I beg to move amendment 15, page 1, line 16, at end insert—
‘(4A) If the period mentioned in section 16(A)(3) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, as modified by subsection (1), ends without the Ministerial offices having been filled section 32 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 has effect as if for subsection (3) there were substituted—
(3) The Secretary of State shall within 7 calendar days of the end of the period mentioned in in section 16(A)(3) set a date for the poll for the election of the next Northern Ireland Assembly. The date set shall be no later than 3 calendar months after the end of the period mentioned in section 16(A)(3).’
This amendment would require elections in Northern Ireland to be called if Ministerial offices are not filled by
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Clause stand part.
Amendment 1, in clause 2, page 2, line 20, leave out paragraph (b).
This amendment would prevent the Secretary of State from extending the deadline for appointment of Northern Ireland Ministers without the approval of Parliament.
Clause 2 stand part.
Amendment 22, in clause 3, page 3, line 2, at end insert—
‘(1A) In the absence of Northern Ireland Ministers, senior officers of Northern Ireland departments, giving due regard to advice from the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Victims and Survivors, shall prepare a scheme to provide a pension to those who are regarded as seriously-injured arising from an incident associated from the conflict in Northern Ireland.’
This amendment would in the absence of Ministers create a duty for a scheme to be created to provide financial support those people who have suffered life-limiting injuries and impairment due to incidents related to the Northern Ireland conflict.
Amendment 21, page 3, line 5, at end insert
‘and must also make a formal statement before each House of Parliament following the publication of such guidance.’
This amendment would require the Secretary of State to make a statement to Parliament on any guidance issued to Northern Ireland Departments on the exercise of their functions in the absence of Northern Ireland Ministers.
Amendment 2, page 3, line 7, at end insert—
‘(3A) The guidance must direct departments to take action on the following areas—
(a) implementing the recommendations of the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry (the Hart Report),
(b) instigating any research, consultations or planning required for post-Brexit policy,
(c) designing and implementing devolved post-Brexit functions in relation to Northern Ireland fishing and agriculture that would normally fall to the Northern Ireland Executive,
(d) taking decisions on infrastructure planning and projects that will benefit Northern Ireland.’
This amendment highlights four key areas where guidance must be issued.
Amendment 17, page 3, line 7, at end insert
‘which must include guidance to meet the requirements of section (Guidance on exercise of departmental functions: credit unions).’
This amendment is linked to NC4 with the intention of requiring Northern Ireland Departments, in the continued absence of Northern Ireland Ministers, to promote credit unions in Northern Ireland.
Amendment 18, page 3, line 7, at end insert
‘which must include guidance to meet the requirements of section (Guidance on exercise of departmental functions: energy co-operatives).’
This amendment is linked to NC5 with the intention of requiring Northern Ireland Departments, in the continued absence of Northern Ireland Ministers, to promote energy co-operatives in Northern Ireland.
Amendment 19, page 3, line 7, at end insert
‘which must include guidance to meet the requirements of section (Guidance on exercise of departmental functions: housing co-operatives).’
This amendment is linked to NC6 with the intention of requiring the Northern Ireland Department for Communities, in the continued absence of Northern Ireland Ministers, to promote housing co-operatives in Northern Ireland.
This amendment would require the Secretary of State to have regard to representations from MPs as well as MLAs before publishing guidance.
Amendment 4, page 3, line 34, at end insert—
‘(9A) If the Secretary of State wishes to revise or amend the guidance, they must write to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at least 30 sitting days before the revised guidance is issued to seek its views on the proposed changes.’
This amendment would require the Secretary of State to consult the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee before changing the guidance.
Amendment 5, page 3, line 38, at end insert—
‘“Northern Ireland Affairs Committee” means the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of the House of Commons and—
(a) if the name of that Committee is changed, is to be treated as a reference to that Committee by its new name, and
(b) if the functions of that Committee (or substantially corresponding functions) become functions of a different Committee of the House of Commons, is to be treated as a reference to the Committee by which those functions are exercisable.’
This amendment defines the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of the House of Commons for the purpose of Clause 3.
Clause 3 stand part.
Government amendment 23.
Amendment 6, in clause 4, page 4, line 26, at end insert
‘, publish the advice received and write to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee to notify the Committee of the appointment decision prior to the appointment being made.’
This amendment requires the relevant Minister of the Crown to notify the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of the House of Commons before exercising an appointment function in relation to a specified office.
Amendment 16, page 4, line 26, at end insert—
‘(5A) Before exercising an appointment function in reliance on subsection (1) in relation to a role with an annual salary of £100,000 or more the relevant Minister of the Crown must refer their recommendation for the appointment to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of the House of Commons for a pre-appointment scrutiny hearing.
(5B) The Minister of the Crown may not proceed with the appointment referred to in subsection (5A) for a period of 30 calendar days from the date of referral to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of the House of Commons.
(5C) Any reference in this Act to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of the House of Commons—
(a) if the name of that Committee is changed, is to be treated as a reference to that Committee by its new name, and
(b) if the functions of that Committee (or substantially corresponding functions) become functions of a different Committee of the House of Commons, is to be treated as a reference to the Committee by which those functions are exercisable.
(5D) Any question arising under sub-paragraph (5C) is to be determined by the Speaker of the House of Commons.’
This amendment would require the more highly-paid public appointments to be subject to scrutiny by the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons.
Clause 4 stand part.
Amendment 7, in clause 5, page 4, line 36, at end insert
‘, publish the advice received and write to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee to notify the Committee of the appointment decision prior to the appointment being made.’
This amendment requires the relevant Minister of the Crown to notify the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of the House of Commons before exercising an appointment function which normally require consultation with, or the consent of, Northern Ireland Ministers.
Clause 5 stand part.
Amendment 8, in clause 6, page 5, line 7, at end insert
‘, publish the advice received and write to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee to notify the Committee of the appointment decision prior to the appointment being made.’
This amendment requires the Secretary of State to notify the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of the House of Commons before exercising an appointment function which is normally exercisable by Northern Ireland Minsters acting jointly with the Secretary of State.
Clause 6 stand part.
Amendment 9, in clause 7, page 5, line 34, at end insert—
‘“Northern Ireland Affairs Committee” means the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of the House of Commons and—
(a) if the name of that Committee is changed, is to be treated as a reference to that Committee by its new name, and
(b) if the functions of that Committee (or substantially corresponding functions) become functions of a different Committee of the House of Commons, is to be treated as a reference to the Committee by which those functions are exercisable.’
This amendment defines the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of the House of Commons for the purposes of Clauses 4 to 6.
Government amendment 24.
Clauses 7 to 10 stand part.
New clause 4—Guidance on exercise of departmental functions: credit unions—
‘(1) The guidance published under section 3(2) must include guidance on credit unions.
(2) Guidance under this section includes, but is not limited to, guidance to —
(a) senior officers of the Department for Communities in the exercise of the functions in relation to—
(i) promoting and protecting the interests of children, older people, people with disabilities, and other socially excluded groups, and
(ii) providing emergency financial assistance; and
(b) senior officers of the Department of the Economy in the exercise of the functions in relation to—
(i) business regulation including consumer affairs services,
(ii) mutuals policy, legislation and operations, and
(iii) the social economy.
(3) Guidance under this section must include the promotion of credit unions in Northern Ireland to combat organised crime, to reduce financial exclusion, to assist the social inclusion of marginalised groups and to promote financial well-being in all parts of Northern Ireland.’
The intention of this new clause is to require Northern Ireland Departments, in the continued absence of Northern Ireland Ministers, to promote credit unions in Northern Ireland.
New clause 5—Guidance on exercise of departmental functions: energy co-operatives—
‘(1) The guidance published under section 3(2) must include guidance on energy co-operatives.
(2) Guidance under this section includes, but is not limited to, guidance to —
(a) senior officers of the Department of the Economy in the exercise of their functions in relation to—
(i) energy policy and legislation;
(ii) sustainable energy, including energy efficiency measures;
(iii) assistance to the gas and electricity industries;
(iv) Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme and associated costs;
(v) the social economy; and
(vi) making certain payments to the Department of Business, Energy and Industry Strategy; and
(b) senior officers of the Department for Infrastructure in the exercise of their functions in relation to energy matters.
(3) Guidance under this section must include the promotion of energy co-operatives in Northern Ireland to combat fuel poverty and to encourage the safe, sustainable, affordable and efficient production and consumption of energy in all parts of Northern Ireland.’
The intention of this new clause is to require Northern Ireland Departments, in the continued absence of Northern Ireland Ministers, to promote energy co-operatives in Northern Ireland.
New clause 6—Guidance on exercise of departmental functions: housing co-operatives—
‘(1) The guidance published under section 3(2) must include guidance on housing co-operatives.
(2) Guidance under this section includes, but is not limited to, guidance to senior officers of the Department for Communities in the exercise of their functions in relation to—
(a) loans for certain home improvement loans;
(b) housing led regeneration;
(c) regulation of the NI Housing Association sector;
(d) urban regeneration including services such as property maintenance and events;
(e) community and voluntary sector;
(f) grants to district councils in support of local services and transferred functions;
(g) built heritage; and
(h) grants and grants-in-aid.
(3) Guidance under this section must include the promotion of housing co-operatives in Northern Ireland to combat poverty, family breakdown and social exclusion and to encourage the provision safe, sustainable, affordable and energy-efficient homes in all parts of Northern Ireland.’
The intention of this new clause is to require the Northern Ireland Department for Communities, in the continued absence of Northern Ireland Ministers, to promote housing co-operatives in Northern Ireland.
New clause 7—Equal rights for people of Northern Ireland (No. 2)—
‘(1) In the absence of Northern Ireland Ministers to address the matters identified by recent, current and future court proceedings in relation to the human rights of the people of Northern Ireland, the Secretary of State must issue guidance to senior officers of all Northern Ireland departments which will specify how to exercise their functions in relation to—
(a) the incompatibility of the human rights of the people of Northern Ireland with the continued enforcement of sections 58 and 59 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861 with the Human Rights Act 1998, and
(b) the incompatibility of the human rights of the people of Northern Ireland with the continued enforcement of section 13(e) of the Matrimonial Causes (Northern Ireland) Order 1978 where they pertain to the provision and management of public services in Northern Ireland.
