Offences Against the Person Act 1861

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:33 pm on 5th June 2018.

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Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 3:33 pm, 5th June 2018

I congratulate my hon. Friend Stella Creasy and other hon. Members on both sides of the House who sought this debate. I would also like to mention my hon. Friend Diana Johnson, who has campaigned on this issue for many years.

Like the Secretary of State, I will concentrate on the situation in Northern Ireland. The referendum in the Republic 10 days ago has not altered the constitutional situation anywhere in the UK, including Northern Ireland, but it has most certainly changed the conversation, and we have to take that into account. One thing I want to establish is this: yes, we can discuss the legalese of sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Act and talk esoterically about human rights—I do not mean to trivialise those points—but in the end this is about people. It is about women such as Sarah Ewart, to whom Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson referred. She had the most immense difficulty on discovering that the baby she was carrying would be born with no skull and could not survive the birth. Having received chronically bad support from the medical profession in Northern Ireland, she had to travel to England in the most difficult circumstances for a safe and lawful abortion. Cases such as that ought to condition the way in which we see this issue. It is about people. It is about women in distress.

Like many other Members, I have seen the joy of happy pregnancy. I have seen it in my own family: one of my daughters gave birth earlier this year. What a great moment that is. However, I have also seen the downside—the tragedy of people who know that the foetus that they conceived in hope is born to die, and the situation of women who have become pregnant as a result of rape. We must take those elements on board and recognise the humanity involved. I do not doubt the legitimacy of the arguments that anyone else presents and wishes to pursue, but I am determined to stress that there is a human being behind every one of these situations. We must remember that as we debate these matters.

Joanna Cherry mentioned the Supreme Court’s decision. That decision will make a profound difference, but my party’s position has been very clear. In our manifesto at the last election, we said that we would seek to provide, in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Assembly, a legislative framework for safe, legal abortions for women in Northern Ireland who made that choice. That is where we want to see things happen—we want to see legislation introduced in the Stormont Assembly, and nothing that my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow said contradicted that. The legislation would demand change, but the Stormont Assembly would have the opportunity to create the necessary legislative framework for the people—particularly the women—of Northern Ireland.

That is important, but there is a challenge behind it. I think I heard the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley say that members of the Democratic Unionist party would return to the Assembly without precondition. I hope that that is the case, because there is now a real challenge for all the Assembly politicians. They must go back to the Stormont Assembly if they want to be taken seriously in this debate and on other issues. We cannot see a situation in which civil servants without an electoral mandate make decisions, so it is incumbent on the Northern Ireland Assembly Members to go back to the Assembly.