Amendment 10

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill - Committee – in the House of Lords at 5:30 pm on 15th July 2019.

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Lord Cormack:

Moved by Lord Cormack

10: Clause 3, page 2, line 38, leave out from “Parliament” to end of line 40 and insert “offering a consultation with the people of Northern Ireland if no Executive has been established by 10 April 2020.”

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

My Lords, Amendment 10 and Amendment 18, which immediately follows it in the grouping, stand in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Trimble and, in the case of Amendment 10, that of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan.

When we debated the Second Reading of this Bill last week, I made the point that we are now entering extremely sensitive, delicate territory. I quoted the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, when I said that in the House of Commons this had,

“become a Christmas tree Bill”.—[Official Report, 10/7/19; col. 1843.]

Two particularly large baubles were hung on it last week when those votes returned significant majorities on the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage. I completely understand why those amendments were passed in another place, but if we are really concerned about devolution and have a real regard for the sensitivities of these issues and the feelings of the people of Northern Ireland, we have to tread exceptionally carefully here. That is why these two amendments stand on the Order Paper this evening.

Nothing should be done in the field of abortion unless there has been extensive consultation with Northern Ireland—if, sadly, no Executive has been recreated and no Assembly is sitting—because these are devolved matters. As we were reminded forcefully and cogently when we debated Second Reading, as recently as in 2016 the then Northern Ireland Assembly made its views on abortion very plain. If we really want to see—and I certainly do—devolution and power-sharing restored in Northern Ireland, it would be rash of the Westminster Parliament at this stage, when my noble friend has assured us that he is confident that the talks are going well and the parties close together, to make a precipitate move on this subject. That is the last thing we want to do.

This amendment provides for consultation in Northern Ireland if no Executive has been established by 10 April next year. I have chosen that date, as I chose it in earlier amendments today, because that is the 22nd anniversary of power-sharing. My noble friend, replying to my earlier amendments, in effect said he wanted to hold their hands to the fire and keep the pressure on. There is no better way of keeping pressure than using that date, the anniversary of the Good Friday agreement and the establishment of a power-sharing Executive that followed some years later.

I really urge caution and sensitivity, as I do on same-sex marriage, where Amendment 18, standing in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Trimble, says:

“Regulations under this section must be introduced if no Executive has been established by 10 April”— again, that same date: the anniversary of the Good Friday agreement. I know there are those who feel very strongly that we should leap to the support of the amendments tabled last week in another place; I understand. My own personal views are highly irrelevant, but the personal views I hold on devolution are, I believe, entirely relevant. The moving speech last week by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, must have made everybody realise just what a sensitive subject abortion is in Northern Ireland. We know that there are also those who feel in a similar way about same-sex marriage.

What will happen at the end of the day if direct rule has to be imposed? I easily guess we would then fall in line with what our colleagues in another place said, but I believe passionately that, if we move too precipitately, we endanger the very thing we are all protesting that we want to safeguard: namely, devolution. On that basis, and with those strong feelings, I commend these amendments to your Lordships’ House. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Trimble Lord Trimble Conservative 5:45 pm, 15th July 2019

My Lords, looking at Amendment 10, the key thing I see is,

“offering a consultation with the people of Northern Ireland if no Executive has been established”,

by the date mentioned. It is really indefensible that we sit here acquiescing in the continued non-existence of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

I understand why my noble friend has put this amendment forward. I am slightly uncomfortable that the amendment is a bit passive—

“if no Executive has been established”.

One should really do more than just say, “We will do this if it happens, but we don’t appear to be doing much else to keep things going”. I know there is a talks process under way from time to time, and sometimes I hear people saying that they are very close and that things are going well. I very much hope that that is the case, but we have been here before and had negotiations that were getting very close—then some gentlemen whom we rarely see or hear anything from send their messages in and the landscape shifts considerably.

In an earlier debate, the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, referred to the fact that this is not just a matter of interest to Her Majesty’s Government but that another Government are involved. That brings back to mind the agreement we made nearly 22 years ago. That agreement had two elements to it: the multi-party talks, which happily came to a positive conclusion, and the agreement between Her Majesty’s Government and the Irish Government, which finds expression in legislation passed by this House. In that very short agreement, which I think had only two or three clauses, the first clause—the important one—contained a solemn undertaking by Her Majesty’s Government and the Irish Government to support the product of the multi-party talks; in other words, to support the steps we took towards the creation of the Northern Ireland Assembly and to support the Assembly itself.

I draw the attention of Her Majesty’s Government to the fact that they have an obligation to support the Northern Ireland Assembly. I do not think they are discharging that obligation. It is true that you have to proceed via agreement with the parties, but one must go further than saying, “We’ll leave it up to the parties”. That is not supporting it.

Since this unhappy situation came about, a number of Members of this House have made proposals from time to time about what could be done. I did that several times myself until I started wondering what the point was of trying to work up something that gives another way forward if there is no sign of any support coming from the sources from which it should come. Unfortunately, where there is an obligation on Her Majesty’s Government to support an Assembly—and, by extension, to support those trying to bring it about, even though that means going a roundabout route and applying pressure to various parties—there should really be more consideration from them about their obligation and how and when they will implement it.

Amendment 18 says that regulations,

“must be introduced if no Executive has been established”.

I know it is a bit premature to try to work out at this stage what the form of those regulations would be, but, if there is a legal obligation on the Government to introduce some regulations at that point, that is to be welcomed, as it might help accelerate the rather anaemic processes that are going on at the moment.

These are suggestions to think about, but I bring the Committee’s attention back to the fact that that agreement was made on the basis that there would be good faith from the Government in implementing it. They responded by making a solemn undertaking. I now invite them to fulfil it.

Photo of Baroness O'Loan Baroness O'Loan Crossbench

My Lords, I cannot endorse the words of the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, too strongly. He is absolutely right. Consultation is essential if Northern Ireland is to have any sense that there was integrity in the intentions of the Government in what they have done in the past.

As I have told noble Lords, over the weekend I received 15,000 signatories to my letter to the Prime Minister; I keep getting texts, and the number seems to be rising by a thousand an hour. There is another side to this that I do not think noble Lords are aware of. Given that Northern Ireland voted not to leave the European Union, if we move towards Brexit and we simultaneously move to direct rule, many of the unionists in Northern Ireland—my noble colleagues may contradict me—would reject that. They will want a Northern Ireland Assembly; we are capable of governing ourselves in these devolved matters.

I know from what is written that the nationalist people of Northern Ireland would reject it utterly. For them, it would be the end of the Good Friday agreement; it would be the end of support from the British Government for the institutions of the Good Friday agreement; it would imperil our peace process. Equally, it would create a construct within which the reunification of Ireland would become rapidly more likely. If Northern Ireland is not allowed to govern itself and space is not made for the talks which need to take place, direct rule, which has been a very bad thing for Northern Ireland, will inevitably follow.

I say to noble Lords with a heavy heart that, as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, said on Wednesday, they are walking on very sacred ground as they contemplate these issues. It is not just about abortion; it is about the whole devolved settlement, the integrity of government and the future peace and prosperity of all four parts of the United Kingdom.