(2) The Secretary of State shall report guidance under this section on a quarterly basis to the House of Commons and set out her plans to address the impact of the absence of Northern Ireland Ministers on human rights obligations within three months of the day on which this Act is passed.’
This new clause would increase accountability of the Secretary of State and senior officers of Northern Ireland departments for their role in ensuring human rights compliance in Northern Ireland, in the absence of Northern Ireland Ministers, by requiring them to address incompatibilities between legislation applied in Northern Ireland and human rights obligations.
May I first apologise for being a little late for the wind-up speeches on Second Reading? I was sorry to miss the speech by Stephen Pound, the shadow Minister, as his speeches are usually entertaining and informative.
Amendments 15 and 16 are efforts to probe the Government on the future direction of policy in certain areas and perhaps to improve the Bill, but I will not seek to press them to Divisions. Amendment 15 is an attempt to discover the Government’s plan if—heaven forbid—we reach the end of the period for the formation of the Executive and we still do not have one. Effectively, what would happen in law without any further clarification is that we would default back to the present situation—the Secretary of State would have a duty to consider setting an election date. The present interpretation seems to be that she has no duty to call an election for any particular date. The House of Commons and the people of Northern Ireland have been very patient for the past 650 days—that was the count we heard earlier—in not pressing the Government to clarify the meaning of the words on considering the date for an election in the legislation of a decade ago.
We may fairly say that if we manage to get to late August 2019—I cannot calculate the number of days, but I suspect it will be well over 800 days since an election by that point—without a Government being formed, the only solution might well be to have another election and see whether the people of Northern Ireland wished to express a different view from the one they expressed 650 days ago. If we get to that stage, I would argue that an election would be unavoidable unless we really believed that another few days would tip a deal over the line.
I also venture to suggest gently that having clarity in the law about the consequences for the parties if they cannot reach a deal by that point may be of some assistance in the negotiations. It is probably fair to say that the Northern Irish parties are not great respecters of deadlines. Indeed, deadlines in this process seem to come and go without provoking much action. If a deadline were set in law, it would be clear throughout the discussions that an election would be called if the parties could not reach an agreement by the end date of late March, or late August or somewhere in between that the Secretary of State sets.
Actually, whether to call an election would not be a matter for the Secretary of State’s discretion: it would be a matter of law that the election had to be called unless she thought that she could get a new piece of legislation through Parliament to delay or remove that obligation. If a deal was about to be reached and some legislation here was needed to bring it about, I do not think that we would have any problem in agreeing to it. We would all be grateful to do anything we could to bring the Executive back. But a line would be drawn in the sand to make it clear that if the parties do not agree by a certain date, the Secretary of State has no option but to call an election to ask the people their opinion on resolving the situation.
I ask the Government to consider at least clarifying the consequences of the period for Executive formation lapsing without success and the Government’s policy in that regard. Setting out clearly in a way that will not be ignored this time that an election would have to follow might offer some assistance in the negotiations.
My other proposed amendment, amendment 16, concerns the appointment of individuals to certain key bodies in Northern Ireland. Ideally, that would be a decision for the Northern Ireland Executive and the Assembly and there would be some cross-community involvement. It would be a joint decision, effectively. The Bill quite rightly takes the power to make those appointments, but effectively leaves the decision to the Secretary of State without the need for any real consultation with Parliament or the public on those decisions. I accept that we do not need to have that level of parliamentary involvement for every appointment that might be needed, but what I am trying to do through the amendment is ask whether for the most senior and important posts we could in some way have some parliamentary scrutiny of the individual whose appointment is recommended. This is not a novel process. Many Departments allow Select Committees to hold scrutiny hearings for proposed senior appointments, so it would merely replicate that process.
Attempting to get the amendment in order, I suggested that the definition of seniority could come with a salary of £100,000, but I would not be particularly committed to how we define the cut-off. However, if we were to have this process for sensitive appointments, I think that that level of salary would catch a new Chief Constable, if for some reason one was needed, or perhaps the chair of the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland.
For those very sensitive and senior posts for which there is cross-party concern about the individual who is appointed, having a parliamentary scrutiny process in which questions could be asked of the individual to discuss any past roles they have had or comments they have made and to seek their views on how they would carry out their burdensome responsibilities would give both Parliament and the people of Northern Ireland some comfort that the right person had been found and that they would discharge those responsibilities in a responsible manner.
Even if the Secretary of State is unwilling to accept what I have proposed, I urge her to give serious consideration to whether it would help those individuals to have the full confidence of Parliament and the trust of the public in discharging their roles if she allowed some public scrutiny and accountability in the process of appointing them.
Does the hon. Gentleman realise that that is not what would happen if there was a functioning devolved Assembly and that putting some of those positions through that political prism brings some difficulties with it in the Northern Ireland context? If an appointment were rightly made to the Policing Board, it would be for the board to assess and judge any individual going for the Chief Constable role. With the police ombudsman, there is no public scrutiny role like that which we have seen through the process for US Supreme Court judges available at the moment. That role does not exist at the moment; it did not exist when the Assembly sat, so is it really the road we should go down on this interim basis?
I said that I was not necessarily fixed on how we define the roles, but we are not in a normal situation. We do not have the Executive or the Assembly to make those appointments; what we will end up with is a Secretary of State over here, with no accountability and no cross-community input, simply making that decision. I was suggesting that this would be a way to provide at least some scrutiny and accountability for these important appointments. The Bill to which we have just given a Second Reading actually specifies that the Secretary of State can effectively make those appointments herself. I accept that we cannot replicate every process that the Executive would have followed, but I am attempting at least to find some way to improve the situation over that which we have in the Bill.
Perhaps I can make a few remarks on the amendments tabled by the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend Dr Murrison. It seems a bit discourteous to talk about his amendments before he has had a chance to discuss them, but this is my only chance so I guess I will do it anyway. Amendment 2 suggests some items that could be included in the Secretary of State’s guidance to the civil servants on which we really ought to see them take some action. As I said on Second Reading, ideally what we would get from this process would be some decisions that could not be taken before now because there has been no ministerial direction.
In terms not only of the items that my hon. Friend has suggested in amendment 2 in relation to the Hart report, which we have discussed at some length, but of all the various Brexit-related issues, we need as a House to be assured that in the event that any important decisions need to be taken as a consequence of wherever Brexit goes over the next few months, there is a process in place whereby decisions can be taken for Northern Ireland.
We do not want to end up accidentally in the horrible position where this Parliament acts for England, the Welsh Assembly acts for Wales and the Scottish Parliament acts for Scotland, taking key decisions on what might be new policy areas, such as fishing or agriculture, but Northern Irelanders cannot have those decisions taken on a timely and sensible basis. We all need to understand that somebody somewhere has the power to take those decisions—to put in place whatever new arrangements need to be made—in good time, so that we are not rushing around at the end of March, trying to find a short fudge to get us over the line. It would help if the Government clarified either that all those important issues in amendment 2 can be covered by the existing guidance, as drafted in the Bill, or that some other mechanism will be in place to take those important decisions.
I shall speak to new clause 7, which is about equal rights in Northern Ireland. I hope that Members across the House who have already supported the new clause will recognise that it is an incredibly reasonable request to put to the Secretary of State, about an incredibly important issue for the House, and indeed for many people in Northern Ireland.
I do not intend to speak for long, because many others wish to get in. I simply want to set out three important points about this reasonable new clause—first, how it respects devolution; secondly, why it addresses issues that cannot simply be left any longer; and thirdly, how we believe it has relevancy to this House and the obligations of Members of this House as part of the Good Friday agreement.
The new clause requests the Secretary of State’s acts to be held to account because of what the Bill does—it recognises that since March 2017, we have not had an Assembly in Northern Ireland. [Interruption.] January 2017; I apologise to the Secretary of State. It has been too long for residents of Northern Ireland not to have a functioning Government, and it has an impact on their lives. The Bill recognises that resolving the dysfunctions behind that is far ahead of us at the moment, and so gives powers to the Secretary of State and to the civil servants to exercise the functions of Government. [Interruption.] It does give power to the Secretary of State because it gives her guidance powers; I believe those are quite powerful, and the new clause speaks to those powers.
For avoidance of doubt, the new clause would not create a new law in Northern Ireland, but it would recognise that there are thousands of people in Northern Ireland whose lives, right now, are affected by two key human rights issues; and they are indeed human rights issues, because they are issues on which our courts are currently discussing, ruling and indeed appealing. They refer in particular to a person’s right to marry who they love, and also to the right of women to have bodily autonomy—to make the choice, if they so wish, not to continue with an unwanted pregnancy. Both of these have been subject to court action, because we recognise that in Northern Ireland they have different rules.
Let us talk about the consequences of those rules. When it comes to abortion, we know that right now in Northern Ireland, if you are raped, and you become pregnant as a result of that attack, and you seek a termination, you could face a longer prison sentence than your attacker. We know too that gay couples in Northern Ireland, when they step off the plane, no longer have their relationship respected in the way that any of us would wish our relationship to be respected. They do not have equal marriage in 2018.
Both of these sets of circumstances come about as a direct result of legislation that was written in this place. First and foremost, sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, and also, because of the Matrimonial Causes (Northern Ireland) Order 1978. So there is a relevancy for us in this House, because legislation written here is having a direct impact on the human rights of people in Northern Ireland today.
Can the hon. Lady confirm something that Northern Ireland Amnesty told me, which is that, yes, powers are theoretically devolved to Northern Ireland, but there is no piece of human rights legislation that has been passed at Stormont; and actually, all changes to human rights law in Northern Ireland have been passed in this place?
I know that the hon. Lady also feels strongly about this issue. If I may, however, I shall now deal with—in particular—the human rights obligations that I believe we have in this place as a direct result of the Good Friday agreement.
There is a theoretical argument about what those pieces of legislation mean, and there is the human impact of what they mean for people in Northern Ireland.
I will shortly, but I feel that the House wants to hear the figures that I am about to give.
