Moved by Baroness Barker
12: Clause 9, page 6, line 16, leave out subsections (1) to (4) and insert—“(1) The Secretary of State must ensure that the recommendations in paragraphs 85 and 86 of the CEDAW report are implemented in respect of Northern Ireland.(2) Sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 (attempts to procure abortion) are repealed under the law of Northern Ireland.(3) No investigation may be carried out, and no criminal proceedings may be brought or continued, in respect of an offence under those sections under the law of Northern Ireland (whenever committed).(4) The Secretary of State must by regulations make whatever other changes to the law of Northern Ireland appear to the Secretary of State to be necessary or appropriate for the purpose of complying with subsection (1).(5) Regulations under subsection (4) must, in particular, make provision for the purposes of regulating abortions in Northern Ireland, including provision as to the circumstances in which an abortion may take place.(6) Regulations under subsection (4) must be made so as to come into force by
My Lords, I hope we can continue in a similar vein on this next set of amendments. I rise to move Amendment 12, and to speak to Amendments 19, 21 and 24, which are in the same group. Noble Lords who have followed this Bill closely will know that in the House of Commons, Clause 9 was carried by a majority of 332 to 99. Its purpose is to ensure that the human rights of women in Northern Ireland are similar to those in the rest of the United Kingdom on the matter of abortion. There was an overwhelming majority in another place for the rights of those women to be respected.
The reason was quite clear. As the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, has often reminded us, abortion is legal in Northern Ireland—but it is legal in some of the most restrictive terms in the world. Consequently, the ways in which some of the laws have been interpreted have meant that, for example, in the last year only 12 women have been able to have an abortion in Northern Ireland, and, as noble Lords will know, up to 1,000 women a year have to resort to coming to other parts of the United Kingdom—if they can afford to—in order to receive the healthcare to which they are entitled.
Last year, the Supreme Court ruled on abortion law in Northern Ireland, stating that the present-day legislative position in Northern Ireland was untenable, intrinsically disproportionate and clearly in need of radical reconsideration. The court also stated that the existing law was incompatible with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights: the right to private family life. It was against that background that, in another place, the Member for Walthamstow, Stella Creasy, sought to insert into this Bill an obligation on this Parliament to ensure that all parts of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, are compliant with the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, which told the Government in February 2018 that abortion law in Northern Ireland breached human rights.
An amendment was put forward, the substance of which was accepted by the Government—but it was said that the amendment was deficient. Since the addition to the Bill was made in the Commons, there has been a process of discussion between the Government and those who put forward that proposal about how the expressed will of the Commons should be carried forward—and, in particular, what regulation-making process should now being undertaken in Northern Ireland be to implement that Bill. That has resulted in the amendments before your Lordships this evening: Amendment 12 and the consequential amendment.
Amendment 12 requires the Secretary of State to,
“ensure that the recommendations in paragraphs 85 and 86 of the CEDAW report are implemented in respect of Northern Ireland”. and that, crucially:
“Sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 … are repealed”,
so that women are no longer criminalised in Northern Ireland for seeking to secure an abortion. The amendment also says:
“No investigation may be carried out, and no criminal proceedings may be brought or continued, in respect of an offence under those sections under the law of Northern Ireland”— because it is still the case today that women are being taken to court under these ancient laws, which have existed since before women had the right to vote, for seeking to secure access to healthcare, which they would be entitled to were they to live in the other countries of the United Kingdom.
The amendment also states:
“The Secretary of State must by regulations make changes”,
to the law that are necessary for all of those purposes. This process of making regulations has been the subject of considerable discussion, because the Minister, in his discussions and in his speeches to the House, has made clear that the Government feel themselves to be under an obligation to undertake extensive consultation on these matters. The people who have fought so long and so hard for women to have these rights are fearful that that might be taken as an excuse to frustrate the will of another place.
Let us be fair. To date, the track record of enabling women to access their rights has been far from good. So the discussions which lie behind this set of amendments are an attempt to find a way in which the Government can take forward the expressed will of the House of Commons and do so in a way which is timely and which allows necessary consultation—for example, with people in the medical profession, because it is recognised that this will bring about considerable change from what exists now—but does not allow the proposals to be dragged out to the point at which the will of the House of the Commons is effectively denied.