Photo of Viscount Hailsham Viscount Hailsham Conservative

My Lords, I rise very briefly to speak about Amendment 18A, a manuscript amendment standing in my name which forms part of this group. The sole purpose was to ensure that Parliament is sitting between 22 October and 31 October this year. The reason for that was articulated in the previous debate promoted by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson: to prevent an improper Prorogation of Parliament, for the reasons the noble Lord discussed. It has been grouped with these amendments. I have absolutely no intention of standing in the way of regulations to permit same-sex marriage. That is not my purpose. It was a procedural amendment, and your Lordships will doubtless be pleased to know that I do not intend to repeat the arguments I made in the previous debate or in any way to seek to bring forward for your Lordships’ active consideration Amendment 18A, because that matter was resolved in the second debate this Committee has had today.

Photo of Baroness Harris of Richmond Baroness Harris of Richmond Liberal Democrat

My Lords, at Second Reading on 10 July in this House, the Minister opening the debate said,

“your Lordships will be aware that, in addition to reporting requirements, the Bill was amended to oblige the Government to introduce regulations to provide for same-sex marriage and abortion. Those votes demonstrated the strength of feeling of the Members of Parliament. However, these are”,

as we have heard,

“sensitive issues and careful consideration needs to be given to both the policy details and their implementation”.

He was absolutely right to stress that. He went on to say:

“Crucially, the amendments as drafted do not function properly, and so do not enable the Government to deliver on the instruction of Parliament”.—[Official Report, 10/7/19; col. 1824.]

Although time has been short for any discussions with the mover of this amendment in the other place, he promised to work with her to try to find a way through this difficulty. Is he now able to tell us how that conversation has progressed?

Also during that debate, the noble Lord, Lord Bew, supported the amendments made in the other place and, in a typically thoughtful and carefully worded speech, said:

“I am of the view that, historically speaking, the broad tendency of the union has been to provide a better social and economic life for the people of Northern Ireland and a more broadly liberal life than would otherwise be the case”.—[Official Report, 10/7/19; col. 1839.]

Devolution is not an obstacle to the UK Parliament legislating on this matter. Parliament is sovereign here. The devolved bodies required to take a decision on these matters are not in place—that is a tragedy on which we all agree. This was raised in the Northern Ireland High Court, where the legality of the current situation was queried in two recent judicial review claims. Those who claim that abortion is a devolved matter fail to take into account the current circumstances in Northern Ireland, which mean that the devolved bodies required to take a decision on this matter are not in place. I reiterate that the UK Parliament is sovereign and has the ultimate responsibility to protect human rights across all countries of the UK, whether devolved Governments are in place or not.

Under Schedule 2 to the Northern Ireland Act 1998, matters of national importance usually remain the responsibility of the UK Parliament and are known as excepted matters, which under paragraph 2(3)(c) include,

“observing and implementing international obligations, obligations under the Human Rights Convention and obligations under EU law”.

It is therefore clearly a matter for the UK Parliament and not a devolved matter on the face of the devolution settlement. The UK Parliament has an obligation to act under international and domestic law to ensure access to free, safe and legal abortions in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Baroness O'Loan Baroness O'Loan Crossbench 6:00 pm, 15th July 2019

If that is the case, why was the amendment in the other place drafted in the way that it was, which was asking the Secretary of State to do this? There is no international obligation, legal or otherwise, to introduce abortion.

Photo of Baroness Harris of Richmond Baroness Harris of Richmond Liberal Democrat

But Parliament is sovereign and so it will make that decision itself.

Photo of Baroness O'Loan Baroness O'Loan Crossbench

I did not intend to imply in any way that Parliament is not sovereign, but there is no obligation under European law or international law to introduce abortion.

Photo of Lord Deben Lord Deben Conservative

My Lords, from time to time we have to distinguish between what is utterly true, which is that Parliament is sovereign, and the particular circumstances in which that sovereignty is actually exercised. I am in the position of having been a passionate supporter—contrary to the views of the church of which I am an active member—of same-sex marriage. I do not think that anyone can suggest that I am holding things up because of my views on this. I happen to take a different view from the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, on abortion—perhaps that puts me into a rather special circumstance on this particular issue.

But I want to say to the noble Baroness that it is very difficult for any of us to get inside the minds of many people in the north of Ireland. That is a fact. We face a wholly different community from the communities to which most of us belong. That is true of people of all denominations, as a matter of fact. It is not an easy place to be. The difficulty that we have had of re-establishing devolved rule only shows how hard it all is. I have to say to my noble friend that many of us would like to see more signs of activity from the Government and the Secretary of State. I would like to feel that this was being pressed in a more active way than seems to be true—but perhaps it is being pressed and we do not know, so I do not want to carry that criticism too far.

But I beg people not to think that it is merely a matter of asserting the sovereignty of this Parliament to put through two changes in which they passionately believe—I passionately believe in one and passionately do not believe in the other. It is not just a matter of asserting our sovereignty. That is not how every community in the north of Ireland will see it. It will be seen as us deciding what we think is good for the Province.

Now I find that attractive because I very often want my opinions to be carried through more widely than they are. But we have already stretched the connection between us and the north of Ireland to breaking point over Brexit. I do not want to get into the nonsense that we have actually tried to carry through on Brexit when we ignored the problems of Ireland while going on about Brexit. We have already stretched that connection and are now suggesting that we stretch it even further. As the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, so remarkably put it, we are moving into a position in which false moves from us will change the whole nature of Northern Ireland.

There are those who want that and would see it as a benefit. But anyone here who cares about the unity of the United Kingdom should look very carefully at putting their perfectly reasonable personal views in front of the right of the Province to make up its own mind. After all, we specifically gave a series of things to Scotland, Wales and Ireland for people there to make up their own minds about.

Photo of Baroness Harris of Richmond Baroness Harris of Richmond Liberal Democrat

What would the noble Lord say to the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Royal College of Midwives, which all agree that this legislation should go through?

Photo of Lord Deben Lord Deben Conservative

I would say that we live in a democracy in which we have devolved these decisions, and they must prove that to the politicians elected for the north of Ireland. If there are no such politicians, the least we can do is to have full consultation in order that they will feel that they have been properly involved. The noble Baroness is saying that we can say to the people of Northern Ireland, “You cannot even be consulted. We are going to take the view of these royal colleges—great though they are—and enforce them on you”. That is not the way to win battles. What happened in the south when people voted, surprisingly many thought, on both these issues is that they had the argument. They had the discussion locally and made the decision locally, and it will therefore stick. It changed people’s attitudes in a way that I was enthusiastic about on one side and on the other side not.

We cannot go around saying on the one hand that we believe in devolution and then when it is convenient, because people take a different view from us, we take the opportunity to enforce something. We have to win the argument—not in London, nor even in Edinburgh and Cardiff, but in Belfast. We have to win it in Derry and in the north of Ireland. I hope that the noble Baroness will go and seek to win it. I may try to persuade people to take the opposite view on one of the issues, but at least we would be talking to the people for whom we are legislating and to whom we gave devolved power. Of all parties who should be on this side, the Liberal Democrats, who have been prime movers on devolution, should think to themselves that devolution means taking the good with the bad. They should recognise that it means that people make up their own minds, whether we like it or not.

Photo of Baroness Harris of Richmond Baroness Harris of Richmond Liberal Democrat

The noble Lord questioned me about statistics, more or less, and the number of people in Northern Ireland. It is some time since 2016 when the Government decided that they did not want to change the law. But statistics from the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey in 2018, just last year, found that 82% of the population polled agreed that abortion should be a matter for medical regulation and not criminal law, and 89% agreed that a woman should never go to prison for having an abortion. Those are significant statistics.

