Offences Against the Person Act 1861

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:57 pm on 5th June 2018.

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Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Conservative, Bexhill and Battle 4:57 pm, 5th June 2018

It is a pleasure to follow Jess Phillips, who always speaks powerfully and emotively about such subjects.

I have sat through the debate in silence, and I have heard many points being made. I have disagreed with some of them vehemently, but I think it important for us in the Chamber to listen with respect to every opinion and not to think that we have a monopoly, however much we may disagree with the opinions of others. If we do otherwise, we are setting a terrible example to the rest of the country.

I look particularly to my friends in Northern Ireland, who I know serve their community incredibly well. They know their community and they are from their community, and I do not think that some of the etiquette directed towards them befits this place. I say that having found myself in agreement with Stella Creasy. I fundamentally believe in the right of women to choose what to do with their bodies, and I think that, if we are one United Kingdom, albeit with devolved parts, it is extremely important for us to have basic rights that everyone in the United Kingdom can enjoy. That is the issue that I have with the current law.

I would not be standing up and making these points if Northern Ireland truly had working devolution. If that were the case, this would be a matter for Northern Ireland, because in practice as well as by rule, these powers would be enacted there. However, it has been 18 months since powers ceased to exist there, and that is my difficulty. Although I am not a Northern Ireland representative, I must ask for how long the people of Northern Ireland must continue to experience circumstances in which they live in a democracy but there is an absolute impediment to their ability to reform rather than just carrying on, given that there is no functioning Executive and no Assembly.

Times change, and we have seen the move from the Republic, but a 1938 legal case, R v. Bourne, still largely governs the right of abortion in Northern Ireland: a woman has to become

“a physical or mental wreck” until that right can be invoked. As a representative of this United Kingdom, I cannot stand by and see that occurring. I believe that it is a duty on every hon. Member to put their head above the parapet and say that if we believe that this is not right any longer, we have to make a stand for others in the United Kingdom to have the rights that my constituents have. That is what causes me to rise.

Of course I hope that the Northern Ireland people, led by their democrats, can form a functioning Administration, in which case they can take the powers back and make those decisions themselves, but the difficulty I have is that I cannot just sit behind a wall that says, “It’s nothing to do with me because there’s devolution,” when devolution is not functioning.

On that basis, I support the hon. Member for Walthamstow. I pay her great credit for the courage with which she has led this debate. I also believe that there comes a point in time for the rest of the United Kingdom law to be updated. We should not have rights on the basis that there are exemptions. Those rights should be there for women and we should ensure they are kept up to date with medical advances as well. I am glad that we are having this debate today and I very much support the move that the hon. Lady has brought.