members of Parliament for Northern Ireland constituencies not one has signed the hon. Gentleman's early-day motion. Of course he pointed out that that was because we were political pygmies. That is a slur against pygmies, because I think that they are quite nice people, and to suggest that is rather insulting.

Of course, contradictory messages are coming out, as was rightly pointed out by Mark Durkan. For example, the hon. Member for Reading, West suggested to us that we had not the guts to take the hard decisions, because we were behind our electorate: that our electorate were well ahead of us and wanted us to do it, but we were not willing. However, Mrs. Cryer suggested that politicians were not doing so because it would affect their vote. With the greatest respect, Labour Members cannot have it both ways-they usually try to, but some of us here are not willing to let them. They should not try to bamboozle us with nonsense. [Interruption.] I was elected to the House to represent my constituents. I assure the House that when the Northern Ireland constituency representatives here today face their electorate, they will discover whether the electorate are backing them.

Photo of Martin Salter

Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)

I ask the hon. Gentleman a simple question: is he in favour of allowing an abortion for a woman who has been raped?

Photo of William McCrea

William McCrea (South Antrim, DUP)

It is interesting that, whenever we come to talk about the matter, an emotive example is always given. Let us be frank: the majority of people-

Photo of William McCrea

William McCrea (South Antrim, DUP)

With the greatest respect, the hon. Gentleman cannot expect me, as a parliamentarian, simply to answer the question as he wants it answered. I shall answer it in the way that I was elected to answer, which is what I stand for-and I make no apology for it.

Let me say this about rape. Does destroying the unborn baby eradicate the tragedy of the rape? Does an act of violence against the mother justify an act of violence against the unborn child?

Photo of William McCrea

William McCrea (South Antrim, DUP)

No, I am sorry. If the hon. Lady catches your eye, Lady Winterton, I am sure that she will be called.

The tragedy of the woman who has been raped is not eliminated by compounding it, by killing the baby. We have to lay some of these issues to rest. Another reason given for abortion is abnormality. Is the possible abnormality of an unborn child a justification for abortion? Whenever we talk about aborting babies because they may be handicapped, we are forced to make serious value judgments that I believe are reserved only for God and not for people sitting in this Chamber.

Why is there such haste? Let us get to the nub of the matter. The reason for the debate was made known by Dr. Audrey Simpson. She said that once the responsibility is transferred, as part of the handover of policing and justice powers, it will be very difficult to make a change. It is nothing to do with it being the right time to make a change; it is the right time to get one result-to force the Westminster Government's hand. Indeed, she also said that the United Kingdom Government do not have the guts to stand up to Northern Ireland politicians.

Who does Dr. Simpson think she is? I have the right as an elected representative to speak on behalf of my people. When was Dr. Simpson elected? If she believes that she is right, she should put herself before the electorate. She should stand in a Northern Ireland constituency and find out whether she represents the people. I assure the House that she would find out that she does not represent them. She will not sit in this place.

Photo of William McCrea

William McCrea (South Antrim, DUP)

No; I am finishing my remarks, Lady Winterton, as you asked.

It is interesting to note that, when someone is planning to terminate the life of an unborn child and destroy the miracle of God's creation, they refer to the unborn as a foetus or the embryo. By contrast, when they plan to keep the child and cherish it, it is always known as "my baby" or "my child". We never hear anyone saying, "I'm going to have a little foetus." We never hear an abortionist saying, "We're going to kill the little baby." Our respect for the unborn seems to be strangely affected by the circumstances, and I was not elected to the House to support that position.

10:23 am
Photo of Emily Thornberry

Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury, Labour)

Many people feel very strongly about this matter, and I am one. Some may know that my family comes from Northern Ireland, and that some members of my family still live there.

The people of Northern Ireland have many strengths, but I do not understand why their politicians will not allow women to have access to abortion. The politicians may not agree with abortion themselves, and many of their constituents may not agree with it, but I tell them this: women in desperate circumstances will have an abortion. They may have one illegally, they may try to do it themselves, they may come to the mainland to have it or they may go to Holland; but they will have an abortion and we cannot stop them.

What we can do is make it fair. We should give women fair access to hospitals in Northern Ireland, where they can have the support of their mothers and where they can have the abortion quietly and discreetly. Please believe me, they will not have an abortion lightly. They will have an abortion only in desperate circumstances. Every abortion is a tragedy, and every woman who has had an abortion believes that. They will do it only if they absolutely have to do so.

Photo of Emily Thornberry

Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury, Labour)

No.