Photo of Lord Deben Lord Deben Conservative

Of all the parties in the country quoting public opinion polls, I should have thought that the Liberal Democrats should be particularly careful. I am not prepared to take public opinion polls—although I would point out to her that nearly 70% of the women of Northern Ireland and more than 65% of all people in Northern Ireland say that this should not be something that the United Kingdom Parliament decides.

So we can all bandy polls, but 2016 is a much more recent democratic decision than the democratic decisions that we have made. We are simply suggesting that, in order for the people of Northern Ireland not to feel that we are dictating to them in areas that are specifically their own, we should have proper discussion and proper concern for their views—and if that is not a Liberal view, I cannot think what is.

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Labour

Before the noble Lord sits down, he is an extremely reasonable person, but surely he is missing the fundamental issue: for how long can people be denied fundamental rights simply because there is not an Assembly sitting in Northern Ireland? Of course, we agree with him about the virtues of devolution, but for how long can people be denied those rights simply because it is not sitting? It is two and a half years so far and the clock is ticking. Most reasonable people would think we are reaching the point where Parliament has to intervene if the devolved institutions are not there and working.

Photo of Lord Deben Lord Deben Conservative

I say to the noble Lord: that is in fact what is in the amendment. It enables that consideration to be done; it enables that conciliation to be done in the sense of giving people the chance to say what they think. There is a date on it and I remind him that I said in my own speech, as elegantly and delicately as I could, to the Government that I was not sure that the kind of oomph that we ought to have behind the attempts at the restoration of normalcy in Northern Ireland was there and I hoped that it would no longer look as if it was lacking. So I am not sure that we are very far removed. We are talking about making a decision but with the full respect of the people of Northern Ireland, either through their devolved Assembly or, if they do not have a devolved Assembly, through a form of discussion and understanding which means that people feel it is their decision and not ours.

Photo of Lord Kilclooney Lord Kilclooney Crossbench

My Lords, coming from near the border with the Republic of Ireland to listen to the debate today on Northern Ireland, I found the first hour very interesting but alarming—interesting because I am a former Member of the European Parliament and I am interested in Brexit and the debate for and against it, but it certainly was quite irrelevant to the situation in Northern Ireland and the Bill before us.

I have been encouraged by the atmosphere in the Committee in the last hour. It compares admirably with what existed in another place a few weeks earlier, when only a handful of people attended the debate on this Bill but then hundreds came to impose their will on the people of Northern Ireland without consultation. Setting a time limit for the introduction of issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion or whatever—and these are not the issues for debate; the debate is the future of the system of government in Northern Ireland—plays into the hands of some of the extremes that exist in Northern Ireland’s political life. There are unionists who believe in direct rule and who will be delighted to see this Parliament impose a decision on Northern Ireland, and most nationalists are delighted to see direct rule being imposed because they will say, “There are the English, once again imposing their will on the people of Northern Ireland”. So I find myself in agreement with a lot of what the noble Lord, Lord Deben, has just said and I was certainly encouraged by the words of the noble Lord, Lord Murphy—who, almost more than anyone else, needs to be thanked for the Belfast agreement which I have before me today.

This is the basis for the future in Northern Ireland—Catholics and Protestants and people of no religion working together, unionists and nationalists working together. There has been a recognition in the Committee this past hour of the importance of devolution and people working together in Northern Ireland. That was not clear in the other place last week. I hope, therefore, that we will not set a time limit for the introduction of issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion but instead will support the Belfast agreement and the right of the people of Northern Ireland to work together and reach their own decisions.

Photo of Lord Eames Lord Eames Crossbench 6:15 pm, 15th July 2019

My Lords, I approach this discussion from the unique position that I held until retirement as the earthly leader of the Anglican Church in the whole of Ireland, which of course included the Church of Ireland in Northern Ireland. When your Lordships recognise the dates for which I was privileged to hold that position, you will understand that most of those years linked to and were absorbed by the Troubles. Therefore, as I listen to a debate of this nature about politics and dates and, interwoven with that, personal attitudes to such sensitive issues as marriage of same-sex individuals and the extremely sensitive issue of abortion, my mind centres not on the legal principles involved or the dates on which this House or the devolved Administration made decisions but on the ordinary people I know in Northern Ireland, who are, above all else at this stage, totally frustrated by the lack of a local Administration, by the lack not just of elected people making decisions in their own country but of a sense of purpose and with it a sense of hope. If anything has deteriorated since the Good Friday agreement, it is the eradication of genuine hope that things can get better and remain better. When I approach issues which I recognise are sensitive and on which each of us has our own individual attitude, I look again at the frustration I just mentioned.

There is a wealth of suggestions of what will bring the local parties together. Virtually every month we are given a different interpretation of the state of those talks. It is not easy for the Minister to continue to reassure us that progress is being made, because people in Northern Ireland say, “We have been here before; we have heard this, it has been explained to us, and where are we now? Nothing is happening”. Into that morass fit sensitive issues such as the two that are now dominating this discussion and, with respect to your Lordships who do not have very detailed knowledge of what life in Northern Ireland is or what makes its people tick, who want to make decisions which will have the sense of being imposed, who explain to us constantly, “We do not want direct rule; we want the people of Northern Ireland to feel an identity of their own”, to this I say, “Hear, hear. We want that”, but when we look at the situation as it is, it is again one of total frustration.

What can usefully be suggested? I believe the suggestion stems from much we have heard in this debate. The word is “recognition”—of sensitivity, of the limits of sensitivity and the horizons of sensitivity, but recognition that sensitivity is something deeply personal in human relations and in human ambition, and nowhere more so is that evident than in such cases as same-sex marriage and abortion.

There is so much in the amendment before us that turns from giving an identity to the people who matter most—the people of Northern Ireland—that they are being considered, and that their needs, wants, views and hopes are not being discussed in the face of the truth of devolution. Even though to our eyes devolution is not working at the moment, that is no reason for any of us to say that it is not worth giving it a chance.

My plea at this juncture in our discussion is to recognise, as I said at Second Reading, because of the history that has brought this little part of the United Kingdom to where it is now, the need to be sensitive and to understand what we are talking about, because we walk on many graves.

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

My Lords, it is always instructive to listen to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, and his text—sensitivity—is one that I hear very much. I want to take this opportunity to do the thing that this House does best: to speak on behalf of those whose voices are not heard or cannot be heard or who are often drowned out.

I could not be in my place last week, but I listened subsequently to the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan. I have listened to her on many occasions, and she does, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, make a compelling personal case for her beliefs and experiences. In this House, we do not hear from the 1,000 women a year who leave Northern Ireland to come to the mainland to receive the treatment to which they are entitled as citizens of the United Kingdom. We never hear from them. We never hear from the poor women of Northern Ireland who do not come because they cannot afford it or cannot get the time to come over. We do not hear from any of those people. When we talk about matters to do with devolution and the constitutional settlement, I say to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames: yes, listen to the people of Northern Ireland, but listen to the people of Northern Ireland whose voices are drowned out and are not being heard.

