Offences Against the Person Act 1861

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:05 pm on 5th June 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Justine Greening Justine Greening Conservative, Putney 4:05 pm, 5th June 2018

Like many Members, I recognise just how important this debate on the incredibly sensitive and important topic of abortion is. It is obvious that there needs to be much broader debate about the various issues relating to abortion—not just about the people affected by the laws that are currently in place and some of the proposals that we are debating, but about the role of schools and of advice, education and support services and about some of the other hugely controversial but important issues that wrap around the broader challenge of debating any changes to abortion law, not just in Northern Ireland but more broadly throughout the United Kingdom.

I recognise that we have in place very long-standing laws, particularly in respect of England. In this debate, we should not lose sight of the fact that we have been brought to this point by a clear anomaly between the rights that women have in one part of our country, Northern Ireland, compared with the rights of women throughout the rest of the United Kingdom, and by that difference having been exacerbated by the result of the referendum in southern Ireland, which means that we now see Northern Ireland as an outlier on women’s rights in a way that I feel is unsustainable for the United Kingdom.

I pay tribute to Stella Creasy for securing this emergency debate, which it is important to have in this Chamber. As she would recognise, this House has managed to achieve progress for women in Northern Ireland, not least by introducing the ability for them to travel to the UK—to England in particular—and to have free abortions in the same was as any English woman. That is true progress, but today we seek to talk about how we can further push forward on rights for women in Northern Ireland.

The question is how to push forward. I am open-minded about this debate. I very much recognise that ideally we would all like the people of Northern Ireland to put in place the changes we are discussing, but we also recognise the current absence of an Assembly and normally functioning devolved government in Northern Ireland. I am sure we will have further debate on how we can achieve change for the women of Northern Ireland, but handling this issue in the right way in respect of devolution does matter, and we in this House should be sensitive to that.

I am open-minded about the broader changes that we are debating. We need to recognise that they are somewhat complex and multifaceted, and they need to be understood by Members from all parties and, indeed, by our local communities, too. It is important to set out how wide—or, indeed, otherwise, as has been argued today—any changes to medical regulations might need to be, as well as the process of consulting our communities about changes that would affect how abortion is regulated in the United Kingdom.

I recognise the important case made by the hon. Member for Walthamstow and, indeed, the case made by my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller, who set out carefully and clearly the impact on women in Northern Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom, given the existing criminalisation of abortion. I support a continued debate in this House. [Interruption.] I recognise that many other Members wish to speak in this debate today. It is important that, in the coming weeks and months, Ministers listen very carefully to the debate that happens in this House and then clearly set out how the Government can play their role in helping us to take forward change for the women of Northern Ireland.