There are good things about Northern Ireland, and many good things have happened there. Its economy is booming, and it is becoming much more liberal socially. There are now gay pride marches in Northern Ireland. There is a growing group of people there who come from a socially liberal background and are still not adequately represented by their elected representatives. The 21st century is coming to Northern Ireland, as it is coming to the rest of the world. It is important that that growing group should have some political representation.

Many who are socially liberal have chosen to move away from Northern Ireland, but some are now moving back. Changes are going on in Northern Ireland. Its politicians must change too. I deeply regret that the powers devolved to Northern Ireland under the Good Friday agreement included those relating to women and abortion. That was a mistake. We should have done the same with Northern Ireland as we did with Scotland and Wales: the issue should be a UK-wide one. I wish such authority had not been passed over, but it was.

I appreciate that I could be accused of opportunism, but I wish that we could grab the power back at the last minute, saying that we had made a mistake. I wish that we had not given Northern Ireland the authority over abortion. I do not believe that Northern Ireland politicians represent the views of the majority in Northern Ireland. They are behind the times. However, I believe strongly in the Good Friday agreement. I believe strongly in a peaceful Northern Ireland and in its growing prosperity, and letting it move on.

Photo of Martin Salter

Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)

Would my hon. Friend allow me to put on record that the reason for having this debate today is nothing to do with the legislative timetable? It is everything to do with a film showing women in a distressed state being harassed by Precious Life outside the FPA headquarters. That is why we are debating the subject today.

Photo of Emily Thornberry

Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury, Labour)

I fully understand that, but I am speaking on my own behalf. I wish that we could go back on the mistake that we made when the Good Friday agreement started: power over abortion should not have been part of the devolution package.

Photo of Mark Durkan

My hon. Friend said that Northern Ireland is more socially liberal. She offered as evidence gay pride marches and so on. Does she appreciate that many of us are on what she would regard as the socially liberal side of those arguments, and that we have stood up for gay pride and participated in such events? Abortion, however, is different. It is not about the individual's sexual or other rights; it affects the rights of an innocent third party, namely the child.

Photo of Emily Thornberry

Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury, Labour)

I respect the hon. Gentleman, but I do not agree with him. I believe that individual women should be allowed to make individual decisions. However strongly the hon. Gentleman may feel about the matter, I believe that women should be trusted to make their own decisions about their lives. They will continue to do so, whether or not he stops them.

Photo of Emily Thornberry

Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury, Labour)

No, because others wish to speak.

If we cannot grab back the power that we are about to devolve to Northern Ireland, the least that we can do is allow women from Northern Ireland to have access to abortion under the national health service. I do not want that smutty compromise; it is not right. I believe that women in Northern Ireland should be allowed to walk into a hospital as I could in London, and as a woman from Northern Ireland's sister could if she lived in my constituency. It is not right, but it is the best that we can offer. I wish that we could at least do that before handing over these powers in Northern Ireland to gentlemen such as Dr. McCrea, whose views do not represent those of everyone in Northern Ireland. At the moment, such people do not have a voice.

Photo of Ann Winterton

Ann Winterton (Congleton, Conservative)

I intend to call the Front-Bench spokesmen at 20 minutes to 11. Three speakers remain to speak before then. They can work out for themselves how long they have.

10:30 am
Photo of Alasdair McDonnell

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton. I did not intend to speak, but I cannot let my hon. Friend Martin Salter get away with some of the crazy stuff that I heard earlier. He depicted me and my constituents as primitive savages who attack pregnant women in the streets. I live beside a Family Planning Association clinic, my constituency office is beside it, and for 30 years I have worked as a general practitioner beside it. Never, in that whole time, have I seen baying mobs attacking people at the clinic. Occasionally there are crazies-there are crazy people on the pro-life side of the argument-and some of these things can happen, but for God's sake please do not paint us as primitive savages.

Photo of Bob Spink

Bob Spink (Castle Point, Independent)

As a GP, does the hon. Gentleman share my utter revulsion at the number of late-term abortions due to supposed deformities-the child might be beautiful, but have a hare-lip or something else perfectly treatable? That is why people get terribly wound up.

Photo of Alasdair McDonnell

The hon. Gentleman is right. Some of us face a conundrum. For 30 years I have worked with women in stress-I might be unique in the Chamber in that sense-and I have dealt with them sympathetically, humanely and compassionately. However, there is a difficulty, to which I have yet to hear an answer.