A year and a half ago, the House voted to allow women from Northern Ireland to come to England and Wales and have abortions on the NHS. We now know that 28 women a week travel to this country for that very purpose. We also know that our own Supreme Court says that it is a cruel and degrading treatment of our own citizens to require them to travel. Many cannot travel. Many find that journey lonely, frightening and difficult, at the very time when they are at their most vulnerable. We also know that a year ago, 84 couples in Northern Ireland had to have civil partnerships because they could not have the basic equality of recognition before the law of their relationship as a marriage. That is the very human impact of those ancient pieces of legislation that we crafted in this place.
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady. She will be well aware of the Supreme Court ruling in, I think, June this year which established—the majority of the judges made it quite clear—that the existing abortion legislation in Northern Ireland was “deeply unsatisfactory” in relation to fatal foetal abnormality and sexual crime. The law in Northern Ireland will have to change. That was a ruling in the Supreme Court, our highest court in the United Kingdom. The hon. Lady made clear at the beginning of her speech that her new clause would not change the law in Northern Ireland, so if it is passed this evening, or even put to a vote, what exactly will be the consequence?
The hon. Lady has raised an important point. That court judgment in June 2018 held us all to account for what we were doing about human rights. It was simply because the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission was not a direct victim of that policy that the policy could not be enacted. We learnt today that Sarah Ewart, an incredibly brave woman, is continuing the court process, because there is no other form of redress and remedy at present.
As the Government have previously said, these are matters on which the Assembly, were it to be functioning, should be able to act; but, as we said at the start, the Bill constitutes a recognition that the Assembly is not functioning, and is unlikely to be functioning soon. What, then—this is the human question—do women like Sarah Ewart do? What, then, do people who love each other do when their politicians fail them? What do the public do? The new clause asks that question in a way that none of us can ignore. It asks the Secretary of State to take on the responsibility of reporting on what she will do.
With respect, I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has read the legislation on which we are voting today, because it constitutes a recognition that there will not be an election in Northern Ireland any time soon to make that possible. So I repeat my question to him: what do the women do who need that help now, who deserve that respect and equality when it comes to control over their own bodies, and who might be in that dreadful position that involves a fatal foetal abnormality? What do they do now?
What those women do now is look to this place to be able to assist them. They look to the Secretary of State, and to the piece of legislation that she is creating, and they can look to the new clause to hear the call from this place that we will not ignore them. We will hold ourselves to account, and will hold Secretaries of State to account, for the incompatibility in human rights that the continued existence of those two pieces of legislation represents in their lives. That is what this incredibly reasonable new clause does. It does not create a new law, but it does not shy away from recognising the impact of those existing laws either. In that sense, it is entirely within the spirit of the Good Friday agreement.
Twenty years ago, our predecessors in this House, alongside their colleagues from the Irish Government, swore to uphold the human rights of the Northern Irish communities. They swore in the Good Friday agreement to make sure that there was an equivalency of rights. Every single month that passes, that promise comes into stark relief, because when we look at the Republic where same-sex marriage is legal and look at that historic referendum this year when abortion became legal in the Republic, we can see that that request not to have different rights is becoming tested.
The Good Friday agreement also required this House and UK politicians to act alongside their Irish counterparts, and that is what this new clause can do, while respecting our shared desire to see the Assembly up and running. So it is a very simple amendment, and I am sorry that it has come to this point and the Secretary of State does not feel able to accept it, and I am proud that it has cross-party support, because that respects and recognises that upholding human rights cannot be something we simply talk about doing abroad but do not recognise on our own doorstep.
I also think there has to be some honesty here. There are some Members of this House who do not believe that women anywhere should have bodily autonomy; there are some Members of this House who do not believe we should be able to marry the person we love. But I make a simple plea to those people: “Be honest with the people of Northern Ireland that your objection is that, and do not use devolution as a decoy for a denial of their human rights.”
I say this to be helpful to others in the House. I went to Belfast recently—to Stormont—and I had not appreciated that same-sex marriage has majority support among MLAs and a huge amount of support in terms of public opinion. The reason why it did not pass is because there is a thing called the petition of concern which essentially acts as a veto, so to say that there is not support and the people of Northern Ireland should just change their politicians does not work in this case; it has to be us who take that leap for them.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. Sadly, on both issues opinion polls show us that the politicians in Northern Ireland are behind the public consistently; indeed, they are behind their own supporters when it comes to both issues. [Interruption.] Mr Hayes is chuntering from a sedentary position; I understand that he has philosophical objections on some of the issues in this debate, but I hope he will have respect for the people of Northern Ireland and therefore agree that the case should be heard as to why the Secretary of State should be asked to protect their human rights and to be held to account for what is happening.
That means I will not have to chunter from a sedentary position, so I am grateful to the hon. Lady. Just to be clear about public opinion in Northern Ireland, the latest polling, which was authoritative—it was not a rogue poll—shows that the overwhelming majority of Northern Irish women favour the status quo, and interestingly that was broken down by age and younger Northern Irish women are no more in favour of changing to the position the hon. Lady wants than older ladies.
I am fascinated by the poll the right hon. Gentleman cites. Let me give him the direct data from the Amnesty International poll taken this year, which says that 65% of people in Northern Ireland think abortion should be decriminalised and 66% think Westminster should act in the absence of the Assembly. Let me also cite for him the Sky News poll of 2018 that shows that 76% of people in Northern Ireland support equal marriage. I say to him gently again that I understand that he has philosophical objections on some of these issues, whether from religious or moral conscience, and I respect that, but it is not enough to say this is about devolution on that basis. He needs to be honest with this House that his objection is about conscience, because there is not a devolution objection to this new clause. The new clause respects devolution, but it also asks us to respect human rights.
Ten years ago we had the opportunity to change things for women in Northern Ireland and that did not happen, and as a result we know from studies that 10,000 women have either had to travel to England to have an abortion or have taken pills bought online. If we reject this new clause, are we really trying to say that 10 MPs matter more than those 10,000 women whose lives have in the last 10 years been affected by our failure to act?
Will the hon. Lady also make it very clear that the rather barbaric and antiquated laws that exist in Northern Ireland are not even effective, because all they mean is that, as she said, about 28 women every week have to come over to England and Wales? So the laws are not working in any event, and this just makes them even more barbaric because women have to travel to exercise the same rights that my constituents have.
I share the passion of Anna Soubry on this matter and increasingly on many other things. She is absolutely right. Stopping safe, legal abortion does not stop abortions happening; it just stops safe abortions happening, as we have seen from the women taking pills who have been unable to seek help from their doctors in Northern Ireland. Stopping same-sex marriage does not stop people of the same sex falling in love with each other; it just stops them having the equal respect and dignity that comes from being able to marry who they love and say it proudly. It is a simple right that all of us in this Chamber would want and that all of us seek for our constituents.
However, I recognise that those are matters for the Assembly, and that is why I want to remind Members here that this new clause respects that process because it looks at the legislation before us today and asks who, in the absence of a functioning Assembly, can be the champion of the human rights of the people of Northern Ireland. It asks who can address the incompatibilities that these court proceedings are identifying, and who can ensure that we do not spend another 10, 20 or 30 years hearing the stories of shame, of hurt and of the rights abuses of the people of Northern Ireland, and simply shrugging our shoulders because politicians cannot get their act together to have an Assembly.
The answer is sitting opposite us, in the role of the Secretary of State. If the Secretary of State cannot stand up for the human rights of the people of Northern Ireland in the circumstances, and if she cannot account to us as a House about the impact of legislation written in this place on the lives of the people of Northern Ireland, who can? This is not about the Assembly. It is not about us directly. It is about the Secretary of State, and the new clause would simply ensure that that role cannot be avoided.
The people of Northern Ireland need to hear now that their rights are not going to be the casualty of the chaos that we are seeing right now in Northern Ireland. The people of Northern Ireland, who need their rights to be protected, need to know now that they will find friends across this House. We have already seen that in the numbers of people signing the new clause, and I hope, given that it does not set out a new law but recognises accountability and responsibility, that it will find favour across the House. The people of Northern Ireland, whose rights have been such a political football for so long, need and deserve nothing less from all of us.
I rise to speak against new clause 7 on the basis that it is clearly inappropriate. It goes far beyond the Government’s narrow, specific intention, in framing this emergency Bill, of ensuring that the administrative functions should keep working efficiently in Northern Ireland in the absence of an Executive there. Their intention was not to go further and to influence key devolved policy matters that should be more properly decided by that Executive. The very fact that this is an emergency Bill is a cause of great concern. Many colleagues have said to me that on such important and sensitive issues—
It is very kind of my hon. Friend to give way. On the subject of emergency Bills, what could be more of an emergency than the women of Northern Ireland wondering, right here and right now, what on earth they have to put themselves through in order to have the choice to have an abortion without having to travel to England? For me, that is a pretty big emergency, too.
I absolutely agree that this is an issue that requires the greatest of care and that needs to be addressed with considerable compassion. It therefore deserves more time to be considered by the Members of this House than it has been given in this emergency debate. That is the point that I wanted to make. The proposer of the new clause might say that it does not interfere with devolution, but it clearly has the potential to undermine devolution, touching as it does on the key devolved issues of abortion and marriage.
Not only does the new clause go against the will of a great many of us in this House, but it also goes against the will of 60% of the people of Northern Ireland—women who say that they do not want any change. That is what the people of Northern Ireland are saying, so why should this House make it any different?
The hon. Gentleman makes a pertinent point, which I shall refer to further.
I think Stella Creasy said that the powers of guidance that the Bill gives to the Secretary of State are powerful. Indeed, I believe that they are; the guidance given to the Secretary of State is far reaching. The guidance cannot and should not change the law, but it could well encourage officials and citizens to believe that it does, and it may well change behaviour. I therefore exhort the Secretary of State to ensure that if new clause 7 is passed—I will certainly vote against it—none of the guidance she provides in any way encourages officials to effect any policy changes. Indeed, I seek her reassurance today that she will specifically guard against that happening.
My hon. Friend appears to be arguing for the continuation of a human rights border down the Irish sea.