I have had many conversations with the Minister. He understands, I think, what this amendment is trying to do. He does, I believe, have a problem with the issue of the timetable; we may return to that. In moving the amendment, perhaps I may ask the Minister whether he might address some of the fears expressed by people who wish to see this measure come to pass in a timely manner. Could he assure the House that, if there is consultation on these matters, the substance of the consultation will not be whether women in Northern Ireland should have access to abortion services, but how and when they will have access to them? Can he confirm that, explicit within any consultation, from the outset, there will be a commitment that the human rights of women will be respected? In particular, could he confirm that no woman will be forced to declare that they have been raped at any stage in order to secure an abortion? That is a concern which has arisen from people in Northern Ireland who are trying to envisage how this could be brought to pass very quickly, but practically.
I also draw to the attention of the House the fact that the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967 requires medical professionals to disclose serious crimes. That has been used to require medical professionals to disclose that women are seeking to access abortion services. That compromises clinical judgment, so can the Minister say in any process of consultation that there will be a need to ensure that medical practitioners are no longer subject to the criminal law in a way in which they would not be were they to be practising their profession in any other of the countries of the United Kingdom. There are professional standards and regulations which govern the provision of services, to which they as professionals must adhere. It is not as though there were no criminal laws at all.
Finally, I ask the Minister: within the plans to consult on regulations made under this Bill, is there any intent to publicly consult on measures that would restrict the ability of women in Northern Ireland to gain access to abortion services?
I realise that this is a very contentious subject; anybody who has followed our debates so far will know that. But it is reasonable for noble Lords to be aware that those of us who have brought forward this amendment have done so following extensive consultation with people in Northern Ireland who have, for many years, tried to ensure that women there have access to services that mean that their human rights are no less than those of women in other parts of the United Kingdom. I realise that this subject may be slightly more complicated than that which we have just left, but I hope that the Minister and other noble Lords will join with me in seeking to expedite this, because women in Northern Ireland are in very grave need of change.
My Lords, forgive me for rising at this particular juncture, which I would not normally do; I will return to the wider debate once it has completed. I think it is important that I respond to the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, and her important questions and provide some information to the House that may inform the debate as we progress.
The noble Baroness asked several questions that I wish to give some clear answers to. The first was on the consultation—that it should focus on provision, not on law, enabling women to access rights, rather than restricting them. A period of consultation is the right thing to do and would ensure people in Northern Ireland and all relevant organisations can provide input and views. However, I want to be clear: consultation would not be on the question of whether this should be done, but only on how CEDAW’s recommendations can be implemented in Northern Ireland. As to the question of human rights compliance in the regulations, let me absolutely clear: in setting up the new regulatory regime and relevant non-legislative matters, we will comply fully with our human rights obligations.
To answer the question of how we would meet our requirements if we publicly consult on measures that would restrict access to abortion, any consultation will not be about restricting abortion. It will be about how, in practical terms, to establish a new regulatory regime that fully delivers on the CEDAW recommendations. I confirm that the Northern Ireland Office is clear that human rights commitments mean that women will never be forced to disclose rape and that a consultation will not lead to this. That is a very important question. The CEDAW recommendations set out that abortion must be provided in cases of rape and incest, but not how this should be done. This will need to be considered carefully, given the sensitive and distressing nature of these circumstances. In doing so, the health and well-being of women will be first, foremost and paramount in these considerations.
Reference to the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967 and the obligations on the medical professions is an important consideration. That is why in developing proposals to meet the CEDAW recommendations, we will give the most careful consideration to issues such as rape and sexual assault; and why it is important that we make these proposals in discussion with medical and other organisations, which understand and support women who have endured these horrors.
On the question of why consultation itself has to be carried out under Section 75, the equality duty under that section requires designated public authorities in Northern Ireland, including the Northern Ireland Office, to,
“have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity”,
in relation to the nine equality categories, and to the desirability of promoting good relations,
“between persons of different religious beliefs, political opinion”,
and racial groups when carrying out their functions in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland equality scheme notes that consultation is usually undertaken over a 12-week period but that in exceptional circumstances, it can be reduced to a period of eight weeks or less. In any case, our equality scheme requires us to consult on the equality impact assessment at the appropriate stage, so consultation in one form or another will be required.
We also undertake to ensure that consultations will seek the views of those directly affected by the policy reform: the Equality Commission, representative groups of Section 75 categories, other public authorities, voluntary and community groups and other groups with a legitimate interest in the matter. It is our strong preference that, given the significant reform Clause 9 seeks to achieve—creating a decriminalised and, instead, a medical-model regime for the provision of abortion services in Northern Ireland—we undertake a consultation period of between eight and 12 weeks. We appreciate that there is existing evidence supporting the type of case for reform; that includes legal judgments, domestic inquiries and international reports. But these do not set out a clear path forward that can be directly translated into regulatory and other measures. That is why consultation is required.