We spend millions struggling to save babies of 22-week gestation, and putting them in incubators, and quite often those lives are preserved, even if they are not of a high quality-that is another issue-but we throw 24-week gestation babies in a bucket to die. Somebody must provide an answer. We have got to find a balance. Some revolting arguments were made during the debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008. At that time, we ducked the issue, but it must be dealt with. We cannot throw a viable foetus-a viable infant-into a bucket to die at 24 weeks and say that it is right.

I do not think that 62 per cent. of people in Northern Ireland are in favour of abortion. In my estimation, the figure might be 30 per cent. Yes, by manipulating the 30 per cent. figure-if one picked only those who were in favour-one could get 62 per cent. However, it does not stand up to sense that if two-thirds of our population are in favour of abortion, suddenly politicians like me cower in front of the 30 or 33 per cent. who are not in favour.

It upsets me that there is no Government NHS support service for a young woman who wants to keep a child. Often the pressures are economic, and time and again, in such cases, I have had to revert to various faith-based groups to provide support-often across religious divides and all the rest-for somebody who is desperate to hold on to an infant, but unable to do so for economic reasons.

We face a number of problems. Before we sort the debate once and for all, we need to start caring for people and young pregnant women, and not just seeing this as a disposable item.

10:34 am
Photo of Diane Abbott

Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington, Labour)

Like all hon. Members in this Chamber-I think-I believe that any abortion is a tragedy. However, let me press a point on some of my male colleagues: they talk as though women take abortions lightly and that they do it for social convenience and without thought. I urge my male colleagues to have a little more respect for the women of Northern Ireland. Every woman whom I have known who has had, or contemplated, an abortion has gone through agony. So I should like to hear a little more respect for women who face that appalling decision.

Photo of Diane Abbott

Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington, Labour)

I am afraid that time is against me.

In July last year, I tabled an amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 that would have extended the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland. I did not do that because I wanted to override the will of the Assembly. We should bear in mind that that is permissive legislation. If it applied to Northern Ireland, it would not force a single woman there to have an abortion, which is why some of what I have heard is so wrong-headed. If women do not want to have abortions, and if they are not in positions in which they need to contemplate them, permissive legislation itself is not a problem. Unfortunately, my amendment never got debated on the Floor of the House. With the greatest respect to my colleagues on the Treasury Bench, I believe that the Government colluded in that, because they knew that, had it got to the Floor of the House, there was a very good chance that it would have got through, because there is a pro-choice majority on both sides of the House-thank goodness that this is not a party-political issue, as it is in the United States, where we see demonstrations outside abortion clinics.

I have been struck by the number of letters that I have received from women in Northern Ireland who do not feel that the male politicians who have spoken today speak for them. As people who are currently part of Great Britain, they are looking to their British Parliament to give them relief and to stand up for their rights. Male politicians on both sides in Northern Ireland do not agree on many things, but they agree about abortion. That is what makes women, whether ordinary women, mothers, daughters or those in the FPA, so desperate for their Parliament-we are their Parliament, too-to come to their aid and stand up for their rights.

As colleagues have said, abortion is not a problem for middle-class girls and daughters-even of some politicians in the Assembly-with the necessary money, contacts, time and support. However, it is a problem for thousands of working-class women and girls in Northern Ireland who either have to find the money and so end up coming late in their pregnancy-a doctor has spoken about late abortions-without family support and facing a more dangerous abortion than would otherwise have been the case, or who cannot find the money at all and are forced to attempt a botched job at home.

I will not take lectures on morality from people who are willing to see defenceless, working-class girls frightened and alone attempting to induce an abortion in their back bedroom. Is that morality in the 21st century? This is a difficult issue, but people need to have more respect for women and the seriousness with which they regard this decision. People need to recognise that women in Northern Ireland deprived of their rights for so long look to us, the British Parliament. Somebody said, "What is the urgency? What is the pressing concern?" The pressing concern is that it is 40 years since women in the British isles got that right. We can argue about the parameters of our abortion law, but I do not believe that there is an argument for continuing to treat women in Northern Ireland as second-class citizens.

Finally, a colleague said that he would like the decision taken by an Irish national Parliament. As it happens, yesterday, I was privileged to chair a meeting addressed by the President of Sinn Fein, who was reopening the debate on a united Ireland. I, too, would like to see a decision taken by a Parliament of a united Ireland, but Northern Ireland is currently part of the British isles and this matter falls to the British Parliament. So I apologise to no one for speaking up for the rights of all women in the British isles.