What I am arguing—reluctantly, I need to repeat many of the points I made in the Chamber yesterday—is that this key issue does merit reconsideration, but reconsideration in the right legislative chamber, namely the Northern Ireland Assembly. Elected officials there should be making such decisions while accountable to the people they represent.
My hon. Friend is being generous in giving way. The recent Supreme Court decision requested that lawmakers take action where our law is incompatible with treaties that involve requirements on the UK Parliament. Even if it was just a matter for Northern Ireland, it has been almost two years since democracy has been in action there, so it is surely for this House to take note of such things.
I am happy to address such points. I accept that several justices set out their thoughts on abortion legislation in Northern Ireland in a narrow set of circumstances in the Supreme Court decision earlier this year. However, those views cannot be extrapolated into a case for arguing that human rights are being curtailed in every circumstance in Northern Ireland. We must be clear that the Supreme Court did not make a binding declaration of the incompatibility of Northern Ireland abortion law with human rights. New clause 7 should not use that declaration to justify this proposal.
No. I have taken several interventions, and I will, if I may, proceed.
New clause 7 goes much further even than the non-binding comments made by the judges in the Supreme Court case—a case of serious foetal abnormality. As I say, I am mindful of what a difficult situation that is and fully agree that it merits further attention for the women who may be affected by it, but that must happen in the right legislative chamber.
No, I will continue, if I may.
New clause 7, which refers to the decriminalisation of sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, goes much further than even the obiter dicta statements of the Supreme Court judges. It goes much further than referring just to foetal abnormality and seeks much broader changes than the narrow circumstances to which the judges referred, which is a further reason why it should be opposed.
I have said no, and I am going to continue. I have taken many interventions, and many others want to speak.
Even in situations where there is a declaration of incompatibility, the Human Rights Act 1998 is clear that legislatures are not required to change the law. That is for legislators to decide, and in this case that means the Northern Ireland Executive. It has also been argued that the Government should change the law because of wider international human rights obligations that the UK has signed up to—specifically recommendations from a February 2018 report by a UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women—CEDAW. Professor Mark Hill QC has written a long opinion on the CEDAW report, and he argues cogently that there is no requirement to act on the basis of the report because there is no right to abortion under the relevant convention and because the committee does not have the power to stipulate that the UK should make any resolutions.
Members are being asked to support new clause 7 on the basis of pressing human rights concerns, but those concerns rest principally on a failure properly to understand what a declaration of incompatibility means. Such a declaration carries no imperative to change the law, especially when the subject is within the margin of appreciation, as is the case with abortion.
Baroness Hale acknowledged at paragraph 39 of the Supreme Court’s Northern Ireland abortion law judgment in June that the democratically expressed will of the people is important, and we must not forget the key vote by the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2016 not to change abortion law.
My right hon. Friend Mr Hayes mentioned some statistics, and so did the hon. Member for Walthamstow. I remind the Committee of a ComRes poll released just last week showing that the following percentages of people say that changes to abortion law should be a decision for the people of Northern Ireland and their elected representatives, not Westminster: 64% of Northern Irish people, 66% of Northern Irish women and 70% of 18 to 34-year-olds in Northern Ireland. We must respect that, we must respect the Assembly’s 2016 decision and we must respect that many people in Northern Ireland do not want to see these changes, and they certainly do not want to see changes resulting from guidelines issued by a Secretary of State in Westminster, with all the implications that could involve.
New clause 7 must be rejected. I absolutely understand that this is a very sensitive topic but, even through a misapprehension or a misunderstanding, for civil servants to be seen as being given the power to influence this policy would be quite wrong. Out of respect for the people of Northern Ireland and their elected representatives, new clause 7 must be voted down.
I welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate in Committee. Amendment 15, in the name of Nigel Mills, would require an election to be held when these special measures come to an end. For our part, the Democratic Unionist party has no fear of an election. We have just had a council by-election in Carrickfergus, which we won comfortably. We are not fearful of putting ourselves before the people.
If the hon. Gentleman were here, I would say that holding an election would not change the reality. If we have dialogue and cannot reach a political agreement, all an election will do is further polarise the community and make it even more difficult to reach a political agreement. [Interruption.] If Labour Members are so interested in elections in Northern Ireland, maybe one of them will explain why the Labour party does not contest elections there.
Labour Members want to change laws in Northern Ireland, and they want to tell the people of Northern Ireland what to do, but they do not have the courage of their convictions to put themselves before the people of Northern Ireland and seek election. A little quiet from that quarter is the order of the day. When they are ready to come before the people of Northern Ireland and put themselves forward, we will listen to the Labour party. With all due respect, at least the Conservative party—
On a point of order, Dame Rosie. I would be grateful for a more comradely debate, rather than the rant to which we are being subjected. Perhaps we need to take a moment to calm down.
I thank the hon. Lady for her point of order, and I remind everybody that moderation in language and in debate is what we would like to see. This is a very important debate, and perhaps we need to take the temperature down a little.
If we need to moderate debate because I have called on people to put themselves forward and seek a democratic mandate, I stand to be corrected, but the people of my constituency are looking at the Labour party. More than 60% of the people who voted in my constituency voted for my party at the general election. When I hear Labour Members tell me that they speak more for the people I represent than I do, I am entitled to say that they should put themselves forward in Lagan Valley at the next election. Seek a mandate. Take me on. I am more than happy to contest the Labour party in Lagan Valley. Let us see then whether I speak for the people of Lagan Valley or they do.
I really believe that having an election for the sake of it does not get us beyond the current political impasse. Again, for the record, let me say that the DUP stands ready to engage in dialogue and to go into government. We are not preventing the people of Northern Ireland from being in government. We have an electoral mandate to be in government, but Sinn Féin—one party; itself alone—is preventing the people of Northern Ireland and my party from exercising the right given to us by the people to provide government for the people of Northern Ireland.
I say to Dr Murrison that I am supportive of his amendment calling for the Secretary of State to have regard to representations from Members of Parliament, because that is not an unreasonable suggestion. Members of Parliament, not just on our Benches, but even those who do not take their seats, should have the opportunity to provide input and advice to the Government on this. I am bound to say, however, that that is not a substitute for what we would have liked to have seen: in the absence of a fully functioning Assembly, at the very least we would have liked its Members to have been given a scrutiny function. In the exercise of those powers, those Members could, thus, scrutinise the Government Departments that are to be the subject and beneficiary of this legislation. It is a matter of regret that the Government have resisted such a proposition because Sinn Féin is unlikely to take part. Yet again, Members of the Legislative Assembly will not have the opportunity to be involved and have a role in this process because one party, alone, declines to take part. When people talk about vetoes, we can talk about the petition of concern, but Sinn Féin does not need to exercise a petition of concern to refuse to take part in the function of government in Northern Ireland; it simply consults its illegal army council, gets instructions from Connolly House and refuses to be in government. That is the situation we are in at the moment, and it is a pretty dreadful one.
Let me turn to new clause 7, tabled by Stella Creasy. She says she respects the principle of devolution, yet some of the Members supporting the new clause have put forward Bills in this House of Commons that would have the effect of undermining devolution in Northern Ireland. Therefore, I take with some concern this notion that what is proposed is not about interfering with the devolution settlement, as I fear it does.
I also wish to deal with the suggestion that is integral to the new clause, which is that the reason we need to make this amendment to the Bill is the ruling of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court did not rule that the law should change in Northern Ireland—that is absolutely the case. Lady Hermon is much more learned in the law than I am, but I have to say to her that I have consulted the Attorney General for Northern Ireland and he tells me clearly, in writing, that the Supreme Court judgment does not obligate the Northern Ireland Assembly to change the law.
The right hon. Gentleman is referring to a judgment where the majority of the Supreme Court, by four to three, dismissed the case on a technical point to do with the status and powers of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. If he reads the judgment carefully, he will find—I will stand corrected if I am not right on this—that a majority of the judges, including Lord Kerr, described the abortion legislation in Northern Ireland in relation to fatal foetal abnormality and sexual crime as “deeply unsatisfactory”. Those are the words that were used. I plead with the right hon. Gentleman’s party to indicate what help and assistance is going to be given to those hundreds of women who feel that they have to leave their own country, Northern Ireland, to seek an abortion. Abortion is not compulsory; it is an option. Women should have the choice in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality. Will the hon. Gentleman’s party accept those circumstances for change?
I respect what the hon. Lady said, but I point out to her that section 4(6) of the Human Rights Act 1998 is clear on the point of incompatibility. It states clearly:
“A declaration under this section (“a declaration of incompatibility”)…does not affect the validity, continuing operation or enforcement of the provision in respect of which it is given”.
That is the human rights law of this country. When the hon. Lady suggested in her intervention earlier that the Supreme Court judgment compelled the Northern Ireland Assembly to change the law, she was incorrect in her assertion. That opinion comes from the Attorney General for Northern Ireland and his respected advice on this subject.
On the question that the hon. Lady posed, in respect of fatal foetal abnormality, when a mother is expecting a child with a potentially life-limiting condition, I too have met Sarah Ewart, as has my hon. Friend Gavin Robinson, who is her Member of Parliament, and I have enormous respect for Sarah. As a result of her initiative, the Northern Ireland Executive commissioned a working group to examine this area of the law in Northern Ireland, and that working group brought forward proposals. Here is the irony: if Sinn Féin allowed Northern Ireland to have a Government, we would by now have addressed this area of the law.
Because we have a working group that was set up by the Executive and that has brought forward proposals, this area of the law would have been addressed by now.
With respect to the hon. Member for North Down, the party that is preventing this issue from being addressed in Northern Ireland is not the Democratic Unionist party; it is Sinn Féin who are preventing the Executive from addressing the report of the working group, which has brought forward proposals in respect of mothers who are expectant with a child who may have a life-limiting condition, so let us get our facts straight.
In respect of the issue relating to sex crime, I agree with the hon. Member for North Down that we need to examine this area of the law in Northern Ireland, but the difficulty is that we cannot do it—not because the Democratic Unionist party is standing in the way of examining these sensitive issues, but because Sinn Féin are preventing the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive from carrying out their function. That is the political reality of the situation in Northern Ireland.