Generally, there is a strong argument for consultation in terms of making good public law and a reduced risk of future legal challenge, which I cannot emphasise enough. I am sure that my colleagues on all sides would agree that we must ensure that the reform is correct, for the health, safety and well-being of the women affected, and that it is appropriate to provide clarity regarding the safeguards in place for the medical profession. That brings up the conscience concept.
I can confirm that the Government will work expeditiously between now and
If it is accepted that a consultation has to be carried out under Section 75, can I confirm that the substantive point will be how women will obtain access to abortion and not whether they should be able to do so? I want to be absolutely clear: consultation would not be on the question of whether this should be done but only on how the recommendations of CEDAW can be implemented in Northern Ireland. How will this be reflected in a drafting process and consultation? The consultation will make it explicit that we are consulting on how to deliver CEDAW recommendations most effectively, not on whether we should be taking forward this reform. We will want to engage with the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission to ensure that our consultation is drafted in the most effective way, to ensure targeted engagement on how we propose to proceed. I hope that this information is helpful to the House.
My Lords, I speak in support of Amendments 12, 19, 21 and 24 but if I may address what the Minister has just said, it was helpful that he clarified the position. I suspect it may well have shortened the debate significantly as well. I draw much comfort from the way he said that the consultation will not be about whether to do it but only how to do it. As I understand it, it will be about the details for giving effect to the wish expressed in the amendment, not about going back to first principles on whether one should move ahead. That is very important and I welcome it.
I am slightly puzzled by one point. The Minister explained why he wants a longer period for the consultation process on this amendment than he urged on the same-sex amendment. It seems to me that if one can do it on the same-sex amendment in a certain timeframe, one could also do it on this amendment. I wonder whether the Minister might clarify that. Having said that, I welcome the assurances he gave us and repeat: we are not looking at whether but how to implement. That is crucial.
I want to say one or two things briefly because the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, covered a lot of the points. Over the years, many of us have been lobbied and approached by women from Northern Ireland and, before its referendum, from the Republic who were desperate about the situation in which they found themselves. We heard the most painful stories of women who had to travel alone to Liverpool for an abortion, as they could not do it in the comfort of their own homes. We heard stories of doctors fearful of giving advice because of the criminal law, and the story of a mother who was subject to the law because she had produced abortion pills for her daughter. These are painful stories.
I should say that I am an active member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly; indeed, I chair one of its committees. We have been looking at abortion and I wish I could give the House the full details of our report. We produced our committee’s report some time ago. It would normally go to the plenary before being adopted and going into the public domain. However, one DUP member of the committee did not like anything in the report, so we said to him, “Okay, produce an alternative version and we’ll publish it”. That took some time and the result is that although I have our report—in fact, I have his as well—I am not really at liberty to go through it in detail because it is not yet public property. It still has to go before the plenary of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. That is proper, otherwise we would have an interesting report. Of course, that report may well be redundant by the time it is approved if all these measures go through.
However, we still discovered some useful things in producing the report. We talked about the human rights of women and the rights of healthcare professionals. We also talked about whether it should be illegal for doctors to give the advice that they can anywhere else in this country, and so on. I am afraid I am not at liberty to say more, except that we took a lot of evidence. We took evidence in Liverpool, London, Belfast and Dublin, so we got a broad range of opinions on both sides of the argument. I am bound to say that the majority of the committee were persuaded by the strength of the arguments, which are centred on this amendment. This is not something that has just come to me; it is based on a lot of the work that we put into the report, which will see the light of day before too long.
I repeat that I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying the position. I have one point to put to him. Ideally, I would like the timetable for this consultation to be the same as it is for the same-sex marriage consultation. If the Minister can clarify why one is longer than the other, I would be grateful. We look forward to a quick resolution of this terrible dilemma, which faces so many women in Northern Ireland.
My Lords, I think the House knows that I was the person who piloted the Abortion Act 1967 through the other place. I begin by thanking the Government, and this Minister in particular, for their readiness to respect the overwhelming vote in the House of Commons recently to bring the law in Northern Ireland into line. I was slightly puzzled by the fact that although the Government made the commitment to put right what they saw as deficiencies in the drafting in the Commons, that has not happened, and we have no government amendments before us today. Perhaps the Minister will explain why that is so. I am assuming that we will now go forward and that after the consultation there will be effective introduction of a statutory instrument. Presumably that is what the Government have in mind to change the law in Northern Ireland.
