Amendment 23

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill - Committee (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 10:15 pm on 15th July 2019.

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Baroness O'Loan:

Moved by Baroness O'Loan

23: After Clause 9, insert the following new Clause—“Requirement for majority of MLAs to support regulations(1) Before a statutory instrument can be laid in each House of Parliament under sections 8 and 9 of this Act, the conditions in subsections (2) and (3) must be met. (2) The first condition is that the Secretary of State must—(a) hold a public consultation on the proposals in each of the regulations;(b) consult individually with members of the Northern Ireland Assembly on the proposals in each of the regulations; and(c) lay a report before each House of Parliament on the outcome of the consultations held under this section, including the number of members of the Northern Ireland Assembly in favour of and against each of the regulations.(3) The second condition is that—(a) the relevant regulations under section 8 may only be laid before Parliament if a majority of the members of the Northern Ireland Assembly support the regulations as stated in the report laid before Parliament under subsection (2)(c); and(b) the relevant regulations under section 9 may only be laid before Parliament if a majority of the members of the Northern Ireland Assembly support the regulations as stated in the report laid before Parliament under subsection (2)(c).”

Photo of Baroness O'Loan Baroness O'Loan Crossbench

My Lords, I rise to speak to the amendment in my name and that of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, the noble Lord, Lord Hay, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who cannot be with us tonight. This Bill had such a simple purpose: to allow the Secretary of State not to call an election and extend the time for agreement to be reached between the parties. That was all it had to do. I guess that was why the Government fast-tracked it. The consequence is that we do not have the usual time for consideration and now the Bill has been extended in a way which is unacceptable and which has the potential to do massive damage to the talks and any prospect of getting the Northern Ireland Assembly up and running.

The Bill has two odd sets of amendments—the ones which we discussed at length earlier this afternoon about Brexit, no deal and the Prorogation of Parliament, and those to do with abortion, neither of which should be in the Bill—and then it has the Christmas tree effect. I do not say that in a pejorative way. These are all very real issues which may need to be dealt with by a Northern Ireland Government.

It has been a curious debate. We have heard the Minister say that we cannot deal with medical schools at Ulster University, Magee, and that we cannot deal with a no-deal Brexit, but we are here to deal with this very sensitive issue in Northern Ireland. I have listened carefully, but I do not feel that there is an understanding of Northern Ireland. We are in a very delicate place. We all agree that we want our Assembly back, but this Bill, if passed in its current form, would also have the capacity to prevent that. We cannot underestimate the fragility of the Northern Ireland situation. I am always reminded that peace agreements last, on average, for 15 years. We have had our 15 years, and a few more. We are in a very difficult place. I know that Brexit is important, but, as I said in your Lordships’ House three years ago, the border and all that goes with it has the capacity to undermine everything, and that would be very dangerous indeed.

Part of this Government’s credibility rests on the extent to which they are regarded in the conduct of these talks as an honest broker. The Government’s response to these amendments does not seem to respect their obligations under the Good Friday agreement and other issues. It seeks to make a profound change in our law at a time when Northern Ireland is engaged in negotiation. It seems very odd that the Government, who are not charged with the conduct of these negotiations and who have seen attempts to kill police officers and others, who have seen the bombs and the ongoing bubbling of terrorist activity, are not a little more cautious in their outlook. The Minister spoke earlier of the need for clear space and safe space for the negotiations. I do not think that is happening here today.

It does not matter what one thinks about abortion and same-sex marriage or whether the law should change. Nobody doubts the sensitivity of these issues for those affected by them, but the clerks in another place advised that these issues fell outside the remit of the Bill. Each of these amendments represents a huge issue which should be the subject of a Bill in its own right, subject to prior consultation and then careful and measured consideration, with scope for amending the legislation. None of this has happened. There are options for everything that is being suggested here. There is a variety of different laws across Europe, even in the context of abortion. In many states, it is only permitted up to 12 weeks, with very rare exceptions; it is not necessarily the liberal law that the United Kingdom has.