In respect of the proposals before us, it is important that we consider carefully what we are doing. If we really are to be true to our commitment to respect the devolution principle—
It was this House that decided that Northern Ireland should have devolved responsibility for abortion and marriage. It was this House that decided to give to the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive the power to legislate on these areas of life. That is the reality. The hon. Member for Walthamstow talked about the decisions of this House—
It was this House that decided that the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive had the power to legislate on these areas of the law.
Order. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman is going to give way, so rather than just shouting at him, I think that we should allow him to continue, because he will be well aware that a lot of other hon. Members want to contribute to the debate.
I am very much aware of that, Dame Rosie. I have taken some interventions but there is a lot that we need to say and a lot that others want to say, and I respect that.
This issue is important because it is about the principle of devolution. If we truly respect the decisions of this House—which gave the power to the Northern Ireland people, through the Assembly and the Executive, to exercise the right to legislate on these areas of the law —please let us not talk about creating a border in the Irish sea, when we all voted to give Northern Ireland that power. Otherwise, what is the point of devolution? The point of devolution is that the people of Northern Ireland have the right to legislate for laws that affect their lives. It is the same in Scotland and in Wales. That is why we have devolution.
Members of this House say to me, a Member from Northern Ireland, that talking about having different laws in my part of the United Kingdom is somehow about creating a border in the Irish sea; it is not. It is about respecting the principle on which this House agreed—that Northern Ireland has the right to make its own laws in its own legislature as part of this United Kingdom. That is important.
We must respect the devolution principle, not breach it. I understand that this legislation is only about giving civil servants advice and direction; I am not suggesting that it is about changing the law. Nevertheless, we need to be careful because I rather suspect that the hon. Member for Walthamstow does not see this as the end game—not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end. Let us be honest with each other about that. I believe that the hon. Lady sees this measure as a means to an end in changing the law in Northern Ireland. All I am saying—I echo previous comments made today—is that most people in my constituency and in Northern Ireland believe that it is for the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive to make those laws. My party will therefore vote against new clause 7 because it has the potential to undermine the principle of devolution. I say that without prejudice to the points made by the hon. Member for North Down, which I respect. We are not running away from the issues, court judgments or any of those things. What we are saying is that the proper place to deal with and discuss these matters is in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
In the most recent democratic vote on abortion law of any legislature in the United Kingdom, the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2016—only two years ago—voted by a majority to retain the existing law on abortion in Northern Ireland. Now, I accept that we need to examine the issues. In fact, we have looked at the whole question of life-limiting conditions and we have a working group report that we want to get back to.
Let me return to the core and central point of all this: I listened to the new president of Sinn Féin, Mary Lou McDonald, talking about equal rights, and I pointed out to her in a panel discussion that if the Assembly sat tomorrow and there was a vote on marriage, the Democratic Unionist party would not have enough seats on its own to table a petition of concern. I therefore challenged Sinn Féin that if it believed that this issue is such a pressing one, it should call the Assembly and get the Government up and running. If it believes that this is the priority—if Sinn Féin thinks that health, education, roads and housing should be secondary—it can list it as the first item of business. But it will not call the Assembly and it will not form an Executive. Sinn Féin will not give the people of Northern Ireland, through their elected representatives, the opportunity to address any of these issues.
That is the reality we are dealing with. We can trade arguments back and forward with each other on some of these very sensitive issues, but the reality is that my constituents do not have a Government this evening and are not getting decisions taken that need to be taken because one political party in Northern Ireland is denying not only equal rights but basic rights that impact on the daily lives of my constituents, whether it is their housing rights, their health rights or their education rights. All those rights—human rights—are being impacted. It would be good to hear some hon. Members refer to those human rights that are currently being denied by Sinn Féin, which refuses Northern Ireland the right to have a democratic Government.
Rarely do we get such fine, sweeping oratory in a Bill Committee. That is probably one of the few advantages of fast-tracking legislation. I am afraid that I am going to turn the temperature down a couple of notches in speaking to my amendments 1 to 9, which are all far more prosaic than new clause 7. I will certainly not be able to match in any way, shape or form the oratory we have heard from my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce, Stella Creasy, and Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson. These are nevertheless, I believe, important amendments to an important Bill. They deal with clauses 2, 3 and 4.
My amendment 1 is, as it were, amendment 20 in the name of Tony Lloyd-lite—that is, it does not delete clause 2 but simply, modestly removes a subsection. That subsection deals with the expediency of not seeking the House’s approval to extend the provisions we are discussing in terms of the Executive. I tabled the amendment to explore with the Secretary of State what “expediency” might mean, because we are handing to her a range of quite important powers in unusual circumstances. That suggests to me that the Committee really needs to do its utmost to scrutinise what is going on. It does not seem to me that the word “expediency” should really creep into the lexicography at all. My point in tabling this simple and modest amendment is to probe the Secretary of State on the circumstances in which she would see fit to enact this extension without the prior approval of the House.
Amendment 2 is the guts of what I want to discuss. It really cuts to the chase in terms of the Bill, because it deals with guidance, which is the single most important part of the proposals before us. It seeks, for example, to be more prescriptive in the sort of guidance that I would like the Secretary of State to give to the Northern Ireland civil service. We discussed some of this on Second Reading. I believe that that would be an improvement, having gone through the draft guidance that has been published, of which, presumably, all right hon. and hon. Members who are interested in this matter have got copies from the Library. The amendment goes further and makes it more prescriptive.
The flagship issue is Hart. There is cross-party and cross-community support for the Hart report, and there really can be no excuse for not cracking on and doing this now. I very much hope that in the forthcoming guidance the Secretary of State will enable that process to be advanced. I have cited Hart as No. 1 in my list of things I seek her to be specific on, because it is obviously the No. 1, big ticket issue that people would like to see action on. People out there really cannot understand why action has not been taken.
I do not understand why Hart has not been done. There was huge courage within the Northern Ireland Health Department when we got medical cannabis for constituents in Northern Ireland when we were getting Billies and Alfies over here. People had the will and they needed the confidence. Is my hon. Friend sure that this legislation will give them the confidence, because clearly they are frightened and something is holding them back? They have done it for medical cannabis, so surely they could do it for Hart.
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point, which elegantly exemplifies what I am going on about and brings me neatly on to—
I have signed the hon. Gentleman’s excellent amendment, but does he not understand from the legislation and, indeed, the answer we heard from the Secretary of State earlier that, in her view, this does not allow her to enact any of the recommendations made under the Hart review? Is he not deeply disappointed by that?
I am not really sure that that is the case. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the guidance, which I am sure he has now read. On the third page, the guidance states that particular weight must be given to any
“serious detriment to the public interest, public health and wellbeing”.
That seems fairly clearcut to me. I think that the Secretary of State will have got the sense of the House today on her being proactive in the guidance that she is able to issue.
Some of the concern is that this is actually not that straightforward. The terms of reference that set up the Hart inquiry clearly said that what came after the findings was not a matter for the chair of the inquiry. There are issues and decision points in those recommendations. To use a quick example, Hart recommends legal aid or separate legal representation for each of the people coming forward to a redress board. That has never been agreed. There would be a huge cost and, in my view, a lot of bureaucracy with that approach. There are decision points in the recommendations that, as I understand it in terms of the guidance, could not be made by a civil servant, because there is no consensus at this stage on those matters. That is the complication, and that is why the Secretary of State needs to step in and make those decisions.
I do understand that. One point I made on Second Reading was that I was slightly disappointed that the Bill does not advance pretty much any of the recommendations we made in our report on the democratic deficit, published in May. Had it done so, there would be scope now for even more consultation, using formal structures, which may have assisted the implementation to which the hon. Lady rightly refers.
My right hon. Friend Sir Mike Penning mentioned cannabis, which leads me on to healthcare—a matter that is of particular importance to my Committee right now, since we were at the Royal Victoria Hospital on Monday, where we took evidence from a number of service users. It is very clear from the guidance, which cites public interest and public health, that this matter is preying on the mind of Ministers.
It is a crying shame that there is no proper cancer strategy in Northern Ireland right now. There is one published in 2008, so it is out of date. We have a situation where, to pick one condition at random, the outcomes for prostate cancer are far worse in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the country. This is pretty clear. If we do not have a cancer strategy and we believe that a cancer strategy will be of assistance in improving outcomes, of course outcomes will be worse if one is not in place. To get a cancer strategy, we need some form of direction to civil servants to get on with it and, furthermore, to implement it.
One thing we have discussed in the Select Committee is the scourge of diabetes. In Northern Ireland, we have the largest percentage of people with diabetes per head of population in the UK. We also have the largest proportion of type 1 child diabetics in the whole United Kingdom, with Scotland coming second. We need a strategy in place for that. We had a strategy before, which covered all the regions of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but we cannot do that today because we do not have the wherewithal. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we really need to see some action in the Health Department, to address all chronic diseases, including diabetes and cancer?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I do not want to labour the point, but I feel the need to briefly mention the fact that screening for cancer in Northern Ireland is frankly woeful—it is way behind. We cannot have a situation where there is faecal immunochemical testing in the rest of the UK, but it is denied to people in Northern Ireland, and they also cannot get HPV screening for cervical cancer. That is just not acceptable. But for these things to happen, we need some form of direction, however it comes, and that is a matter for Ministers and those who draft measures of the sort we are discussing and, of course, those who deal with the consequentials of the guidance that we are dealing with.
I make no apology for going back to the Hart inquiry, because there are hundreds of victims of historical sexual abuse in Northern Ireland who will be watching this debate and wondering whether action is likely to be taken by the Government as a result of this legislation. I think that we are still very unclear whether the Secretary of State interprets this legislation, as the hon. Gentleman and I do, as giving leeway to civil servants in Northern Ireland to undertake further action. Through him, may I urge the Secretary of State to intervene at some point before the close of the Committee this evening and clarify whether this will allow action on Hart?
