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Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:06 pm on 8th January 2020.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 9:06 pm, 8th January 2020

May I say how pleased I was to hear the maiden speech from my hon. Friend Carla Lockhart? I think we can look forward to some exceptional contributions from her in the House over the next period of time.

Pages 9 to 11 of the report deal with the abortion consultation that ran between 4 November and 16 December. The way in which the consultation was conducted was hugely problematic. I appreciate that some of the issues with the consultation were not the fault of the Northern Ireland Office, but I understand that it was placed in a deeply invidious position by Parliament in the timelines that were set out. Conducting only a six-week consultation during a general election campaign on an issue of this sensitivity was simply inappropriate.

The consultation document had all the hallmarks of being rushed out or at least incomplete. Major gaps existed in it; just a few examples will suffice to show some of the issues. No clarity was given in the document on who will be performing abortions in Northern Ireland under the new regulatory framework. Will it be private providers, such as Marie Stopes or the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, or the national health service? The document at no point discussed which body will inspect abortion providers operating in Northern Ireland. That is a hugely important question, yet no details were provided.

The regulatory framework in the document is without question the biggest problem with it. Despite the consistent claims of the Northern Ireland Office and Ministers over the years that abortion is a devolved issue, and about the importance of respecting the people of Northern Ireland, the consultation document adopted an expansive interpretation of section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 in the proposals. Instead of adopting a cautious approach, as they should have, taking into consideration the way in which the law was passed—without consultation and with the known strong opposition in Northern Ireland to it; all Northern Ireland MPs who took their seats in Parliament at the time voted against the measure, and the democratically elected Northern Ireland Assembly voted as recently as 2016 not to change the law in any way—the Northern Ireland Office went far beyond what was strictly required by section 9 of the Act. That point has been well made by a number of eminent lawyers and has caused huge concern in Northern Ireland.

David Scoffield, QC, stated, in his expert legal opinion, that

“the question posed to me is essentially whether, if the…Secretary of State…determined to do no more than necessary to comply with his strict legal obligations under the 2019 Act, the proposals set out in the consultation go beyond this...I consider it to be relatively simple to conclude that the answer to this question is ‘yes’.”

He further stated:

“In my view it would be quite possible for the…Secretary of State…if he wished to take a conservative approach…for instance, on the basis of concerns that he should go no further to legislate on devolved matters than the UK Parliament has strictly required in the absence of a legislative consent motion from the Northern Ireland Assembly—to broaden the availability of abortion in Northern Ireland to a lesser extent than appears to be envisaged in the consultation proposals…to comply with the CEDAW recommendations.”

He continued:

“the proposal…goes well beyond the requirement in paragraph 85(a) …of the…report. Whilst the approach on which consultation responses have been invited would enable a woman or girl who had become pregnant through rape (or incest) to access an abortion up to the appropriate gestation period, it would also provide access to abortion for many others who would not have such access if the availability was confined to cases covered by paragraph 85(b)”.

Let us make no mistake: the radical proposals in the Northern Ireland Office consultation constitute a clear political choice on the part of the NIO to undermine devolution to a greater extent than the 2017 to 2019 Parliament required. There is no requirement to import into Northern Ireland ground C of the Abortion Act 1967, which would effectively lead to abortion on request for any reason between 12 or 14 weeks’ and 22 or 24 weeks’ gestation.

I sincerely hope that the Northern Ireland Office will consider the consultation responses and rethink its proposals. I understand that it is legally obligated to introduce a new regulatory framework, but it is not required to introduce these proposed radical changes. Up until the point when the other place voted for the amendment that became section 9, the Government were entirely consistent in their respect for devolution and the fact that abortion was a devolved matter for the Assembly, but let us be clear that certainly since 4 November, when the consultation was published, the main actor within the British constitution has been not Parliament, but the British Government, in wilfully and unnecessarily proposing an abortion regime that departed far more radically from what we had experienced until last October than what Parliament required.

The people of Northern Ireland do not want us to do this. Some 20,000 people— rich and poor, Protestant and Catholic, young and old—stood together at Stormont, rising above political opinion, religious divide and any other consideration, to beg this place not to do this awful thing. Yes, protect women, yes, find a better way, but abortion on demand taking place every two minutes night and day, as on the mainland, is not what we need in Northern Ireland. Some 100,000 people live today because of the legislation in Northern Ireland. We do not have to introduce this radical change, which is the difference between life in death, in this way. The Minister has time to rethink. I ask that he take this opportunity to do so and allow the voices of people in Northern Ireland to be heard, their wishes to be acknowledged and the right of life to be respected.

In closing, I want quickly to mention same-sex marriage. I pose this question to the Minister because I attended the Christian Institute meeting in Belfast four or five weeks ago. It was very clear and sent me some information in a letter:

“As things stand there is no protection”— for Churches—

“and the NIO and Secretary of State”— and the Minister of State

“must change this—not simply for Christian denominations but for our Jewish and Muslim friends who have the same deeply held beliefs. We are never in a place to bully people or belittle them but in a country which cherishes our freedoms and acknowledges that the foundation of this country is the word of God—the protection of those Christians to say that they will hold to biblical truth…must be enshrined within the law.”

The good news for Northern Ireland and the integrity of the British constitution is that the proposals in the abortion consultation were only proposals. The British Government do not need to discharge their responsibilities under section 9 and introduce these specific proposals. I therefore call on the Minister and the Government to step back from the brink and introduce only the legislative changes that section 9 actually requires. Decency and honesty require them to do so.