Whatever Members’ differing views on abortion, if we respect devolution, we should vote against this motion. It proposes far-reaching changes in abortion law, not only for England and Wales but for Northern Ireland, where abortion has been respected as a devolved matter since 1921. Indeed, it would set a dangerous constitutional precedent of interference.
It is not only unconstitutional. It is untimely, at such a sensitive time in relations between the Westminster Government and the Northern Ireland Administration. It would completely undermine the substance and spirit of the Good Friday agreement, and it is unwanted. Northern Ireland is the most recent part of the UK to vote on abortion law, in 2016, and it voted by a clear majority to retain its law as it stands. Diana Johnson quoted statistics in her support, but let us hear what the people of Northern Ireland said just last week when asked. Some 66% of women and 70% of 18 to 30-year-olds there said that Westminster should not dictate this change to them.
If, however, the Province in time decide to change their law, that is for them, not for us here as MPs in Westminster to decide. Colleagues will no doubt recall the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland saying in the House recently:
“The Government believe that the question of any future reform in Northern Ireland must be debated and decided by the people of Northern Ireland and their locally elected, and therefore accountable, politicians.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 642, c. 220.]
That was specifically in respect of abortion. She has also said that
“it would not be right for the UK Government to undermine the devolution settlement by trying to force on the people of Northern Ireland something that we in Westminster think is right”.—[Official Report,
Vol. 640, c. 661.]
Those sentiments were reinforced by the Prime Minister, when she said:
“Our focus is restoring a democratically accountable devolved government in Northern Ireland”.
In that clear respect, this motion is contrary to Government policy and should be voted down.
Can we in all conscience vote on the one hand tomorrow on a Bill to
“Facilitate the formation of an Executive in Northern Ireland”,
as its long title commences, respecting the authority of that Executive to make decisions on such issues as roads and infrastructure, and then on the other hand today seek to deny Northern Ireland that authority on a matter of such fundamental social significance as abortion? We cannot, and we must not.
Whatever the views of Members across the House on abortion, they should hear what a number of Northern Irish women who wrote to me said:
“Changing the law in Northern Ireland at this sensitive political moment on this sensitive political issue is bad for devolution everywhere.”
“The decisions of devolved Administrations are taken for reasons that people in those devolved nations understand from their point of view”—[Official Report,
Vol. 642, c. 228.]
Or, as Ruth Davidson, who is in favour of changing the law on this issue, more bluntly puts it:
“as someone who operates in a devolved administration, I know how angry I would be if the House of Commons legislated on a domestic Scottish issue over the head of Holyrood”.
This motion is an ignoble endeavour to take advantage of a temporary Executive lacuna and to foist legislation unconstitutionally on to the people of Northern Ireland. In so doing, it would radically alter our own abortion laws here in England and Wales.
Although the Bill has yet to be published, let us look at what it would do. It seeks to permit a woman up to 24 weeks pregnant to obtain an abortion for any or no reason at all—abortion on demand up to five months of pregnancy. We already have some of the most extreme abortion laws in the world, but this would make them even more so. There is no public call or appetite for this whatsoever. Indeed, it is the opposite; there is clearly grave public concern. Apart from Brexit, I have had more cards from constituents asking me to vote against this ten-minute rule Bill than on any other issue in this Parliament. Only 21% of women in England and Wales want an extension to our abortion laws, and less than 2% of them are in favour of sex-selective abortion, which the Bill would legalise up to 24 weeks. It is no good the hon. Lady arguing, as she has, that clinicians’ regulations or practice could cover that issue. The fact is that if her proposals go through, sex-selective abortion will not be illegal in this country up to 24 weeks. Do we want to go the way of Canada, which is now described as
“a haven for parents who would terminate female foetuses in favour of having sons”?
Do we really want to support a Bill—[Interruption.]