The purpose of amendments tends to be to elicit such answers from Ministers, and it will be very interesting to hear from the Secretary of State how she would like to play this, because I am hoping that we will have some encouragement in that respect. Hon. Members have has certainly given her every encouragement. I have been struck by how much encouragement to be proactive in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland there has been during this debate. I think that the Committee understands full well that a great deal needs to be done, and it needs to be done fairly quickly on a number of important public policy issues, of which Hart is just one.
The guidance makes a great deal of the public finances and the economy in Northern Ireland. Goodness me, we could debate all day the economy in Northern Ireland and where that needs to go. One thing we have been particularly struck by as a Select Committee is of course farming and growing in Northern Ireland: horticulture is far more important there than in the rest of the United Kingdom. One of the recommendations we are very keen on is that there should be a proper farming strategy in Northern Ireland very soon. At the moment, it is having to compete with the Republic, where, if I am honest, the Government in Dublin have been really quite proactive and have placed farmers and growers north of the border at something of a competitive disadvantage, with or without Brexit.
Things need to be done, and fairly urgently, to improve productivity in Northern Ireland, while recognising the unusual nature of farming in Northern Ireland and recognising that farming in Northern Ireland is not the same as farming in the rest of the United Kingdom. In the main, we are not talking about East Anglian barley barons in Northern Ireland, but about small family farms. That is why the guidance, which I hope will preoccupy the Secretary of State in the weeks and months ahead, should produce a firm statement about what the civil service of Northern Ireland needs to do in relation to producing such a farming strategy. If we have no restoration of the Executive by the end of the year, we should certainly give some attention to that directly.
I will skip the rest of my amendments because they are simply to do with ensuring that there is added scrutiny of these measures and the guidance that flows from them, as well as with the appointment function to be exercised by this House, as cited in clause 4, and in particular—if I may make this suggestion—by my Committee.
I would not of course challenge the Chair on the grouping of these amendments—that would be poor—but I would gently say that two hours for the range of amendments before us on a great many subjects is not sufficient. This is not satisfactory, and I hope that the Government will learn that we have a deep interest in the issues across Northern Ireland and will give us more time.
I have worked with Dr Murrison on a number of health issues in England and Wales, and the points he raised in his amendments about health inequalities across Northern Ireland were well made. I particularly want to highlight amendment 22, especially in relation to pensions, in the name of Christine Jardine. Such a measure is in the gift of the Secretary of State, and we certainly wish to see it progressed.
Most of my comments are going to be about new clause 7, and I will start with same-sex marriage. I was proud to be a co-sponsor of the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend Conor McGinn, and I was a witness of his speech last March, which was one of the best I have heard in this Chamber. I should say that, although I am pleased to be married, he beautifully encapsulated the equality point when he told us the heartfelt response made by one of the people he was speaking to in south Armagh. The man said that, frankly, gay people had the right
“to be as miserable as the rest of us.”
With respect to the fact that people who love each other cannot build a happy life together as a married couple in Northern Ireland, he asked in that speech:
“Does anyone think that is fair? Does anyone think that is right? Does anyone think that can continue?”—[Official Report,
The will of this House was clear from our support. I am delighted that his endeavours were recognised this month: in the PinkNews awards, he was politician of the year, along with his friend Lord Hayward, who I am glad to see has joined us in the Gallery. That was much deserved; they were both very pretty in pink that night. They are not going to give up, and we on the Labour Benches are right with them.
Turning to women’s reproductive rights, my hon. Friend Stella Creasy has already changed the Government’s position with regard to facilitating women in Northern Ireland’s access to abortion services in England and Wales. Civil servants are not informing women of their rights to those services, and are leaving it up to non-governmental organisations to tell women how to access that provision, which is still available to them. Not doing something is a political act and has consequences, and that needs to be recognised in the provisions of the Bill going through the House tonight. As an elected Member of this House who supported a measure in good faith, I find it unacceptable that civil servants in Belfast do not pass on that information because there was no law change in Northern Ireland, and that somehow that is considered acceptable.
When we went to Northern Ireland with Amnesty International, we learned that people cannot be given that information, because giving it is a criminal offence for which a person will be prosecuted, and they will face a lengthy prison sentence. One of the most concerning features of all this is the inability of people to get any form of advice.
I am grateful for that intervention. The right hon. Lady is of course right: the issue of advice, guidance and information is subject to some discussion, and that is not helpful in this situation.
Yesterday, my hon. Friend Diana Johnson tested the will of the House on this issue after giving a superb and measured speech on a Bill seeking to decriminalise women in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. There was an attempt to divide women by suggesting we could not decriminalise in England and Wales because it would be anti-devolution. Fundamental to the politics of my hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow and for Kingston upon Hull North, and the majority of women in this House—and in this country—is our belief in the internationalism of women’s rights. Our solidarity with women across the world is important.
Women’s reproductive rights are at the core of that internationalism and solidarity. It seems that the Government share our view. This year, they launched a good flagship programme—I commend some of that work—from the Department for International Development called Work and Opportunities for Women. The objective is access to improved economic opportunities for women through business intervention in supply chains and economic development programmes. It is, after all, a Conservative programme, so its focus is interesting. It is about women’s economic empowerment. That Government policy states that women’s economic opportunities will be improved by, among other things,
“influencing the UK and global agenda on women’s economic empowerment.”
The Government’s supporting literature says:
“Sexual and reproductive health and rights…including the right to decide if and how many children to have, the right to live free from disease and the right to access confidential, high-quality health services which enable women to control their own bodies…are fundamental to women’s economic empowerment.”
It goes on to say that the link between sexual and reproductive health and rights and women’s economic empowerment
“is reflected in DFID’s Economic Development Strategy… 2017…which includes a commitment to increase access to family planning as a vehicle for transforming women’s economic opportunities.”
Those are the Government’s own policies. It goes on to say that the Government support initiatives in this area in the DFID priority countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burma, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Liberia, Malawi, Mozambique, Nepal, Nigeria, Palestine, Pakistan, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, South Africa, South Sudan, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Uganda, Yemen, Zimbabwe and Zambia—28 countries. What rank hypocrisy by the UK Government in committing to increase access to family planning across the world but not in our own precious Union for our own people.
I am in no doubt that change is coming. The issue at heart is how much more suffering the Government are willing to inflict on women from Northern Ireland before it is achieved.
My hon. Friend has brilliantly exposed the hypocrisy of our country on the international stage. She talks about the impetus for change in these islands. Is it not a complete absurdity—and would not much of the objection to new clause 7 this afternoon be laughable if it were not so serious—that Northern Ireland, especially following the referendum in the Republic of Ireland, will be the only place in Great Britain and Northern Ireland or on the island of Ireland where same-sex couples will not be allowed to get married and women will not be able to seek access to safe and legal abortion? It is time to end that anomaly.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Today, we have seen Sarah Ewart bravely take on the role of doing something about it.
The Government may kick the can down the road with the Bill, but nothing is standing still. As my hon. Friend said, the changing of its law by the Republic of Ireland will mean that, up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, women can take a train, make a short bus ride or even walk to a service. Yesterday’s vote in this place is important.
I have listened carefully to the speeches today, including from Emma Little Pengelly. I spent a day in Stormont recently as part of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, taking evidence from all sides in the debate, and meeting the Attorney General, the director of medical services and other campaigners. Feelings on this issue are strong. We need to treat the issue with care and establish services respectfully. But we have experience of that. People in Northern have had and still have to manage much greater challenges. The new clause is helpful and respectful and would allow a process to take place. The Government would be well advised to respond as respectfully and to listen to the women who would rather be at home.
Before I speak to Government amendments 23 and 24, it is worth taking a moment to remind right hon. and hon. Members of the purpose of the Bill and why we are here today. Many were unable to be here for Second Reading, so I repeat that this is not a Bill that I wanted to introduce. I am doing so because we have to enable public services to continue to be delivered in Northern Ireland. We all want to see politicians in Northern Ireland come together, do the right thing and go back to Stormont to form an Executive. If an Executive were in place, so much that we have debated today would be a matter for its members to discuss and to take the decisions on behalf of the people who elected them. That is what is right for the people of Northern Ireland who have suffered for too long without a Government in Stormont. The time has come for their politicians to do the right thing.
I also repeat my earlier point that the Bill is limited. It will allow decisions to be taken by civil servants who have felt unable to do so since the Buick appeal was heard. We need to make sure that those civil servants can take those decisions, but this is not about their making major policy decisions or becoming lawmakers. This is about civil servants being able to deliver on key infrastructure decisions and other matters relating to the running of public services in Northern Ireland.
I do not want to make life any more difficult than it already is for our dedicated civil servants in the NICS, and being put in a position where they would have to take major policy decisions is something that no civil servant would want. They are incredibly dedicated and they work incredibly hard on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland.
We also need to make sure that there is no reason at all for the politicians in Northern Ireland not to come together, do the right thing and form a Government. I have been heartened by the words I have heard from the Members of the Democratic Unionist party about their determination to see an Executive reformed as soon as possible. I want to work with all the parties and with no impediments in place, which why the Bill allows the reformation of an Executive without further legislation, to see that happen as soon as possible so that we can deal with these matters and to do so in the right place, in Stormont, where they can be dealt with by the politicians elected in Northern Ireland.
I remind hon. and right hon. Members that this is a time-limited Bill. It is not a permanent Bill and it does not change anything permanently. It allows a short period in which impediments to forming an Executive are removed, in which the framework and conditions for the politicians to come together are put in the best place they can be, and in which decisions about running public services can continue to be made by civil servants in the way that is right for the people of Northern Ireland without their making major policy decisions, because we need the politicians to do that. In considering these amendments, it is important that we all remember the purpose of the Bill—why we are introducing it, why we are doing so in an emergency situation and not through the normal parliamentary procedures, and what the Government’s intention is.