The noble Lord, Lord Deben, who made a very compelling speech, has been the most unlikely of allies to me at times. I say this to him: those of us who are on my side of the argument on the issue on which we do not agree do not wake up of a morning and decide that we are going to get up and talk about Northern Ireland without bothering to go to talk to the people of Northern Ireland—the men and women whose lives are directly affected. All the proposals which have come forward on same-sex marriage and on overturning the abortion law have come after not just the odd conversation but many years of working with communities in Northern Ireland to change the law. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, was right about frustration. There is absolute and utter frustration in Northern Ireland and a loss of hope that they too might enjoy the same human rights as the rest of us. The noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, said there is no right to abortion. No, there is not, but there are some human rights to which each and every one of us is entitled and which women, in particular in Northern Ireland, have been consistently denied.

This is not a rushed measure to overrule constitutional niceties. It is a long and considered attempt to give all the people of Northern Ireland the equal rights and dignity to which all citizens of the United Kingdom are entitled. I suggest to the noble Lords, Lord Deben and Lord Cormack, that we have waited years for that to happen. To kick it down the road now will be seen, not least in Northern Ireland by those who are losing hope in their political institutions, as yet another reason that we have failed them. I believe that in this Parliament we have a right to say that after all this time, the time has come.

Photo of Baroness Tonge Baroness Tonge Independent Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I shall speak very briefly on this subject. As some noble Lords know, I was a GP and a family planning doctor and I saw hundreds of women who suddenly found that they were pregnant and did not want to be. I have been at the sharp end of the despair, misery and fear, and often the lack of sympathy from families and partners. I have experienced this. I have seen this despair. If a country has a law that permits abortion, it does not make women have abortions; it just gives them the right to choose whether they continue with the pregnancy. If the law is there, and it is a good law, they can have the abortion so early that they can carry on with their lives.

It is not for the rest of the community to decide what happens to these women. It is for them. I wish people would realise this. It is a very personal decision. As the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, said, it is a human right for a woman to have control over her body, and if she does not want to be pregnant after she becomes pregnant accidentally, she has a right to end that pregnancy. It is her body and she has control over that body—or should have.

Noble Lords have talked about more consultation in Northern Ireland. I have been in touch with doctors in this field in Northern Ireland for years, and the women of Northern Ireland are crying out—not all of them—and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, said, they are coming over here and spending huge amounts of money to get an abortion over here. I plead with noble Lords to have some human kindness and sympathy and to allow women to decide this for themselves by extending the rule to Northern Ireland.

There is one point that I hope the Minister will clarify. We ratified CEDAW—the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women—in 1986. If we have done so, that is a UK matter, not a devolved matter. It is not to be passed down to the people of Northern Ireland—or Scotland, for that matter, but Scotland has already dealt with this issue—but is for the United Kingdom, and if people in Northern Ireland want still to belong to the United Kingdom, they have to accept that there are some things that the United Kingdom is committed to, and this is one of them. Women have the right to have an abortion. Not to allow them to have an abortion is a form of extreme violence to some women. If you have seen the lengths that women will go to to have an illegal abortion—

Photo of Lord Maginnis of Drumglass Lord Maginnis of Drumglass Independent Ulster Unionist

I am the father of four children and the grandfather of seven and I know the value of human life in terms of babies in the womb. I cannot imagine that the noble Baroness can neglect that particular aspect of life. Can she explain that to me?

Photo of Baroness Tonge Baroness Tonge Independent Liberal Democrat

I am also a mother of three children and a grandmother of seven, so I am well aware of the value of human life, and so are very many of my patients. We are surely not going to have the whole debate about where life does or does not begin, and where souls enter foetuses—please do not let us have that debate again. All I am saying is that, whatever the situation, we are talking about a woman’s body. The foetus is dependent on the woman’s body and cannot live alone, and if a woman does not want that to happen, she has the right to choose. That is all I am saying.

Photo of Lord Hayward Lord Hayward Conservative 6:30 pm, 15th July 2019

My Lords, it is an honour to follow the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, who made a fascinating, detailed and very thoughtful speech in our debates last week and has done so again this evening. The contribution made a few minutes ago by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, really drove home the point about the issue of abortion.

In this debate, I will concentrate my comments on same-sex marriage. When the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, described this as precipitate and a leap, there was the implication that this had never been discussed before. The Northern Ireland Assembly has had five debates on this since 2012, the most recent of which was in late 2015. Each time it had a debate, the majority against same-sex marriage diminished, until finally in late 2015 there was a majority in favour of same-sex marriage. This was overturned using a procedure that was not really intended for social matters, as the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, identified in a previous debate. However, it was constitutional, so I recognise it. So we cannot say that this is a leap or a precipitate decision. We are now into seven years of debate in Northern Ireland on the subject.

Before today, I too have spoken on five occasions about same-sex marriage. I first introduced a Private Member’s Bill on 27 March last year. As the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, identified, there are unseen and unheard people who are affected because they cannot get married in their homeland of Northern Ireland. I have referred on previous occasions to employees of this House who are in that position. They cannot return to Northern Ireland to achieve what every other person would want to achieve—that is, a marriage with their family in their home community.

When I first spoke on the subject on 27 March last year, there was a couple looking down from the Gallery who had waited for years to be able to marry in Northern Ireland. So let us please not work on the basis that this has not been considered but has suddenly been concocted on these Benches or in the other place over the last few days. I conclude with the thought that this was the subject of debate in the Northern Ireland Assembly for seven years when it was sitting. We cannot keep on saying to people, “Well, if … Well, if …”. Seven years is surely more than enough for anybody.

Photo of Baroness Deech Baroness Deech Crossbench

I agree with the noble Baronesses, Lady Tonge and Lady Barker. I recall that just a few weeks ago we debated the provision of sex and relationships education to young people. I was shocked and dismayed by the protests of our colleagues from Northern Ireland. The point is, you may or may not approve of abortion or same-sex marriage, but we live in a world where we have to tolerate these relationships and choices. As the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, said, you do not have to do it if you do not like it—but you must not stop other people having the information and having the right.

You may or may not be a fan of Europe. Our human rights have come not from the EU but from the European Convention on Human Rights, much of which was British-based. It is not a question of consultation, either. If the population had been consulted on every single human right, we probably would not have them. Sometimes there has to be an external body that brings people into that circle of human rights and gives them their liberty. In this particular case, it is the right to a private and family life that women must have.

Sadly, most people in this debate are men and most of the supporters are women. That is highly significant. In an age of #MeToo complaints, when this Chamber has just been criticised by Naomi Ellenbogen for the attitude that some men take towards female employees, it is high time that men laying down the law had a bit more consideration for the feelings of the women who may have been put in the position of having to have an abortion, because the man who made them pregnant has abandoned them or is not supporting them—whatever the reason may be.

I think that in this situation devolution is being used as an excuse. This is perhaps the most profound human right a woman can have. Had it not been for the advances in contraception and abortion over the last 50 years, which gave us the confidence and freedom to go ahead with our education, plan our lives and have our children when we wanted them, we women in this Chamber would not be where we are. We must give this to the women of Northern Ireland. They are 50 years behind the rest of the world. Any man here who wants to deny this to them does not understand human rights or what he should be doing to help those women, rather than holding them back and condemning them to shady, shabby and expensive trips to other countries to get their human rights.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, might like to speak, because his clause stand part debate is grouped with these amendments.

Photo of Lord Morrow Lord Morrow DUP

Yes, I wish to speak to Amendment 20, which is part of the first grouping. I understand that the groupings are not binding. If the noble Baroness is suggesting that I make my speech now, I will take the opportunity. I am quite content to do so and thank her very much.