10:39 am
Photo of Jacqui Lait

Jacqui Lait (Beckenham, Conservative)

I have been involved in this debate for more than 40 years, and we have heard today all the arguments made throughout that time. If there is one plea, it is that we go to the barricades in the cause of toleration. Not many people do that. The compromise argument that the women in Northern Ireland who need and agonise over having an abortion should have it paid for in a hospital in Great Britain is perhaps the cause of toleration. Great congratulations should be paid to our Northern Ireland politicians for acquiring such toleration and creating an Assembly that represents a variety of opposing views. Let them please now apply that toleration to this issue as well.

10:40 am
Photo of Alistair Carmichael

Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland, Liberal Democrat)

It is a pleasure to follow Mrs. Lait. It is a shame that she did not have the opportunity to expand her views, because she would have made a valuable contribution to the debate.

I congratulate Martin Salter on securing the debate. My heart did not leap with excitement when I saw that it had reached the Order Paper, but we have had a good and, for the most part, well-measured debate, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the manner in which he opened it.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the so-called travel option. Northern Ireland is, and remains, part of the United Kingdom, so the fact that the abortion law does not extend to the Northern Ireland counties does not make abortion illegal. None the less, for logistic reasons-for reasons relating to travel and the rest of it-it remains a difficult option for women there to pursue. That messy compromise serves nobody well. Moreover, it encourages a double standard that pretends that it is all right for Northern Ireland to have a different law from the rest of us as long as people can quietly cross the Irish sea and have their terminations on the UK mainland. From the point of view of the women concerned, it is an exceptionally unsatisfactory situation. When young women contemplate a termination, they are at their most emotionally vulnerable. To remove them from the immediate ambit of their friends and family at that most vulnerable time is unacceptable.

The hon. Gentleman also spoke about the picketing of Family Planning Association premises, which was taken up by Dr. McDonnell. Clearly, there are extreme views on all sides about this issue. If such picketing is going on, it is unacceptable. I bow to nobody in the defence of freedom of speech, but nobody suggests that freedom of speech is an unlimited right. When it comes to targeting individuals who are at their most vulnerable, that is an unacceptable use of freedom of speech, whatever the basis of it may be.

Finally, the hon. Member for Reading, West mentioned that women in the 21st century can go online to obtain abortifacients. If that is happening, women in Northern Ireland are clearly in the same situation that women in the rest of the country were in prior to David Steel's Abortion Act 1967. When I was a law student, I remember reading about abortion cases in Scots law. At that time, slippery elm bark was one of the abortifacients that was used, and it was a brutal and inhumane procedure.

Many hon. Members have talked about starting from a position of strongly held principle. I respect such principles, especially when they come from a religious perspective. However, for me, this has always been an entirely pragmatic question. My view was formed some 26 years ago when I was outside a polling station in Glasgow. During a quiet spell, I spoke to the duty policeman who was reaching the end of his 30-year service. He said, "What party are you for, Sonny?"-people used to call me Sonny in those days. "I am a Liberal," I replied. He said, "David Steel's abortion Bill was the best thing that ever happened. People forget that when women went into public toilets to have abortions it was the police who had to go in and remove the foetus from the toilet." I was struck then that whether or not abortion was illegal, we would never remove it from our society. As a matter of pragmatism-not high principle or religious belief-if that is going to be part of our society, I want to see it done in the most humane, clinical and controlled way possible. That is why the Government should, even at this late stage, take a careful look to see whether there is an opportunity for this House, while it retains the power, to have the debate that Northern Ireland, as part of the United Kingdom, deserves.

10:45 am
Photo of Laurence Robertson

Laurence Robertson (Shadow Minister, Northern Ireland; Tewkesbury, Conservative)

I will put forward the Conservative party's view on the logistics of the matter and then make one or two personal comments. Having discussed the matter with my party-or, certainly, a number of people in it-we take the view that this is a matter for the devolved Assembly. As has been pointed out, the devolved Assembly cannot take that decision at the moment because policing and criminal justice remains a reserved matter. As Emily Thornberry recognised, there were good reasons for reserving such matters to Westminster. It was to do not with keeping control over abortion, but with the terrorist situation that had existed in Northern Ireland for very many years. None the less, there are moves to devolve policing and criminal justice.

