Offences Against the Person Act 1861

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:53 pm on 5th June 2018.

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Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Devolved Government Relations), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 3:53 pm, 5th June 2018

I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution. I would also point out that the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945 still prevents abortion, with life imprisonment offered for those offering abortions. That is an added complication.

As we know, Stormont has not sat since January of last year, and I wish absolutely to condemn the cowardice of the politicians who cannot give enough ground, or cannot risk losing a little face, to get the show back on the road and start deciding on issues that affect the people they are paid to serve. I say that because this issue has been considered at Stormont; the need for legislation has been agreed at Stormont and a way forward has been laid out by a working group in Northern Ireland, as was mentioned by Mrs Miller, who is no longer in her place. In a debate on the consideration of a justice Bill in February 2016, amendments were tabled that would have allowed abortions to take place in Northern Ireland in specific circumstances. Those were tighter than the conditions in place under the Abortion Act 1967, but they represented movement none the less. This followed a deal of public consultation undertaken by Ministers on the issues of fatal foetal abnormality, incest and rape. It is clear from what has been said today and from reading the transcript of that debate that there was not exactly a consensus that day, and the amendments were defeated—not overwhelmingly, but substantially.

One telling contribution that day was made by the then Member of the Legislative Assembly for South Belfast, who is now the Member for Belfast South in this place. In her speech that day, she said she was speaking on behalf of the Democratic Unionist party on the issue and she urged the Assembly to reject the amendments in favour of the DUP plan. She said:

“the DUP is rejecting the amendment but outlining a road map to a sensible, informed and appropriate way forward. The Minister of Health has been asked to establish, by the end of February, a working group that will include clinicians in this field and legally qualified persons to make recommendations on how this issue can be addressed, including, if necessary, bringing forward draft legislation. We have asked that all interested parties should be consulted and that the group will be tasked to report within six months. We all need to hear more fully the views of the Royal College and others. We all need the opportunity to ask those vital questions to get the appropriate advice. That is why the working group is the best and most appropriate way forward.”

That working group has now reported and as the DUP is behind it, it surely has enough impetus to clear the hurdles of political impasse in Northern Ireland.

The report recommended a relaxation of the restrictions on abortion, citing the general duty of the Department of Health under the Health and Personal Social Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1972 to secure improvement in the physical and mental health of people living in Northern Ireland. The report pointed out, however, that legislative change is required for that to be done. The report is clear that

“the current practice results in inequality of outcomes for women in this particular patient population group when compared to the standards for treatment and care afforded to other pregnant women by Health and Social Care as required by the Department of Health’s Maternity Strategy”.

It recommends changes in the law to allow abortions to take place.

The changes suggested would not go as far as the legislation here or in Scotland. Examining that was not the remit of the working group; it was examining only what legislative change was needed. The changes would not bring legislation into line with the rights and protections we have here and would not end women having the trauma of travel to a foreign jurisdiction for health treatment. The changes would not be the changes I would like, but they are the changes that the politicians of Stormont agreed to support. We have an obligation to respect the fact that the debate on abortion has not perhaps yet been won in Northern Ireland, but this small step can be taken while the debate continues.

Stormont should be reconvened and it should consider legislation on abortion, along with all the other responsibilities it has, but this is a devolved responsibility. Legislating here on a matter that is the responsibility of a devolved Administration is invidious, and the idea that Members sitting here can make decisions without any regard to the consequences is foolhardy. Stormont has not sat for far too long and that looks set to continue. It is a disgraceful abdication of responsibility on the part of elected Members. It is not sitting, but it has made this decision, and there is no reason why this place should not legislate to put that decision into effect. Stormont could always decide how to proceed when MLAs return to work.

Legislating here for abortion in Northern Ireland without the consent of the Northern Ireland legislature is not tenable, but consent has already been given for some change and we should implement that. We should press ahead and deliver that; a comprehensive review of the legislation can then proceed, with the people who would be affected front and centre. Too often, the rights of women are ignored and women are belittled. There is a moral obligation on the politicians of Northern Ireland to get back to work, engage with the people and move on. They can look to Dublin’s example for a way in which to start. There are decisions to be made, and hopefully they will lead to a full and proper health service for women, but I argue that that is not our decision. By all means we should legislate to put into effect the changes that have been decided, but we should not make decisions here that should more properly be made in Belfast.

I stand by the women of Northern Ireland and I stand with those who campaign for a full service, including a proper abortion service. They should be able to influence such decisions and have them made in their own legislature. Too often, the conceit is that this place knows best, but the re-imposition of direct rule on Northern Ireland is in no one’s best interests, let alone those of the women who need support and a decent health service. The DUP supports the change in the law that was agreed by Stormont; let us help it to deliver that change.