Let me go back to the Government amendments. I appreciate the hard work of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee in scrutinising the Bill so quickly, and I thank it for its report. I am grateful that the Committee acknowledges the potential need for regulations to be made as a matter of urgency in a way that is not possible through the draft affirmative procedure alone. Although my preferred option was to use the negative procedure to enable any such urgent cases to be addressed, I have taken on board the wider concerns expressed by the Committee and accept its recommendation. Amendment 23 therefore provides that additions to the table in clause 4 will be subject to the affirmative procedure. That will mean the draft affirmative procedure, unless the case requires urgent action in which case the made affirmative procedure will be used. I think that this strikes the right balance between scrutiny and the capacity to expedite regulations should it be necessary to do so. Amendment 24 is consequential on amendment 23 and removes a cross-reference that is no longer needed now that regulations under clause 4 are subject to the affirmative procedure.
I recognise that intervening on a Secretary of State is quite an attractive prospect for many Back Benchers and that as a result there may not be time for me to catch your eye, Dame Rosie, to speak in support of new clauses 4, 5 and 6, which are tabled in my name. Will the Secretary of State therefore be willing to instruct her junior Minister to meet me to discuss the concerns of the Co-operative movement in Northern Ireland? I hope still to get in a brief word or two about those concerns, but if I do not I would like the opportunity to amplify them with the Minister in private.
I certainly intend to ensure that there is time for the hon. Gentleman to speak in support of his new clauses, but of course I think it would be a good idea for me or my Minister of State to meet him and representatives of the Co-operative movement. In the Northern Ireland Office, we make a point of meeting all stakeholders and organisations with concerns. I know how difficult it is for civic society and organisations to know where to turn at this time without Ministers in Stormont, and I meet many organisations regularly that feel frustrated that they do not have Ministers to whom they can turn, so of course we are happy to meet. I remind the hon. Gentleman, as I end up reminding many, many organisations, that most of the things that are raised with us are devolved matters, and that we do not have Executive powers. That point was made very clear in the Hughes judgment earlier this year, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows.
Is the Minister saying clearly that she is not anticipating or encouraging civil servants, under the guidance that we are passing here today, to act either to implement the Hart inquiry recommendations or to institute a pension for victims of the troubles?
I will come to the specific points that the hon. Gentleman raised, because they are the subject of amendments that have been tabled and I will try to address all those points, but I want to make myself clear. The hon. Gentleman may have missed my comments when I responded to an intervention from Lady Hermon. The head of the Northern Ireland civil service has made it clear that he would like to consult on the Hart recommendations and do the work that would be required in any event, with or without Ministers, to prepare for what implementation of those recommendations and other matters might involve, and I have written to thank him for that decision.
Forgive me; what was the second point that the hon. Gentleman raised?
I will talk about that specifically, because obviously, although it is another devolved matter, we have spoken to the Victims’ Commissioner about trying to ensure that some progress can be made. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I meet victims of the troubles, I meet victims of sexual abuse, I meet victims of all manner of things, and I meet campaigners for LGBT rights and all sorts of others, and I well understand the desire to get on and take action in this place. However, I very gently say to him—he will know this from his great experience as an adviser, particularly during the period of direct rule—that there is no direct rule-lite. There is no “just intervene a little bit here and a little bit there.” All of that is direct rule, and I do not want to be in direct rule because it is wrong for the people of Northern Ireland. While there is a chance of the parties coming together and doing the right thing in Stormont, that is the best thing for the people of Northern Ireland and I have to give them every opportunity to do that.
May I press the Minister on the question of the victims of terrorism? There is a very strong interpretation that, as a legacy issue, that is the responsibility of the Secretary of State, not of the Stormont Assembly? I think she needs to make it absolutely clear why she will not follow that path, because that would be the quickest way, it would be legal, and it would do something for victims here and now, not in the indefinite future.
I appreciate that there is confusion around this matter. I asked for advice very early on in regard to what was reserved, what was devolved, and what had become a matter for this House as a result of the agreement of politicians in Northern Ireland. Let me be clear: many of the interventions that the Government have taken over the years have been as a result of the wishes and the agreement of the parties in Northern Ireland to ask Westminster to take action in certain areas, but victims’ pensions is still a devolved matter. I want to see action in that area, and that is why I have spoken to the Victims’ Commissioner.
I know how passionately my right hon. Friend feels about this; and may I tell him that I feel passionately about it too? I want to see justice for our veterans. The veterans and the RUC who served in Northern Ireland were responsible for the fact that the peace process was able to start; it was because of their determination and bravery. I want to make sure that they are treated with the dignity that they should be afforded. I would like to work with my right hon. Friend to ensure that we can deliver that dignity in an appropriate way, but I have to caution him that, as I said earlier, this is a narrow Bill; it is a Bill to enable public services to continue to be run in Northern Ireland because that is necessary for the people of Northern Ireland. I do not think it is the correct vehicle for the kind of action that I know my right hon. Friend wants to see, and on which I want to work with him.
Let me now deal with the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend Nigel Mills. I am sympathetic to the spirit of amendment 15, but it has technical flaws, and I therefore cannot accept it. First, it would remove an election duty by omitting the original provision that was agreed to in the St Andrews agreement and is part of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Secondly, I think that the period of seven days is impractical. It could fall within a parliamentary recess, and I do not think that an Order in Council during a recess is exactly what the House would want to see.
Thirdly, the amendment does not allow for flexibility. We do not know what point we will reach. I want the politicians to come together and do the right thing as soon as possible, but I must ensure that there is the necessary flexibility to allow for a final short burst of talks if that is what is needed. I understand exactly why my hon. Friend tabled his amendment, but I think that imposing that degree of inflexibility on me, as Secretary of State, would not help the process of getting the Executive up and running again.
The UK Government respect the principle that Parliament should be able to scrutinise certain public appointments before they are made, especially significant appointments to organisations that hold the Government to account, but I do not think that the consequences of amendment 16 would follow the standard process for either United Kingdom or Northern Ireland appointments. The appointments listed in the Bill would not be subject to pre-appointment scrutiny in the Assembly or the Executive, and I think it would be inappropriate to introduce here a degree of pre-appointment scrutiny that does not exist at Stormont, and would not exist in Northern Ireland if Ministers were in place.
New clause 7 has been the subject of much debate. My respect for Stella Creasy and her campaigning on this matter is immense: I know how hard she campaigns and how much she cares about it. Her hon. Friend Conor McGinn is another doughty campaigner. I have put on the record, and I continue to believe, that change is needed in Northern Ireland in this regard, and that I support such change. However, I do not think that it should be made through the Bill or the new clause. The point of the Bill is to allow politicians to come together and form an Executive in Northern Ireland. That is where these decisions should be made.
The academic Paul Jennings, of Queen Mary University of London, has said that the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend Stella Creasy is scrupulous in avoiding issues of devolution and changing the Stormont-Westminster relationship. It relates only to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, a Westminster actor, and compels the office to issue guidance on the issues of abortion and equal marriage to senior officials in Northern Ireland. In doing so, it refrains from interfering with the mandate of Ministers in Northern Ireland.
I understand all the points that the hon. Gentleman has made, but the new clause is flawed. It is flawed because the Bill does not allow the law to be changed. It does not make civil servants lawmakers. It asks them to work within the confines of the law as it exists today. We do not want to be in a position in which civil servants are changing the law. I am not, as Secretary of State, changing the law on any devolved matter in Northern Ireland; I am giving guidance to the civil servants to allow them to make decisions within the existing law.
I hear the Secretary of State say that, yet I see officials in the Northern Ireland Department of Health, in their response to the programme enabling women to come to England for abortions, doing exactly what she has just said she does not want civil servants to do. It is already happening. The Bill will confirm the power that they have to do that, because the Secretary of State is giving them powers in the absence of the Assembly. Will she at least recognise that she has a powerful role to play as a check and balance in that process, and that that is what the new clause is about?
Let me say very gently to the hon. Lady that I disagree with her interpretation of what the new clause would do. It would put the NICS in an impossible position, given that the guidance makes it clear that in exercising its functions, it must act at all times in accordance with the law. Let me stress again that the Bill cannot force Northern Ireland Departments to change the law as the new clause seeks to do.
Civil servants will not be able to change the law: they do not have the power to change the law and we do not want them to have that power. That would put civil servants in an invidious position. It would be totally contrary to the rule of law and the way the independence of the civil service across the whole United Kingdom operates. This is not a precedent that we want to make. I well understand why Members want to see change in this area, and I have great sympathy with that, but this is not the way to do it.
Can my right hon. Friend reassure me on two things: first, that new clause 7 is a matter of conscience and we on this side of the House will not be whipped on it, and, secondly, that new clause 7 does not change the law or indeed give anybody the power to change the law? The notes are very clear: it is all about accountability to the Secretary of State so that she can look at human rights and make sure the guidance is there. It does not change the law; it is about guidance and accountability on human rights, and it is a matter of conscience.
I am reliably informed that this is a matter of conscience from the point of view of the party whip on the Government side of the House. I know this is frustrating for my right hon. Friend, and I am not saying this with any pleasure, but am merely stating the facts: the amendment as drafted would not see a change in the law in Northern Ireland. This is a matter that needs to be legislated for in Northern Ireland, and therefore it would not change the situation in Northern Ireland. I add that this is a temporary measure; we need to get an Executive in Stormont, which is what this Bill seeks to achieve, so that they can make the decisions.
I am rather encouraged by the line my right hon. Friend is taking on this, because it is about guiding principles, and I have here outcome 12 of the guiding principles for Northern Ireland Departments:
“We give our children and young people the best start in life.”
Will my right hon. Friend bear that in mind, because she is completely right: it is not for civil servants to change the policy? She is completely right on that, and I am very glad to have the assurance she has given, but the best start in life is the key question.
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s comments. I well understand that there is great strength of feeling in all parts of the House on this matter. I have considerable sympathy with much of what the hon. Members for Walthamstow and for St Helens North are trying to achieve, but I do not believe that this amendment achieves it, and I believe that the right thing to do is pass this Bill so we can get an Executive back and they can make the decisions in Northern Ireland for the people in Northern Ireland.
I am conscious of time and other Members wish to speak, but I want briefly to touch on a few other points, particularly those made by the Chair of the Select Committee. I know that in amendment 1 my hon. Friend Dr Murrison is concerned about the need for an extension and how it would work. Perhaps I can commit to consult with the Select Committee if I decide that having an extension is the right thing to do close to the deadline in order for the Select Committee to see my reasoning. I will work with the Select Committee on many of the amendments that my hon. Friend has put forward, because I appreciate that there is concern about scrutiny in Northern Ireland.