The clause as drafted is, of course, unworkable. The Secretary of State has no power in the Northern Ireland Act to make the regulations requested by the amendment. Moreover, the law must be capable of being understood, yet what is proposed here is not clear. The Northern Ireland Attorney-General has spoken publicly about the difficulties generated by this clause, which is vague and goes beyond the Abortion Act 1967. Neither the Northern Ireland Assembly nor any Minister has the power to repeal the Offences against the Person Act by regulation; it is just nonsense. Also, based on this Bill, it is not clear what legislation or directions would say. We do not usually legislate for what we do not know.

The Government have said that they will make it work. Are they going to amend the Northern Ireland Act? What is going to happen? Parliamentary rules cannot be set aside without risking damage to our constitutional arrangements. To make matters worse, these amendments were accepted in relation to a Bill that is subject to a fast-tracking procedure that, even without these far-reaching and completely out-of-scope provisions, but simply on the basis of the Bill’s original purpose as introduced, must attract the attention—perhaps the censure—of the Constitution Committee, which last week reported that Northern Ireland Bills should not be fast-tracked unless they are really urgent. There is time to get this Bill right, and to get our talks back in action.

Many thousands of people in Northern Ireland are distressed by this. It is well known and has been said in your Lordships’ House that ComRes polling of Northern Ireland adults shows very clearly that people in Northern Ireland do not want abortion law changed from Westminster. That is the clear view of 64% of people, rising to 66% of men and 72% of 18 to 32 year-olds. Yet 332 MPs representing seats from outside Northern Ireland saw fit to vote for it, and 100% of Northern Irish MPs in the other place voted against it. Noble Lords should think about that.

Apart from the issues at hand, think of the utterly appalling precedent. The Minister told us last Wednesday that there is more to come. I appreciate this crisis is not of the Government’s making, but they are now engaged, whether they like it or not. Their response can have the effect either of ameliorating or exaggerating the difficulty, with all that means for the union.

The Bill was presented at a time that was practically difficult for Northern Ireland. Many of you may not know this, but it came to your Lordships’ House on Wednesday 10 July and the amendments did not reach your Lordships’ House until after I went home. I waited for them for a long time on Tuesday 9 July, but they did not come and I eventually gave up and went home. After 10 July, we have a holiday called the Twelfth. Northern Ireland went into Twelfth mode on 11 July and, for the most part, closed down on 12 July. It was a Saturday on 13 July. Today is a public holiday in Northern Ireland. I could not get through to the Northern Ireland Office. I have had contact from people in Northern Ireland telling me they were trying to contact the Secretary of State today. The Minister told us that she had gone back to Northern Ireland, but she was not available to meet anyone. That is because it is a public holiday in Northern Ireland today. Of course, the Twelfth is a time when many are on holiday and our schools are closed, so there is just tomorrow, Tuesday, when the people of Northern Ireland might have a slight chance to speak to someone, and then we move to Wednesday and final sessions. It is remarkable that all this happened during the week when part of Northern Ireland celebrates its culture with the Twelfth, and a good Twelfth it was this year—very good.

Today, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, and I intended to send a letter to the Prime Minister. We wrote it on Friday night and Saturday, and started looking around for support. I am not going to deliver it to the Prime Minister tonight; it is too late to disturb her. But since Saturday afternoon, nearly 16,000 people—it has gone up nearly 1,000 an hour or every time I have stood up—have signed our letter to the Prime Minister asking her to stop this. They come from all sides of the community and every part of Northern Ireland.