We hear much about the Northern Ireland Assembly deciding this by a majority of one, but we do not hear much about when the Northern Ireland Assembly decided by a very comfortable majority that there should be no change in the abortion laws in Northern Ireland. If it is important how the Assembly voted on same-sex marriage, is it not also important how it votes on every other issue, namely abortion? There were strong feelings expressed here on Wednesday about the manner in which the other place amended a Bill which was intended to change the date by which an election in Northern Ireland has to be called and made into a Bill that brings in sweeping reforms relating to abortion.

We know that abortion is a devolved matter; we know that the clerks in the other place had advised that the amendments were out of scope; we know that this Bill was subject to a fast-track procedure—making it wholly inappropriate to deal with such a matter as abortion; we know that in 2016 the Northern Ireland Assembly voted by a clear majority not to change the law in any way, and we know that a ComRes poll shows that 64% of the people of Northern Ireland oppose Westminster legislation for Northern Ireland on this matter, rising to 66% of women and 72% of 18 to 32 year-olds. We also know‘ that all the main denominations in Northern Ireland oppose any change in the law—the Presbyterian Church, which is the largest denomination, the Roman Catholic Church, the Methodist Church, and the Church of Ireland—as do all the minor denominations which, added together, would make one major denomination, probably the third largest Protestant denomination in Northern Ireland.

However, these things do not seem to be important. The Commons saw fit none the less to impose Clause 9 on this Bill. It has to be said, of course, that 100% of Northern Ireland MPs who take their seats voted against the provision. Quite apart from the substance of the issue, as a matter of procedural fair play it is hard to imagine a better expression of being treated beneath contempt. To really appreciate the significance of this, we must turn to the substance of the issue and recognise that abortion is a far more sensitive issue in Northern Ireland than in any other part of the United Kingdom; others have alluded to this. We must recognise that many people in Northern Ireland are very attached to our abortion laws; I might add that they are the most up to date of any region of the United Kingdom.

The Both Lives Matter report, which shows that 100,000 people are alive in Northern Ireland today who would otherwise not be, is hugely important. I realise that the Government have not created this problem. Their response, however, has the capacity to make things better or infinitely worse. The Minister suggested last week that there were some difficulties with Clause 9, but rather than acting as he should to moderate their effect, my reading of what he said was that the Government were interested in helping to rescue the provisions and possibly create a new power not based on Section 26. That would be wholly wrong because the amendment in another place that sought to create a new power—that is, new Clause 5—was not selected for debate and because the Government cannot introduce new offences without contradicting the Sewel convention. I am a wee bit disturbed today that there has been very little mention of respect for the Sewel convention.

Photo of Baroness Hussein-Ece Baroness Hussein-Ece Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Equalities)

When the noble Lord speaks of the abortion laws as being up to date, does he think that the criminalisation of women who seek an abortion—there are outstanding cases and women who go to prison for seeking or having an abortion—is compatible with the rest of the United Kingdom? Does the think that is compatible with natural justice and human rights? The woman mentioned last week—I believe by the noble Lord, Lord Trimble—whose 14 year-old daughter, a child, was raped by numerous men and bought an abortion pill online is currently facing a trial, in November, and possible imprisonment. Does he think that is a good way of conducting the law of the land? Is it progressive and liberal? Is it acceptable to the people of Northern Ireland?

Photo of Lord Morrow Lord Morrow DUP

When I say these laws are the most up to date I am speaking of the fact that the Northern Ireland Assembly, in a cross-community vote, voted for them. I was a Member of the Assembly at that time, as were both my colleagues. We do not come to this with an ignorant view or without an understanding view. We understand—but is it of any concern to this House that 100,000 children are alive today because of our legislation? Members may turn their heads, look the other way and ask, “What is that to us?”. Maybe it is nothing to them, but it is a lot to the people of Northern Ireland. I sincerely implore your Lordships’ House to take cognisance of that.

Before I came here, I was always told, “This House is steeped in procedure; we are always procedurally correct”. Are we procedurally correct today? I challenge your Lordships to think on that matter, irrespective of their view on these two divisive issues. Are we procedurally correct? I deduce that no, we are not.

This has already been alluded to as a Christmas tree Bill. The more I listen, look and learn, the more I have to agree. I took a Private Member’s Bill to the Northern Ireland Assembly on human trafficking and exploitation and support for victims. I was able to achieve that only with the cross-community support of that Assembly. When it came to its final stage, as I recall, there was not one detractor of what that Bill was trying to achieve. A very small minority may not have agreed with it entirely, but I was able to accommodate over 100 amendments from all sections of the Assembly. We arrived at a position where, I believe, on that issue, we have good legislation. I ask the House to keep that in mind.

In this context, the best thing would be to amend Clause 9 so that it makes sense in terms of the remit of Section 26 agreed in the other place, or move to delete Clause 9 in its entirety, or, ultimately, pull the Bill, as I believe we should. It is perfectly clear that the Bill before us has been distorted beyond all recognition from its original purpose in a way that is wholly inappropriate, because of a failure to observe constitutional due process with respect to scope in the other place, and the fact that matters that should be the subject of Bills in their own right have been rammed into a Bill subject to fast-tracking, thereby adding insult to injury.

If the Government choose to respond by further violating constitutional due process, casting aside the Sewel convention, we will be looking at a constitutional crisis the likes of which we have not seen in a very long time indeed. In a constitutional democracy such as our own, the end never, ever justifies the means. I say, finally—it is important—that ends, no matter how noble you might deem them to be, are always sullied in a manner that darkens the pretensions of any polity to be constitutional, if they are secured by means that are anything but. The Attorney-General of Northern Ireland has indicated that there are no legal reasons why the matters that this Bill properly seeks to address should not be so addressed in September. So my counsel to the Government is to pull this Bill, at least for now. Failing that, they must delete Clause 9.

Photo of Lord Browne of Belmont Lord Browne of Belmont DUP 6:45 pm, 15th July 2019

My Lords, I support the amendment of my noble friend Lord Morrow. As a former Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, I do not believe it can be said enough in this place that, in 2016, the Northern Ireland Assembly considered the matter of abortion. It did not just have a general debate. It voted on primary legislative amendments to our abortion law and determined not to change the law in any way at that time.

I believe that the last time Westminster voted on primary legislative changes to a real Bill, as opposed to a 10-minute rule Bill, was back in 2008. This means that Northern Ireland has the law with the most recent democratic sanction of anywhere in the United Kingdom. In that context, it simply cannot be right for Great Britain MPs to overrule every Northern Ireland MP.

The only justification that I have heard is human rights—but there are two problems with that approach. First, there is a supposition that access to abortion services is a human right. In the other place, the mover of the amendment, the honourable Member for Walthamstow, said,

“There is a specific definition of human rights”,—[Official Report, Commons, 8/7/19; col. 106.]

implying that there is universal agreement on what human rights mean. I support honourable Members in that debate who rightly said that there is no international right to abortion. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, made the point last week that the right to an abortion is not included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There is no right to abortion under the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women—CEDAW—which is the locus of the authority cited by Clause 9.

The second supposition is that a determination by a UN committee is binding on a member state in a way that a declaration by the UK Supreme Court of incompatibility with the European Convention on Human Rights would not be. The latter can make a ruling on incompatibility with human rights in any given situation, but it is for Parliament to decide whether it wishes to act on that ruling. As the Supreme Court has said, Parliament can decide to do nothing about the court’s ruling. None the less, we are being advised that we must change the law, and change it now, in a way that is manifestly undemocratic.

