Offences Against the Person Act 1861

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:01 pm on 5th June 2018.

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Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Chair, Women and Equalities Committee 3:01 pm, 5th June 2018

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I will come to that issue in the short time that I have left.

I commend the hon. Member for Walthamstow for bringing this issue before us today, but the House must understand—and she made this clearer today than during her intervention yesterday—that repealing sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 would have profound impacts for the whole United Kingdom. I am not saying that those changes could not be strongly argued for, but I believe that today’s debate is about the situation facing women in Northern Ireland. We need to make sure that we are focusing on that in particular, because although decriminalisation is an option—the hon. Lady is right—it is not the only option for improving the situation for women in Northern Ireland. I want to draw on three particular issues.

First, is there a disconnect between public opinion and the policies being pursued in Northern Ireland? What progress has been made on the ground and what action, if any, can the Government take to make sure that, if progress is lacking, things can be done to rectify that? When I read the research—I also read the consultation, which was extensive and thorough—I thought that a strong argument could be made for a call for change to be inherent in the community in Northern Ireland. I do not represent that community; as I look at Northern Ireland Members, I hope that in their contributions they will explain why there is an apparent difference between the public opinion being offered to us and the approach being taken to date by the devolved Administration. I deliberately tread carefully and respectfully on this matter. I truly believe that we should not start any changes here that would make people feel disfranchised as part of this process.

Secondly, we have to recognise that a great deal of progress has already been made; there has not been much detail about that so far in this debate. There was the consultation in 2014 and the report in 2015 mentioned

“a pressing need” for

“change to the criminal law…to provide for lawful termination of pregnancy…in…clearly defined circumstances”.

That has already been called for. In 2016, legislation was introduced by the then Minister for Justice to bring about some of those changes. In 2018, just last month, a report from a working group on fatal foetal abnormalities again recommended that change should come in.

Change is called for. What can we do today to try to make sure that the absence of an Executive and an Assembly does not stand in the way? There are clearly opportunities with the case that is going through the Supreme Court, and I hope that the Minister is able to share with us more about the Government’s feelings on that. Perhaps the Minister can also talk about the action that can be taken in the absence of an Executive, to continue the deliberations and the important detailed work needed in this place.