I want to give you a feeling of some of the more prominent people who have signed this letter to the Prime Minister. All Members of the House of Lords are allowed to sign; everyone else has to be from Northern Ireland. We have the noble Lords, Lord Rana, Lord Maginnis, Lord Empey, Lord Brennan, Lord McCrea, Lord Morrow, Lord Alton, the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames. We have MLAs from all parties: Daniel McCrossan, Sinéad Bradley, Patsy McGlone, Justin McNulty, Robbie Butler, Carla Lockhart, Paul Givan, Arlene Foster—leader of the Democratic Unionists —David Hilditch, Peter Weir, Jonathan Buckley, Mervyn Storey, William Irwin, Gordon Lyons, Edwin Poots, Keith Buchanan, Thomas Buchanan, Gary Middleton, Michelle McIlveen, Joanne Bunting, Alex Easton and Maurice Bradley. We are into the MPs now: Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Nigel Dodds, the honourable Ian Paisley, Gavin Robinson, Paul Girvan, Jim Shannon, Gregory Campbell and Emma Little Pengelly. The lawyers include the reverend Brett Lockhart QC. There are councillors, such as Anne McCloskey, Peter Martin, Robert Adair and Stephanie Quigley. Then there are academics, such as Dr Esmond Birnie, and bishops such as Bishop Treanor, Bishop Farquhar, Bishop McKeown and Bishop Walsh. There are the doctors: Dr Coulter, Dr Hardy and others. I missed the venerable Robert Miller, who is the archdeacon currently running Derry.

Photo of Viscount Younger of Leckie Viscount Younger of Leckie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 10:30 pm, 15th July 2019

May I just inquire whether the noble Baroness is listing all the names on her list? It would be helpful for the Committee, with the hour that we are at, if the list could be severely shortened.

Photo of Baroness O'Loan Baroness O'Loan Crossbench

The Reverend Norman Hamilton has worked on the interface in north Belfast for 20 years, and hundreds of clergy and ordinary people—doctors, nurses and lawyers—all signed, from all sides of the community. They wanted one thing: to be respected as people and to allowed to make their own law on this amendment. That shows how concerned people are about this matter.

My amendment would not prevent legal change on either abortion or same-sex marriage. It would simply have the effect of restoring some constitutional integrity to Northern Ireland. It requires that there should be a consultation with the people of Northern Ireland, as there would be with any legal change on either issue in Northern Ireland, and most importantly that the views of the currently elected Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly be recorded for or against any regulations and that the regulations should not be laid before Parliament if they do not receive majority support from those Assembly Members. One thing I have not done is to introduce anything resembling a petition of concern, about which I think the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, spoke earlier. The legislation could pass by a simple majority.

One thing I noticed this afternoon was that the unborn child was largely absent from the debate. When mentioned, there was in some quarters a rolling of eyes and expressions of contempt. Yet it has to be said that abortion is about killing babies—real babies. Without Amendment 23, the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill will go down in British constitutional history as one of its blackest moments of all times, when constitutional due process was completely swept aside because of the conviction of parliamentarians, none of whom represents Northern Ireland, that the end justifies the means. That is never a good place to be. We have heard it said that it does not really matter at all if Northern Ireland’s MPs voted against this, because it is a matter of human rights and if you want to be in the UK you have to accept abortion as a human right. There is no human right to abortion, and I think that is slightly contemptuous of Northern Ireland’s MPs.

The Member for Walthamstow, who introduced new Clause 10 in the Commons, said this morning that this is an attempt by the DUP to hold us all to ransom. At this late hour, I perhaps need to assure noble Lords that I am not a member of the DUP. I am a Cross-Bencher and, as far as I can remember, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, is not a member of the DUP either. This is something that a cross-party group of 16,000 people are asking us not to do. This is the truest cross-community co-operation from all sectors of our community, from all sides, all places in our beautiful country. We have agreement that we do not want abortion railroaded through in the Bill. I ask noble Lords to at least grant Northern Ireland MLAs the courtesy, the respect and dignity of their roles as elected members and allow them to present their views on this matter. I ask noble Lords to give the people of Northern Ireland the same respect and provide for consultation. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Shinkwin Lord Shinkwin Conservative

My Lords, I support Amendment 23 and I pay tribute to the noble Baroness for persevering despite her sore throat and inspiring those of us who support the amendment. I support it because I believe it underlines our respect for devolution and for the people of Northern Ireland, a clear majority of whom, polling shows, as we have already heard, do not want law changes imposed on them by us here in London.