The target date, as set out in the St. Andrews agreement, was May 2008. That date was not set in legislation, but that was the target. Of course, we have gone somewhat beyond that because there was not sufficient confidence in the community to devolve such issues, but the matter is back on the agenda. I have had meetings with representatives of all the political parties in Northern Ireland, some very recently, and they say that the decisions on devolving policing and justice are imminent and will probably go through. If such a decision goes through, the Conservative party does not intend to oppose the devolution of policing and justice. We will accept that they have decided to devolve those issues. When it gets to that stage, the Northern Ireland Assembly can decide on abortion-they cannot at the moment because it is a matter of criminal justice and not health. We take the view that that is the right way to proceed.

I have every respect for the Minister, but I hope that he will allow me a little criticism for the way in which the Government dealt with some issues in Northern Ireland before the Assembly was restored. Decisions were taken in Committee in this House on matters such as local government reform and education reform in advance of the Assembly being restored. That was wrong. Those decisions should not have been taken here in advance of the Assembly being restored. They should have been left to the Assembly. I take the same view on the issue under debate. I am very happy to discuss it, but decisions should not be taken in advance of the devolution of policing and criminal justice, especially as all the main parties in Northern Ireland are united on this one issue and no other. I have been doing this job for four-and-a-half years and can remember no other issue on which all the parties were united. For us to take legislative steps that not only undermined the role of the Assembly but went against everything that all the political parties in Northern Ireland are saying would be wrong and somewhat anti-democratic.

Martin Salter said that he had campaigned for the Belfast agreement. He went down the Falls road and other such places for which I commend him. I had some reservations about the agreement and expressed them at the time, but he supported it and he supported devolution. Let us complete the devolution and let the people of Northern Ireland decide.

Photo of Nadine Dorries

Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire, Conservative)

On a slightly different point, does my hon. Friend agree that contrary to some of the evidence that we have heard in the debate, the polls taken of both doctors and the general public in the UK indicate that opinion is becoming far more conservative with regard to abortion, particularly at the upper limits?

Photo of Laurence Robertson

Laurence Robertson (Shadow Minister, Northern Ireland; Tewkesbury, Conservative)

There is a case for reviewing the upper limits of abortion. I voted to reduce the limits. My hon. Friend prompts me to express my personal views. I agree with the sentiments expressed by members of the Democratic Unionist and the Social and Democratic Labour parties in the debate. Seventeen years ago, I worked in connection with a special care baby unit. Even at that time, babies were surviving after 24 weeks gestation. They are now aborted and actually survive outside the womb, only to die in the most cruel circumstances. I simply cannot accept that that is right.

I am quite assured that there is now abortion on demand-quite illegally-in Great Britain. I take the view put forward by David Simpson, who said that if anything, we should be tightening the abortion law across Great Britain and moving away from the current situation. Last year alone, there were 216,000 abortions in Great Britain. I simply cannot accept that many abortions are not carried out for social reasons. We all know of social excuses for abortions and we all know that we are not simply talking about teenage children who cannot cope.

Photo of Nadine Dorries

Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire, Conservative)

Is my hon. Friend aware that, contrary to some of the evidence that we have heard that abortion is treated as a one-off sensitive issue, some women in this country, because abortion is available almost on demand, are aborting up to four or five times in a short space of time?

Photo of Ann Winterton

Ann Winterton (Congleton, Conservative)

Order. Before the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman resumes his speech, may I point out that the Minister still has to reply?

Photo of Laurence Robertson

Laurence Robertson (Shadow Minister, Northern Ireland; Tewkesbury, Conservative)

I always look forward to hearing the Minister, so I will bring my speech to an end. My hon. Friend makes another powerful point.

Conservative Front Benchers believe that the matter should be left to the Assembly. My personal view is that we should be tightening up the abortion law in Great Britain and not going the other way.

10:51 am
Photo of Paul Goggins

Paul Goggins (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office; Wythenshawe and Sale East, Labour)

I congratulate my hon. Friend Martin Salter on securing this debate. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the issue and of where the decisions should be taken, he has every right to raise the issue, and the airing of views that we have had is welcome. We have had a good debate and some very strong and passionate opinions have been expressed by Northern Ireland politicians and others, including, my hon. Friend Mrs. Cryer, who has a tremendous record of dealing with very difficult issues. Indeed, she and I have worked on some together in the past.

In his opening remarks, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West twice said that I would wash my hands of the issue. He may not like the answer that I am going to give to him, but it will not be an abrogation of responsibility; it will be a proper, clear, consistent explanation of by whom, where and how decisions on the matter should be taken.