Photo of Lord Bruce of Bennachie Lord Bruce of Bennachie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Scotland)

Does the noble Lord not acknowledge that the Supreme Court has already indicated that it believes that the law in Northern Ireland is not consistent with human rights, which evolve? There is a judgment pending from the Supreme Court that could put the law in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. The United Kingdom is a signatory to that convention. Does that not give the United Kingdom Government and Parliament an obligation to legislate on the law in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Lord Browne of Belmont Lord Browne of Belmont DUP

I thank the noble Lord for his intervention, but I understand that that was on a very narrow case of fatal foetal abnormality. I will address that matter shortly, which should answer his question.

The chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission recognised that the recommendations were non-binding in oral evidence to the Women and Equalities Select Committee in the other place when it was reviewing the law in Northern Ireland. Professor Mark Hill QC wrote an opinion about the CEDAW report, in which he stated:

The Committee does not have the capacity or standing to give a binding adjudication on the United Kingdom’s obligations under CEDAW or on the proper interpretation of CEDAW”,

made the point that the International Court of Justice had not interpreted CEDAW as providing a right to abortion, and said:

“The interpretative function under the CEDAW is reserved, not to the Committee, but to the International Court of Justice.”

If this is not enough to convince your Lordships that the authority being given to this Committee is flawed, I shall quote from a Supreme Court judgment —R (A and B) v Secretary of State for Health—in which Lord Justice Wilson said:

“The conventions and the covenant to which the UK is a party carefully stop short of calling upon national authorities to make abortion services generally available. Some of the committees go further down that path. But, as a matter of international law, the authority of their recommendations is slight”.

Here we come to the case that the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, referred to. The judgment in that case stated:

“If the Supreme Court rules in the case of Sarah Ewart that there is a right in relation to fatal fetal abnormality, then that would create a very strong case for a small but important change to the law. It would not, however, create anything resembling a general right to abortion”.

Indeed, the basis for thinking that the court might support a right in relation to fatal foetal abnormality is what was said in relation to a case last year, in which the plaintiff did not have standing, so no rule was made. The court also gave another indication, to the effect that there is no human right to abortion on the basis of disability generally—something permitted in Great Britain.

Secondly, the medium of human rights is normally expressed as a check on the majority expressed through constitutional due process. This is highly ironic, given that the only reason we are here is the complete disregard of constitutional due process manifested last week in the other place, where we saw: dispensing with scope; debate being permitted in relation to out-of-scope issues that should have been the subject of their own Bill, even though the Bill before the House was being fast-tracked; and the imposition of a change on the part of the UK with the smallest population, and thus the smallest number of MPs, by MPs from outside Northern Ireland

The ethic that the end justifies the means is the kind of thing that constitutional checks are supposed to guard against, not encourage. If the proponents of Clause 9 press their case on the basis of the end justifying the means, as at present, that will cast a great shadow over the integrity of their human rights pretensions. If we want to live in a functioning union, by all means let us talk about human rights, but do not use them wrongly to suggest that there is a general right to abortion when no such right exists, and do not use them to dispense with the respect for constitutional due process, the presence of which can facilitate a functioning union, whereas disrespect for it will bring about its demise.

Photo of Lord Judge Lord Judge Chair, Sentencing (Pre-consolidation Amendments) Bill [HL] Special Public Bill Committee

My Lords, I wonder whether I may be allowed two minutes to look at the provision that we are considering, which is Clause 3(6). What is proposed is,

“a review of the current legal framework on abortion in Northern Ireland with an analysis of how that … could be amended by Parliament … when there is no Executive”,

followed by these very important words, which I have not heard this afternoon,

“subject to a sunset clause to respect devolution”.

I read that to mean that whatever we may do, when there is an Assembly in Northern Ireland, it will be up to the Assembly to decide what the law should be in that country. It may revert to the law as it is now—but we hope that it will not.

Photo of Baroness Boycott Baroness Boycott Crossbench

My Lords, I find this debate really shocking, and I support my noble friend Lady Deech and the other noble Baronesses. I have campaigned for women’s rights all my life, and the one word I have not heard tonight is “kindness”. I do not think any woman has ever wanted to have an abortion, and I am shocked by a lot of the attitudes coming through, which imply that women go for abortions in a willy-nilly, uncaring fashion. In fact, this is a terrible decision for any woman; it is not undertaken lightly, or without thought, worry and anxiety. Women have abortions because they do not feel that they can bring that child into this world and give it the care, love and family life it is due. This is something that has been absent from the debate, and I am shocked to stand here listening to men—as my noble friend Lady Deech says, it is men who are saying this. If it were men in those shoes, things would be different. They are entitled to stay overnight and then go off and leave a woman with the consequences. This is a human right; it is about kindness and decency. It is astonishing what is happening, 50 years on. I have been in this House for one year and two days, and I am shaking as I listen to all this again. We have had this argument. This is a human right and human decency, and we should not stand in the way of the women of Northern Ireland, who deserve it.

Photo of Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown DUP

My Lords, many people listening to this debate, including those listening outside, will hardly believe or understand how a simple Bill for the extension of two dates for the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland could have arrived at a debate on major social issues that impact on the whole community.

We have come a long way in Northern Ireland, and it is right to acknowledge that. The people of Northern Ireland are good people. They have a good heart and, whether people believe it or not, in the midst of the greatest days of darkness and trouble, many—the vast majority—of the people of Northern Ireland lived happily side by side together and were good neighbours. They helped each other when they were in trouble; they worked alongside each other in many different ways. They are also a generous people.

A noble Baroness said earlier that she wanted to speak for those whose voices are not heard. Let me do so. Let me speak for the voices of the unborn because their voices are not heard. We speak about 100,000 children—people just like your Lordships and me—who are alive in Northern Ireland today who, had the abortion law been brought in, would not exist. Perhaps to some that does not really count, but if you were one of the 100,000 it would count. It would certainly count if your life was spared—if you had the ability to be born into this world, grow up and, with all your hopes and dreams, seek to fulfil them and live a fulfilled life. I speak as a father of five children and 10 grandchildren, and I love every single one of them. We lost one child, though not one of the five. That broke my wife’s heart and mine, but it was not because of any action we had taken.

Abortion is a particularly sensitive matter in Northern Ireland. People have strong views about it. That is not surprising because it is literally a matter of life and death. I take the view that unborn life is precious in God’s sight and should be protected by the law. I realise that not everyone in Northern Ireland shares that view, but I believe that the vast majority of people across the community in Northern Ireland do. Northern Ireland’s law on this matter should be decided by those who represent the people of Northern Ireland; it has been for almost 100 years.

There are not many people elected to represent Northern Ireland in the other place. Eleven of them take their seats. Last week, every one of them opposed what is now Clause 9. That ought to tell this House something. Are they just angry, hateful people trying to destroy people’s lives and trying to destroy women? Is that what it is? When devolved government was in place in Northern Ireland, the Assembly showed that it was ready and willing to consider this issue. It was only in February 2016 that MLAs last voted on it. There were two votes. One was on abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality. MLAs voted 59 to 40 against allowing abortion in such circumstances, which was a majority. The other vote was on abortion in cases of sexual crime, and there was an even stronger majority against—this time of 64 to 32.