I also support it for another reason. I do not take a position on abortion per se; I do, however, take a position on disability equality. What is proposed in the Bill drives a coach and horses through disability equality. I wonder whether my noble friend the Minister—indeed, whether anyone in the Government or in No. 10—has considered the message that changing the law to allow abortion on grounds of disability in Northern Ireland sends to the people of Northern Ireland, to the devoted parents and families of disabled children and, most importantly, to the disabled citizens of Northern Ireland. Today, Northern Ireland is the safest place in the United Kingdom to be diagnosed with a disability. If the Bill is passed, that will change overnight on 21 October.

I invite noble Lords to consider the Bill from the perspective of someone with Down’s syndrome. In England and Wales, the latest available figures show that 90% of human beings diagnosed with Down’s syndrome are aborted. Today, in Northern Ireland, disability-selective abortion for Down’s syndrome is not allowed. Instead, the culture is one of welcome and support for this disability. The latest figures from the Department of Health in Northern Ireland showed that while 52 children with Down’s syndrome were born in 2016, in the same year only one child from Northern Ireland with Down’s syndrome was aborted in England and Wales.

I ask my noble friend the Minister: is that not a cause for celebration? Is it not to Northern Ireland’s immense credit that disability equality is actually respected there? He may be aware that next year will mark the 25th anniversary of the most important social justice milestone of the 20th century for disabled people: the Disability Discrimination Act. A Conservative Government introduced it. How does he reconcile the Act’s acknowledgement of the right of disabled human beings to be equal, to contribute to society and to be respected with the message of the Bill, which is that if you are born with a disability, as I was, you are better off dead? For that is its message to disabled human beings, their families and the people of Northern Ireland.

That is why it is so sad that the party which swore to respect Northern Ireland is driving roughshod over the clearly expressed views of the majority of its people to impose lethal discrimination on grounds of disability and to treat human beings diagnosed with disability before birth as less equal. How terribly progressive, my Lords.

I wonder who has the greater learning disability here: those who seem intent on denying the equal right to exist to those such as human beings with Down’s syndrome or those, especially in my party, who appear determined to unlearn the lessons of the Disability Discrimination Act.

I was born disabled; I will die disabled. That is the hand I have been dealt. Indeed, it is the hand that most of us are likely to be dealt before our days are done. Are we seriously saying, as we near the end of the second decade of the 21st century, with all the amazing advances in medicine and technology, that we are so regressive, so insecure as a species, that we cannot cope with disability?

Various commentators report that the Prime Minister wants to leave a strong legacy. I am sure I am not the only Member of your Lordships’ House who will remember her speech committing herself and her Government to ending burning injustices. I will therefore take the opportunity to urge her not to create a burning injustice by allowing the abortion of human beings diagnosed before birth with conditions such as mine to be part of that legacy. If she does, no one in my party should be surprised if disabled people and their families think that the Conservative Party hates us and believes that we would be better off dead.

In conclusion, there is a clear choice to be made, and not just by my party. The choice is for disability equality or inequality. I implore all noble Lords who believe in genuine equality to stand with disabled human beings in Northern Ireland and respect them, and devolution, by supporting this amendment.

Photo of Lord Morrow Lord Morrow DUP 10:45 pm, 15th July 2019

My Lords, I have prepared a speech but I do not intend to make it. It is a pleasure, in a strange way, to follow the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, this evening. I heartily congratulate him because we know that what he says comes from the heart. His words have a ring of reality about them, of which this House should take note. I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, on her excellent contribution and on moving the amendment. While I am on my feet, I should say that the name of my noble friend Lord Hay of Ballyore is attached to the amendment, but for unavoidable reasons he cannot be here today. He regrets that immensely. I want to put on the record our total and absolute support for what has been said and I, too, commend the amendment to the Committee.

Photo of Baroness Barker Baroness Barker Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Voluntary Sector)

My Lords, lest people watching this debate take from it a one-sided view, I want to say that in 2018 an international poll was taken in Northern Ireland which showed that 68% of the respondents did not believe that people should be criminalised for having an abortion and that, if necessary, action should be taken in Westminster to make sure that that happens. The Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey also showed that 89% of people in Northern Ireland believe that no one should go to prison for having had an abortion. It is a poll run by, among others, Queen’s University, Belfast. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, relies on the ComRes polls; people on her side of the argument always do. However, they are not the objective views that she might lead noble Lords to believe.