The question of the victims’ pension has been raised, and Christine Jardine has an amendment on it. As I said to those on the Opposition Front Bench, this is a devolved matter, but I have been working with the Victims’ Commissioner. I want to see progress on this matter, and I want all the work that can be done to be done so that when Ministers are back in Stormont they are able to take those decisions.
I am going to conclude at this point, because a significant number of people wish to speak and I want to ensure that all right hon. and hon. Members who have tabled amendments have a chance to speak. I repeat that this Bill is necessary for the people of Northern Ireland so that their public services can continue, and I hope that Members will feel able to support it.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for the comparative brevity of her remarks, and for her willingness to commit her Minister of State to meeting representatives of the Co-op movement and, more importantly, to meeting them directly herself. I strongly support new clause 7, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Stella Creasy for the way in which she spoke to it. I hope that the Committee will forgive me if I briefly touch on the reasons for tabling new clauses 4, 5 and 6, which are tabled in my name and those of a series of hon. Friends on this side of the House.
The new clauses relate to the interests of credit unions, housing co-operatives and energy co-operatives in Northern Ireland. Perhaps I should say at the outset that the largest number of bank branch closures has taken place since the political settlement in Northern Ireland broke down. The two eventualities are not directly related, but the need for a response to the situation clearly exists. Organisations such as credit unions and financial co-operatives have the potential to fill some of the gaps that those bank branch closures have caused. There are no major international banks headquartered in Northern Ireland, and the distance between the decisions that those international banks take and what happens in the communities of Northern Ireland is getting greater and greater.
The only banks that have a Northern Ireland perspective are the credit unions there, and they surely deserve more attention from the civil service in Northern Ireland than they are currently getting. The Secretary of State might not have direct powers in this regard, but she and the Minister of State will be people of considerable influence with the civil servants who do have powers under this legislation, and I hope that she will be willing to lobby on behalf of credit unions in Northern Ireland for a significant share of the financial inclusion pot that the Treasury has set aside. It is currently unallocated and amounts to some £55 million.
I also hope that Ministers will be willing to consider what they can do about the number of people taking on individual voluntary arrangements, causing debts to credit unions not to be paid. This is causing considerable problems for the credit unions. I would also like them to look at issues relating to the funding for energy co-operatives, which is due to run out in April next year, and at the lack of funding and access to land for housing co-operatives. I am grateful to Ministers for their willingness to meet representatives of the Co-operative movement, and on that note, I shall not press my new clauses to a Division.
I rise to speak in support of new clause 7, and I urge hon. Members on both sides of the House to support this really meek and mild amendment. It really should not be causing so much agitation, and I think we have to ask ourselves why it is doing so in certain quarters of the House. As many of us discovered when we went to Northern Ireland as guests of Amnesty International, the simple truth is that the laws in Northern Ireland are at best antiquated and at worst barbaric. God forbid that a member of any hon. Member’s family who lived in Northern Ireland were to be raped, but if that woman then found herself to be pregnant, she would not be allowed to terminate her pregnancy even if she had been raped by a member of her own family. She would have no rights and no choice.
In this matter, I have never sought to impose my views on anybody else, but women and young children throughout Northern Ireland have none of the choices that our own constituents have. I met a woman there who was diagnosed with a foetal abnormality when she was 23 weeks pregnant. This was her third attempt to have a child through in vitro fertilisation, and she and her husband were distraught when they were told that their child would die either in the womb or within hours of being born. If they were my constituents, they would have had a choice. They would have been able to talk to their doctor and go through all the available options and, if they so chose, they could have had a termination. That woman was denied all that. She could not even come to England to terminate her pregnancy. She carried that child for 11 weeks as it grew within her womb, with people saying to her, “When is your baby due?” She had to tell them, “My baby is going to die in my womb or it will die within hours of it being delivered.” She had to look at prams, cots and Moses baskets and know that she would never put her child, carried in her womb, into any of them. Her baby did die in the womb, 11 weeks after the diagnosis of a foetal abnormality, and she carried a dead baby for three days before she was finally induced. She gave birth to a baby girl who was decomposing.
Colleagues, right hon. and hon. Members, that is the situation that pertains in Northern Ireland, and new clause 7 seeks not to change that barbaric law, which we want to change—that is why many of us voted with Diana Johnson yesterday—but to maintain the rights of our fellow citizens of this proud United Kingdom. It merely asks that their human rights are properly monitored and does nothing more than that. I urge Members to vote for new clause 7, and Conor McGinn, who is not in his place, also urges and reminds colleagues that his Marriage (Same Sex Couples) (Northern Ireland) (No.2) Bill returns to this place on Friday. New clause 7 is a matter not just of conscience, but of decent humanity. It is about ensuring that everybody in the United Kingdom has these basic human rights.
I thank the Secretary of State for her comments about amendment 22 and simply urge her to continue to pursue the creation of pensions for the 500 people who are suffering from severe physical injuries as a result of the conflict.
I also rise to support new clause 7, and I will be brief because the situation is simple for me. I have defended and promoted devolution for a decade, but I never thought it would be used as a means of abrogating responsibility for the human rights of anyone within the United Kingdom. It is astonishing that my daughter, who lives in Scotland, could perhaps take up a job in Northern Ireland and then lose the rights that she was born with in the United Kingdom. That cannot be acceptable to anyone in this House, but there are people within the UK who do not have the rights that those of us who sit here today enjoy. New clause 7 would help to put that right, and we should support it.
I had not intended to speak, but I listened to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my right hon. Friend Anna Soubry and with great attention to Stella Creasy who, as the Secretary of State said, argued her case with fluidity, passion and an exemplary understanding of the issues, referring back to the ten-minute rule Bill speech of Diana Johnson. Irrespective of what side of the abortion debate line one might find oneself falling, nobody will doubt the passion that the issue evokes or the concern that is expressed.
However, I do say—before anyone starts shouting at me, this may not be the right word to use—that there is a cruelty implicit in new clause 7. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that the Bill’s purpose is not to create new law and that civil servants are not empowered to create new law, the hon. Member for Walthamstow said that her intention is not to ride a coach and horses through or to undermine in any way either the Good Friday agreement or the legitimacy of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe—she is a friend—spoke convincingly and movingly. The cruelty of new clause 7 is that, if it is passed, it will raise a huge amount of hope—although not among everyone in the community of Northern Ireland—but it will not address or deliver on that hope. The cases that she cites would in no way be alleviated or resolved by new clause 7. Those who seek a termination will still have to travel to the mainland, but a huge amount of hope would be raised.
We understand, and the hon. Member for Walthamstow understands, the minutiae of new clause 7. And the Secretary of State, because she is advised by a phalanx of officials, understands what the new clause means in law.
I absolutely did not say that, although it is obviously something that many of us now seek to do. New clause 7 is the gentlest step forward so that the Secretary of State and her good officials can monitor human rights and see what is happening. This is important work. With great respect to my hon. Friend Simon Hoare, he was not here for the whole debate. He does not know, for example, that the situation in Northern Ireland is such that people cannot even be given basic advice at the moment, such is the onerous nature of the law. We are talking about merely looking at the situation, monitoring it and helping the Secretary of State to fulfil her obligations: no false hopes for anyone.
My right hon. Friend does not have a unique understanding of what happens in Northern Ireland. Many of us will have been to Northern Ireland, will know people in Northern Ireland and will have heard a variety of experiences and views.
I think we know how the media and social media will deal with this. This will be “Abortion has now been made legal in Northern Ireland.” For many that will be a welcome thing, but for others it will be the worst thing imaginable. Whichever side of the argument we sit on, I am firmly convinced that expectations have been artificially inflated, but I am not convinced by the arguments of the hon. Member for Walthamstow that new clause 7 would not fundamentally undermine the very foundations of devolution, with ramifications for both Scotland and Wales. We should resist this new clause.
I am aware that time is short, so I will make a couple of short points.
Following on from the previous speeches, I urge everyone in the Committee not to support new clause 7 for a number of good reasons. First, this is a hugely controversial issue. Regardless of what Members think of my views, they must objectively accept that this is a controversial issue in Northern Ireland. This amendment has been tagged on to a Bill during its accelerated passage through the House. The fact I am standing here with just a couple of minutes to make these points emphasises that this is the wrong way to do it. I urge Members, regardless of their views on the substantive issue, to reject new clause 7, so that we can have proper consideration of this issue in this House or in any other more appropriate Chamber.
Secondly, there is the devolution settlement. The termination of pregnancies is presented by some, including in the Committee, as a very black and white issue—we are either supporting women, or we are against women—but the reality is that court cases in every country in the world, including in relation to the European convention on human rights, have found this to be a complex issue that is rightly for democratic institutions in each jurisdiction.
In the UK, termination of pregnancy is very clearly a devolved issue. I accept that there are some complications in relation to the legal cases, and it may be, for the first time, on very narrow grounds of life-limiting conditions—fatal foetal abnormality, and rape and incest, potentially—that this is ruled to be a human rights issue under the European convention on human rights. If that happens, it becomes a more complex issue, not just for the UK, but for all signatories to that convention, because there will be horizontal impacts from that type of decision. But in the first instance the courts have recognised that this is rightly for the relevant democratic body, which in this case is clearly the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The third issue I wish to raise is workability. As has been mentioned, new clause 7 attempts, through guidance, to change the law. As the Secretary of State has clearly said, guidance cannot do that. Any change in the law in Northern Ireland will require legislative change, so this provision is asking the Secretary of State to ask officials to do something that is simply impossible in law. That would be explored in much more detail, and in adequate detail, if we had more time to scrutinise the new clause. That in itself proves to me that this is the inappropriate vehicle for this, regardless of the substantive issues involved. I urge everybody in this Chamber to consider this matter, give it the appropriate time at a later stage and reject new clause 7 now.
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Six hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on the Business of the House motion, the proceedings were interrupted (Order, this day).
The Chair put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Order, this day).
Clauses 1 to 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.