The daughter of a friend of mine was expecting two children. She was told by her doctor that one of those children could not live and therefore she should abort it. She did not. Both those children are healthy today, enjoying life, going around Northern Ireland, playing together in their home and enjoying family life. Should she have got rid of that child? She was told to but she did not.

The elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland, when presented with the question of abortion for these reasons, said no. Those who voted against the changes included unionists and nationalists, Protestants, Roman Catholics and those with no religious label at all. It was a totally cross-community concern. I do not believe that the MLAs were out of step with public opinion. I remind the Committee, as some noble Lords have already done, of the poll conducted in Northern Ireland in October 2018; it cannot be suggested that it was a long time ago. Some 64%, and 66% of women, said they did not want Westminster to interfere in this matter but believed that it was an issue to be settled in Northern Ireland. Yet the Bill is now being used—abused, I suggest—to take this matter out of the hands of the people of Northern Ireland and those who represent them.

I also have a concern about the force given in Clause 9 to the recommendations of the committee on the elimination of discrimination against women under the heading “International obligations”. Clause 9 says that regulations must give effect to those recommendations, but the recommendations of the committee are not binding. The Supreme Court put this very clearly in 2007 when Lord Justice Wilson, giving the majority judgment, said:

“The conventions and the covenant to which the UK is a party carefully stop short of calling upon national authorities to make abortion services generally available. Some of the committees go further down that path. But, as a matter of international law, the authority of their recommendations is slight”.

Clause 9 overstates the obligation that the UK is under, and I believe that noble lords and noble Baronesses in this Committee have overstated that obligation too. There is no international obligation to introduce abortion in Northern Ireland; rather, the obligation, both moral and based on the principle of devolution, is quite the opposite.

Photo of Lord Carlile of Berriew Lord Carlile of Berriew Crossbench 7:00 pm, 15th July 2019

My Lords, I have listened to the debate with growing concern and anxiety about its tone and about what seems to be a very poor understanding of the constitutional issues that arise.

We ought to remind ourselves that we have been talking about moral issues that affect young women and young men of an age that does not exist among the membership of this House. Those of us who are the fathers and grandfathers and mothers and grandmothers of young people ought to bear that in mind. We have listened—I do not want to offend anyone but I will take the risk—to a lot of anecdotally based, at best, moral relativism, which to those who eventually come to read what has happened in this House today, particularly the young, will view as uninformed, if possibly well-intentioned, and with disdain.

The only evidence that I can rely upon is the evidence that I see with my own eyes and in my own experience. I can tell your Lordships that among my five daughters and step-daughters and my nine grandsons and grand- daughters, I have one daughter who is in a very happy gay marriage to our beloved daughter-in-law and another daughter who was in a gay civil partnership and is now married to a man, as a result of which we have a beloved former daughter-in-law and a beloved son-in-law. That is what real life is like. When you look at what happens in real families in these issues, without pontificating about what they should be thinking or, even worse, thinking for them, you see things in a much more realistic light.

I turn to the Bill and the constitutional issues. I repeat what was said by my noble and learned friend Lord Judge about Clause 3(6), which expresses that these changes are,

“subject to a sunset clause to respect devolution”.

The Bill seeks to do almost exactly what those who have proposed these amendments are asking for; it just does it in a coherent and logical way. I have spent a great deal of time in Northern Ireland, looking at the Good Friday agreement and working as Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation. If you asked the good people of Northern Ireland what they thought about these issues, their answer would be, “Well, we’re not terribly interested in these issues as a constitutional matter, although we have opinions. What these wretched politicians should get on with is governing Northern Ireland by devolved government, which they are choosing not to do at the present time”. Devolution is not a right but a choice. The politicians of Northern Ireland have chosen not to govern their country through devolution at the present time.

So what happens to the political process in Northern Ireland? Does it come to stasis? Does it come to a standstill because the politicians cannot sit down in a locked room for a few days and realise that their duty is to govern that very important part of the United Kingdom? That is the choice they have made so far. When that choice has been made, it is constitutionally the duty of the Parliament in which we sit to determine all the issues that a devolved Government would consider, including these enormous social issues. Northern Ireland’s constitutional settlement, which produced the miraculous results of the Good Friday agreement, which I admire without a single word of demur, sets out and accepts that when there is no government by devolution, there is government from this Parliament. In my view, this Parliament is perfectly entitled, and under a duty, to take the decisions set before it this evening.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, this has been a long debate. When the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, spoke at the beginning, he said this was sensitive, delicate territory. He is right. I have close friends on both sides of the argument and I resent it when people abuse the integrity of those who have a different view. All views should be respected in this House. The tone in which some comments have been made does not reflect well on this House. That point was made by the noble Baroness.

Coming back to the comments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, about what we are debating tonight, which were moderate as always, I have not written a speech like some noble Lords, but I have a couple of comments. I think one of our colleagues from the DUP described this as a process which was not procedurally correct—

Photo of Baroness O'Loan Baroness O'Loan Crossbench

I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. She talked about the nature of comments and said something about a noble Baroness making a comment. I would like to know who and what she was talking about.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I was referring to the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott. She said she was upset about some of the comments that had been made in the debate, and I respect the comments she made in that regard. I think she was right to make them.

Coming back to the point about whether this is procedurally correct, as somebody who has spent more hours than I might care to discussing this with clerks or colleagues, I can say that if the matters before us were not procedurally correct, they would not be debated by this Committee today. All matters before us are procedurally correct. The noble Lord from the DUP made the point that the provisions on abortion and same-sex marriage were not supported by Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland. I regard every single Member of Parliament as equal to every other. Each Member has a duty to consider the position of the United Kingdom as a whole. We have a Conservative Government, supported by Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland of a different political party, who presumably vote on issues affecting the whole of the UK. I would not criticise Members of Parliament who vote on issues that affect other parts of the United Kingdom, because all MPs are equal.

The noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, said that Northern Ireland is not allowed to govern itself. I look at the Minister and I think he would love to see a devolved Government up and running in Northern Ireland. That has been said across the Committee. Everybody wants these decisions to be taken by a devolved Government. It is not a case of not being allowed to do this; the decision lies with the Northern Ireland political parties. I think all noble Lords want to see much greater progress on this. For about two and a half years, we have had no Government, no local Assembly meeting and no Ministers in Northern Ireland. You have to ask: who speaks for the people of Northern Ireland? A case I have been particularly interested in is the hyponatraemia inquiry, which I set up getting on for 20 years ago. This has now reported and the families of the children who died are desperate to take forward the proposals and recommendations in that report. Because of the lack of a Government in Northern Ireland, those families continue to suffer, as no decisions are being taken on those recommendations.

We are seeing amendments to this Bill not just on abortion and same-sex marriage but on pensions and compensation for victims of historical sexual abuse—the latter is my amendment, which I regret is the final one we will debate today. Those are coming forward to this House and this Parliament because of the lack of a devolved Assembly in Northern Ireland. I do not accept that any decisions taken in this House make devolution more difficult. You could argue that it is the impetus of decisions that could be taken here that should put pressure on Northern Ireland politicians to ensure that devolution is up and running.

When we next debate this we will discuss the amendments from the Commons. I understand that the Government are in discussions with Stella Creasy and Conor McGinn about how to give effect to the will of the House of Commons. That is right. The votes in the Commons had bigger majorities than we get in your Lordships’ House. The McGinn amendment was passed by 383 to 73 and the Creasy amendment by 332 to 99. I welcome that the Government are having discussions about how to give technical effect to those amendments and the will of Parliament.