When the House debates and makes judgments on abortion, we do so on a free vote. It is well understood that that is the traditional position in Parliament. The Government are also clear that the best place for discussion of and decisions on abortion law in Northern Ireland is the Northern Ireland Assembly, when criminal justice powers are restored. Mr. Robertson is right: confidence is growing that devolution of criminal justice powers can take place, and I hope it happens in the near future. Many of the discussions are now on the practicalities of implementing that.

Although the question of devolution of criminal justice and policing powers is particularly resonant at the moment, the argument that I have advanced is not an expedient. The Government have a long-standing position on the matter.

Photo of Jacqui Lait

Jacqui Lait (Beckenham, Conservative)

Can the Minister explain why abortion is a criminal justice matter in Northern Ireland and a health matter on the mainland?

Photo of Paul Goggins

Paul Goggins (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office; Wythenshawe and Sale East, Labour)

I will go on to explain the reasons for that.

The Government have a well established policy going back to 1920. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West is right that the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 is the foundation of abortion law in Northern Ireland, but the Government of Ireland Act 1920 gave responsibility for the criminal law to the Northern Ireland Parliament. Within that responsibility for the criminal law was responsibility for abortion law. That remained the case from 1922 right through to 1972, when direct rule was imposed in Northern Ireland. The Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945 made some changes, but the Abortion Act 1967, which went through this Parliament, was not extended to Northern Ireland. Therefore, we have a consistent position going right back to the 1920 Act.

Some, including my hon. Friend and others who have spoken in the debate, argue that over the 37 years of direct rule, this Parliament should have legislated to extend the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland. That we have not done so reflects the very strong views that have been expressed consistently down the years by political and church leaders in Northern Ireland.

My hon. Friend Ms Abbott drew attention to the amendments that she proposed to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will have received letters from church leaders and from the four main party leaders in Northern Ireland expressing very strong views that the matter should be left to the people of Northern Ireland. They said that any attempt to legislate here would undermine the devolution settlement that we have all worked so hard to achieve.

Photo of Emily Thornberry

Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury, Labour)

Does the Minister remember that all the gay rights that were recognised within the law in Northern Ireland were imposed in the teeth of opposition from local politicians?

Photo of Paul Goggins

Paul Goggins (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office; Wythenshawe and Sale East, Labour)

That is a different situation for a number of reasons. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington raised the issue of the unborn child, but it is also true-I was involved in some of the consultations to which my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury refers-that there was a much wider mix of opinion on other matters on which this Parliament has legislated through Orders in Council in recent times. A much wider range of opinion came through in the consultations on those other measures, but on this matter, it is clear that there is not such a breadth of opinion. I have very little time left, so if my hon. Friend will forgive me, I will move on.

The party leaders made it clear that the proposed amendments to the 2008 Act, which were not made, would undermine the integrity of the devolution process. As I have said, we have not suddenly lighted upon that position recently. Back in 1990, Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone urged the House of Commons to reject a move to extend the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland, saying that it would be

"offensive to the overwhelming majority of people in the Province"-[Hansard, 21 June 1990; Vol. 193, c. 1162.]

My hon. Friend referred to the Good Friday agreement, which was legislated for in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Mo Mowlam, whom we still think of fondly and who was a committed pro-choice advocate, made it very clear that the matter was different in relation to the settlement in Northern Ireland. In the debate at the time, she said:

"Due to the universal view that the Act should not apply in Northern Ireland...we would need careful consultation with the parties."-[Hansard, 20 July 1998; Vol. 316, c. 815.]

Even Mo understood that the issue had to be dealt with in accordance with the wishes, will and views of the people of Northern Ireland.

Photo of Paul Goggins

Paul Goggins (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office; Wythenshawe and Sale East, Labour)

I cannot, because my hon. Friend raised the issue of the pragmatic compromise, with which I must deal in the short time that I have left. The pragmatic compromise would be that we would not change the law, but that we would somehow facilitate NHS treatment for legal abortions for women in Northern Ireland in England. However, first, it is not clear to me that GPs in Northern Ireland would have the power to refer a woman for treatment outside Northern Ireland that would be illegal in Northern Ireland. Some might argue that women should be able to leave Northern Ireland for assessment as well as treatment here, but I would argue that that would be a serious breach of the relationship between the woman and her GP.

Secondly-this is crucial, and we have only seconds to go in the debate-we would either have to top-slice the Northern Ireland health budget to fund the compromise, which would undermine the devolution settlement, or taxpayers in England, Wales and Scotland would have to pay. That would take money away from my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West. Such a compromise would not work in practice. In the end, this important matter should be determined by the Northern Ireland Assembly and the people of Northern Ireland.