Offences Against the Person Act 1861

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:23 pm on 5th June 2018.

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Photo of Karin Smyth Karin Smyth Labour, Bristol South 5:23 pm, 5th June 2018

I am a strong supporter of the right of women to autonomy and choice, and it is right that in this place we highlight the appalling treatment of women in Northern Ireland, as we would highlight discrimination in any other part of the world. Given that the 1861 Act is a UK law, it is also right that this Parliament debates—and, I hope, in time repeals—the relevant sections. I do however, wish to use the brief time available to utter a few words of caution about the next political steps we take to make the change that we want to see.

I am vice-chair of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, and our Committee D, many members of which are present, is in the middle of an inquiry into abortion across all jurisdictions of Britain and Ireland, including the Isle of Man, which I do not think has been mentioned today. We paused our work to allow for the Irish referendum, but we will continue our debate following this weekend and in the coming months.

The Republic of Ireland vote on the eighth amendment is transformative, not just for women in the Republic, but for women around the world whose politicians have not heeded the need for change in respect of votes of what has been termed conscience. The referendum result will have major implications, not only for Northern Ireland in terms of the debate on the rights and wrongs of abortions, but for the practical realities. The referendum vote is transformative for all people across the island of Ireland. Women from Northern Ireland will now have the ability to travel into the Republic for abortion services, once those are up and running. They will not have to get on a plane or a boat; they will be able to walk into Cavan, Monaghan or Donegal at any point and probably access abortion services. They will be able to take a short bus ride.

Will women have to apply for funding, as agreed by this Parliament, to travel into the Republic of Ireland? Will the reciprocal healthcare rights apply to terminations? Do they apply as part of the European Union? Do they apply under the spirit of, and the rules that govern, the Good Friday/Belfast agreement? Has the Secretary of State discussed implementation with the Irish Government? There is merit in an all-island view of this issue. There is a debate in Northern Ireland about whether abortion is an issue of human rights or healthcare, with one of those subjects within our purview and the other not. It is not a binary issue.

This debate is helping to spotlight the scandal that is the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly. If the politicians cannot agree, how are we going to get them to make some kind of future Act? There is discussion about whether a civic forum is the way forward for Northern Ireland, but I am not entirely sure how that would be made a reality, given that the Assembly is not in place.

We have heard a lot of assertions about what people think. Members from Northern Ireland are quite right to say that they have a mandate to be here and say what they have said; others have a mandate not to be here. We do not know what people in Northern Ireland think because we have not asked them directly. That is the political reality. There is unlikely to be any change in the electoral mathematics in Northern Ireland at any time soon. The law is complex in this policy area, and it is no good pretending it is not.

The Government cannot now be let off the hook on this issue, and we need to understand how they will unblock this situation. I am not generally in favour of referendums —I think they do not go that way—but a referendum should be considered as a tool to unblock the political situation. What discussions have the Government had, or will they have, with the Irish Government about the all-island situation and implementation? What support will be given to women who travel to and access abortion services in the Republic of Ireland? What is stopping the Government going directly to the people of Northern Ireland for a view on this issue?