I have to say that, coming at this stage, the proposals in her amendment suggest that these matters can effectively be blocked by Members of the Assembly. That is what the power in her amendment would do.

Photo of Baroness O'Loan Baroness O'Loan Crossbench

I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. Will she explain when, before this time, I could have raised the amendment?

Photo of Baroness Barker Baroness Barker Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Voluntary Sector)

I am suggesting that these matters could have been put before Members of the Assembly. Indeed, as has been said, they have already been put before the Assembly, which failed to move them forward. I return to the point I made in earlier speeches. At the moment, there are people in Northern Ireland losing hope because no one is expressing views about the things affecting their lives. The amendment simply returns those people to a counsel of despair.

Photo of Lord Hayward Lord Hayward Conservative

My Lords, I will briefly follow the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, and echo what she said about blocking amendments. I take the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, about time pressure, but there is what one might describe as somewhat unparliamentary or unlegislative language in the first condition. The amendment then goes on to refer to,

“the proposals in each of the regulations”— in other words, you consult on each regulation individually with each of the MLAs and other people. Therefore, the effect of this amendment is not to have a broad consultation. In reality, it is a blocking amendment. That is the only way this can be read, even if one reads it as having been drafted in the inevitable speedy circumstances to which the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, referred.

I was trying to be helpful on the previous amendment. On this amendment, I am afraid that I find myself looking at what I regard as nothing more and nothing less than a blocking amendment.

Photo of Baroness O'Loan Baroness O'Loan Crossbench

Does the noble Lord not recognise the difference between the people of Northern Ireland having some form of consultation with their elected representatives and a blocking amendment? This is not a blocking amendment.

Photo of Lord Hayward Lord Hayward Conservative

I do recognise the difference. It is in the noble Baroness’s own words, “some form”. The form in which this is laid out is quite specific, and it is no more and no less than a blocking amendment.

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland

My Lords, this has been a challenging discussion. I will be very clear. We have received from the other place an instruction on a free vote where it was a matter of conscience. No party set out to move this matter forward. It belonged to no party in particular; it was a free vote. We have received a clear instruction; indeed, the majorities were very significant on this matter. It is therefore important that we recognise that we have an obligation to fulfil.

On that basis, we will not be able to support the amendment as put forward. I will briefly explain. Consulting the MLAs does not absolve us of the responsibility of ensuring that the amendment is delivered in a practical, workable and timely fashion. Those are the instructions that we have received from the other place and those are the instructions that we shall follow. On that basis, we will hopefully be able to move this matter forward.

I do not doubt that many views will be expressed on this, and that is important. Indeed, I suspect that the noble Baroness and I agree that this would be far better resolved by the Executive reforming. That is the purpose of the talks. If that Executive can reform, this matter can be addressed in Northern Ireland. Get the Executive reformed. On that basis, I hope that the amendment can be withdrawn.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat

The Minister suggested that this was an instruction from the House of Commons. I am still relatively new to this House. I thought that this Chamber was essentially bound by manifesto commitments from the ruling party going through the House of Commons. As the Minister said, that was a free vote in the House of Commons. If a free vote in the House of Lords gave a different result, would that not count? How is the Minister bound only by the House of Commons?

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland

If this House divides, it will be a matter of conscience. If this House divides and takes a different opinion, we will send that opinion to the other place. On that basis, I hope the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Baroness O'Loan Baroness O'Loan Crossbench

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their contributions. I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, for a magnificent defence of those who are disabled even before they are born. As I said, I have listened carefully. I alluded to the timescale of this Bill. Second Reading was last Tuesday in the Commons; we got the amendments here on Wednesday morning. We have had a few days when Northern Ireland has been off, and now we are forced into a position in which we still do not have the government amendments for the day after tomorrow that are going to make this unworkable Bill workable. We have very little time to reconsider, think, contemplate and consider what the Government are suggesting. How terrible that the future of a generation of unborn babies should rest on these few hours in this place or the other place. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment tonight, but I reserve the right to return to the issue in future.

Amendment 23 withdrawn.