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Pages 9 and 10 of the report we are considering address the Northern Ireland Office’s consultation on new abortion regulations for Northern Ireland. In addressing this subject, it is important to remember that abortion is a devolved policy competence in Northern Ireland and has been for almost 100 years. In 2016, the democratically-elected Northern Ireland Assembly voted by a straightforward, cross-community majority not to change its abortion law in any way. In this context, the Government were absolutely right—as the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend Mrs May, and the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friend Karen Bradley, stated on a number of occasions in this place when abortion in Northern Ireland was raised—that this is a devolved matter for a restored Northern Ireland Assembly to consider. However, that was—sadly, in my view, as I stated at the time—ignored by the 2017-19 Parliament, which went ahead and passed the provision that the Government are now required to introduce by
To that end, the Government very promptly launched a consultation in November. Having looked at the consultation and the questions that it asked, I was deeply concerned by its width and breadth. It was much wider than section 9 strictly requires, raising concerns in my mind about possible changes to abortion law in Northern Ireland going much further than section 9 anticipated. I urge Ministers not to take this course of action when the final regulations are published, and I will now go into some detail on the matter.
The consultation made references to clinicians not being involved in abortion procedures on the grounds of conscience—something that has been respected, certainly here, for over 50 years. I know that a number of clinicians in Northern Ireland are deeply concerned their right to conscientiously object to engagement in abortion treatment procedures may not be given the same respect that it has here. There were also references in the consultation questionnaires to “exclusion zones”—the subject of a consultation here not long ago, in response to which, after consideration, the then Home Secretary decided to take no action.
Section 9(4) of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act says:
“The Secretary of State must by regulations make whatever other changes to the law of Northern Ireland appear to” him
“to be necessary or appropriate for the purpose of” implementing paragraphs 85 and 86 of the CEDAW—convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women—report. The CEDAW report—I will not go into the debate that we had on more than one occasion in this place about the authority of that report—requires abortion to be legalised on three grounds. It says that Northern Ireland law should be amended to provide abortion on expanded grounds in “at least” these three circumstances: “rape and incest”;
“severe fetal impairment, including fatal fetal abnormality”; and
“threat to the pregnant woman’s physical or mental health.”
However, having read the consultation and, as I say, considered the very wide questions that have been raised within it, I am deeply concerned that the abortion framework that may be proposed by the Northern Ireland Office might go far beyond those three circumstances. For example, it may allow for access to abortion on request for any reason up to 12 weeks’ gestation, and then up to 24 weeks, on the basis of the standard in the rest of Great Britain under section 1(1)(a) of the Abortion Act 1967. That standard, which goes wider than the CEDAW report proposes, is
“that the pregnancy has not exceeded its twenty-fourth week and that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family”.
Speaking as someone who has for a number of years engaged on this subject as chair of the all-party pro-life group—although I realise that we are currently in a situation where all the all-party groups have to be reinstated—I know that that standard has effectively led to abortion on request. I am not aware of a single case in the past 10 years where a woman who has requested abortion in England and Wales has been denied one for failing to reach that standard. The CEDAW report does not require it to be introduced in Northern Ireland; nor, as I say, does it make reference to the conscience clause or exclusion zones.
May I urge the Minister to consider that it is possible for the Northern Ireland Office to adopt a much more restrictive standard than the one proposed in the consultation document, while fulfilling the requirements of section 9? If the Government are to act consistently with their many-times-stated commitment to respect devolution, I would have thought it made sense for them to introduce a new regulatory framework that departs from previous Northern Ireland abortion regulations only to the degree that the 2017-19 Parliament insisted on, but no further.
Of course, I recognise that the use of the words “at least” in the CEDAW report does not prevent the Government from going further, but I suggest to the Minister that the words “necessary or appropriate” in the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 do so. I urge him to consider that as well as, obviously, the spirit of devolution and the fact that when that Act was voted on just a few months ago, every single member of the 2017-19 Parliament who represented a Northern Ireland constituency in Westminster voted against it. Law change has been imposed on Northern Ireland by a coalition of MPs representing seats in England, Scotland and Wales. I think that is inappropriate and wrong, and I said so at the time. Indeed, I said that I felt that the whole clause was out of scope—but I appreciate that you were not in the Chair at the time, Mr Speaker.
In closing, I want to ask one or two specific questions of the Minister. The Government have reported, as he mentioned in his opening remarks, that the consultation document has been produced after discussion with a range of stakeholders. Yesterday, in the other place, Lord Duncan of Springbank said:
“Discussions with interested parties will continue as the regulations are taken forward”.—[Official Report, House of Lords,
Vol. 801, c. 152.]
I would be grateful if the Minister wrote to me to let me know which stakeholders were involved prior to publication of the consultation document, whether there were any others apart from those he mentioned in his opening remarks and who are the interested parties who will be in discussions with the Government on the regulations.