We have seen amendments on consultation today and I have to take it at face value that those who tabled amendments about consultation genuinely want it. However, no MP proposed that there should be consultation on any of these issues until after the votes on same-sex marriage and abortion had taken place. I think these amendments are designed to frustrate, delay, restrict and undermine the amendments from the House of Commons. I think the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, actually said that that was the intention behind his comments today.

What we are debating goes beyond personal views or opinions. We have heard already how the Assembly voted for same-sex marriage in 2015. My understanding is that had that Assembly still been sitting, we would not even be debating that issue here today. It is something of an irony that the reason that that was halted and did not take place was because of a petition of concern. This is designed to protect minority views in Northern Ireland and here it actually frustrated legislation for a minority in Northern Ireland. A majority of the current Assembly Members would also vote for this. It is a basic human dignity to be allowed to marry the person you love in your home country.

On abortion, there are strong opinions on either side which must be respected, but I struggle with the notion that in Northern Ireland a victim of a violent rape who has an abortion faces a harsher penalty than her attacker. I find that quite chilling. The position at the moment does not stop abortions happening. If it was possible to reduce the number of abortions, I would be pleased to support that, financially and otherwise, but that is not what the amendments would do. More than 1,000 women and girls now travel to England and Wales for abortion, in addition to those who take illegal abortion pills bought online.

Photo of Baroness O'Loan Baroness O'Loan Crossbench 7:15 pm, 15th July 2019

I do not think it is quite right to say that huge numbers of women are being raped, become pregnant and are imprisoned because of breaches of the law. That is not what is happening in Northern Ireland. Yes, we have some women who are raped. Undoubtedly, some of them will get pregnant. Northern Ireland needs to sort these things out for itself.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I think the noble Baroness misunderstood. I agree that Northern Ireland should sort it out, but a victim of violent rape who becomes pregnant and seeks an abortion faces a harsher penalty than her attacker. That seems quite wrong.

The House of Commons has voted on two issues, with substantial majorities. On Wednesday, we will have an opportunity to look at how the Government have responded to Conor McGinn and Stella Creasy; the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, will be bringing it here. We look forward to seeing what will happen. This debate has highlighted how sensitive this is, and that there are intransigent different points of view which I think cannot meet. We must do what we believe is right.

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 debate has stirred a great many emotions. We have heard very powerful speeches from all sides of the House. To ensure that there is no confusion, I will be very specific, and, if you will forgive me, I will break precedent and read what I have to say; it will be easier for me.

Abortion is a sensitive issue. There are strongly held views on all sides of the debate, in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Many of those views have been expressed during this debate and during the passage of the Bill in the other place.

We must recognise the clear will of the other place. That House sought a commitment that the Government would legislate in these matters. The Government respect the views expressed in the other place. Those views were expressed on a free vote, which is a matter of conscience. I stress that the amendments which have come from the other place are procedurally correct, and we must recognise them for what they are. My honourable friend in the other place, John Penrose, the Minister, very clearly set out the challenges represented by the devolution settlement before these votes took place. In doing so, he was careful to ensure that the other place was fully informed.

As I made clear at Second Reading, there are technical problems with the drafting of this clause which need to be resolved. On an issue as important as abortion, which relates to the health and safety of women in Northern Ireland, it is not enough to express the desire for change. The Government must ensure that the drafting of the Bill is effective and can, in practical terms, deliver the change that the Members in the other place want to see. Discussion is ongoing, with the support of the Government, to try to deliver a clause that works. Discussions have taken place with the two Members of Parliament who moved the amendments. I hope that, when we come back to consider these on Report, we will have amendments which are fit for purpose.

I appreciate that there have been a number of views on this issue, not least those that have touched upon the question of devolution itself within a constitutional framework, and not least those that have touched upon the moral questions underpinning abortion. It is right that the Government take no view on these matters; these are matters of conscience, and each individual noble Lord must look to themselves on these matters. We hope that we can make progress on these matters at the next stage. On that basis, and rather than for me to do a full round—

Photo of Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Crossbench

The Minister referred to the constitutional argument, and he is the greatest living expert on the Sewel convention, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Morrow. The noble Lord implied —or perhaps was explicit—that, if we passed this Bill, we would be in breach of the Sewel convention. In my recollection, the Sewel convention says that we will not normally legislate without the approval or consent of the devolved Assembly. This situation, where we do not have an Executive and an Assembly, seems completely abnormal. Therefore, I cannot see how we could be in breach of the Sewel convention. I would be very grateful if the Minister, as the expert, could give a ruling.

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

I am loath to use the term “ruling” on this one, if I may be frank. I understand the noble Lord to be correct; the Sewel convention allows for not acting under normal circumstances, but by any definition the situation that Northern Ireland finds itself in today is not normal. However, I would not like that to carry with it the weight of greater minds than I. I may have to put a very formal note to your Lordships later to confirm that, just in case I am in any way in error.

On that basis, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

My Lords, this has been a long and, at times, a difficult debate. When I introduced the amendments, with the support of my noble friend Lord Trimble—who has had to go to another engagement —and, in the case of the abortion amendment, the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, I said that this was an extremely sensitive and delicate subject, and the Leader of the Opposition the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, referred to that. I think that every word that has been uttered has at least underlined that I was correct on that.

The only thing I regret is that some people, perhaps because they felt hurt, have reacted in a slightly unfair way. Noble Lords must remember that my noble friend Lord Trimble, who supported both these amendments, is a man who perhaps has done more than any other individual in Northern Ireland to bring about the Good Friday agreement and serve his part of our great United Kingdom and his country with diligence and honour, and he is the last man who would be insensitive in these issues. Indeed, at Second Reading, he referred in a slightly jocular way to his own family experience of a daughter marrying another woman. When I was chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in the other place, I had a great deal to do with the noble Baroness, Lady O’ Loan, who was then the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. She is a great public servant, and it was an honour to deal with her. I met nobody at any stage in Northern Ireland who was more fair, more dispassionate or more concerned about the fate of those who had suffered in the Troubles. She was even-handed, almost to a fault. I was sad when I heard what the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, said. It would be sad to believe that anyone who has spoken in this debate has done so with anything other than a passionate sincerity and belief.

When I introduced the two amendments, I began by saying that I was doing so for one reason only. It is nothing to do with my views on either of these subjects but because I have a very passionate view about Northern Ireland and the need to restore devolution. It was because of that that I tabled these amendments, which have received some support and some opposition. I am grateful to those who supported and I completely understand the deep feelings of those who have opposed them but, I repeat, the only reason I introduced these amendments is that I see devolution slipping away. I made the point at Second Reading that I see that we are moving inexorably towards direct rule, and I deeply regret that. I hope that, when those in Northern Ireland read this debate, they will realise—to quote again a current catchphrase—it is time for them to take back control. We need a Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive. I hope that what has been said collectively in this debate, from all sides of the argument, will convince people in all parties in Northern Ireland that they will be guilty of a dereliction of duty if they do not take back control.

Of course I will withdraw my amendment because, as I said earlier, I believe in the convention of your Lordships’ House that we very rarely vote in Committee. I would like to see what my noble friend puts down before I decide whether to table amendments on Wednesday, and I am sure he will inform me in good time. With that, I withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 10 withdrawn.