It is worth reminding the House that the 1967 legislation started in 1966, here in the House of Lords. I drew a place in the ballot for Private Members’ Bills and picked up the Bill that had already been passed in this House—it was this House that pioneered the legislation, not the House of Commons. Although we made substantial changes to the Bill, it started here and it is worth reminding ourselves of that. I shall quote something that I have quoted very often. Dr John Marks, when he retired as the secretary to the British Medical Association in 1992 after 40 years, said:
“Looking back over these forty years, it seems to me that the event which has had the most beneficial effect on public health during that period was the passage of the Abortion Act”.
That is a remarkable thing for a senior medic to say, but it is a tribute to this House that that happened.
Three things have changed substantially since the 1967 legislation, which I want to draw to the attention of the House. The first is that in 1967, in terms of the European Union, we were the pioneers in legislating for abortion. Other countries had not done it. One outcome was that, immediately after our law was passed, we started to get some traffic from other European countries. People were coming into Britain and Britain was being portrayed as the abortion capital of Europe. The press was full of stories about taxis at Heathrow Airport bringing women here. This was a great embarrassment to the Government at the time and, frankly, an embarrassment to me as the author of the legislation, but that is what happened. What has changed since 1967 is that the rest of Europe has changed its legislation and has in fact gone ahead of the 1967 legislation. Most European countries have based their law on it being a woman’s right to choose up to the 12th or 13th week of pregnancy. That is very different from the Abortion Act 1967.
I want to stress that a very important document that influenced me and a lot of people at the time was the Church of England report Abortion—an Ethical Discussion, by far the best treatise on the morality of abortion that I have ever read. It influenced my own church, the Church of Scotland and the Methodist Church and I think it influenced opinion in European countries as well. Most of their legislation is based on the belief or doctrine that the Roman Catholic Church put forward right up until the late 19th century, which said that the soul entered the body at the time of animation or quickening. That was the fundamental reason that the European countries introduced this law making a distinction between abortion up to the 12th or 13th week of pregnancy and thereafter. It is very different from the Abortion Act 1967, but it is a fundamental change. Now, of course, the latest country to join in is the Republic of Ireland, so Northern Ireland stands out quite distinctly as having no abortion at all compared not just to the rest of the UK but to the rest of Europe.
The second thing that has changed since 1967 is the composition of the House of Commons. It is very difficult for us to remember that back in 1966-67, when we were debating this legislation, there were only a couple of dozen women MPs in the Commons. One of them was the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, who was in her place earlier today. She gave great support to the legislation, but there were only a couple of dozen women. Now there are a couple of hundred women, and that is why we have had this overwhelming vote in favour of changing the law in Northern Ireland. I pay tribute to the women MPs—Stella Creasy, Diana Johnson, Sarah Wollaston and Rupa Huq in particular—who have promoted this cause. It is a fundamental change since 1967.
The third change since 1967, perhaps the most significant, is the fact that in 1967 we were legislating on the only method of abortion, which was surgery. Now, of course, we have the two abortion pills and that has made fundamental difference to how abortion is treated. In Northern Ireland, because of the lack of law, we have had changes in the administration, first in Scotland and then in England and Wales, allowing women from Northern Ireland to come and use the NHS facilities on this side of the Irish Sea. More than 1,000 did so last year but, frankly, this is not satisfactory. We cannot expect every woman who requires or wants to consider an abortion to have the time and the money to travel across the Irish Sea to use facilities in Scotland or England and Wales, but 1,000 have done so. The fact that these pills are available on the internet but, as has been said, at some risk given the state of the law, has led to an appalling situation where people in Northern Ireland can buy the pills on the internet and run the risk of running counter to the law on abortion in Northern Ireland, which is the Offences against the Person Act 1861. That is why we are right to consider making this change now.
All the medical bodies support the change, including the Royal College of Obstetricians, the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Midwives. In recent weeks we have listened time and again to the fact that the people and politicians of Northern Ireland do not wish to see a statutory trade barrier down the middle of the Irish Sea, and they are surely right about that. However, what we have at the moment is a statutory social barrier down the middle of the Irish Sea, and that is why we are right to remove it.
My Lords, I have amendments in this group. I tabled a manuscript amendment, which I think, in light of the Minister’s comments, is probably not necessary. I did it because the sense from the Committee was that Northern Ireland should come into line with the rest of the UK and we should be dealing with a level playing field.
I did it also because the CEDAW recommendations go a little further than the current Abortion Act 1967, in which abortion is limited to up to 23 weeks and six days. After that, there is a requirement to report if an abortion has been undertaken for severe foetal abnormality, reported on the form HSA4, stating the grounds and the diagnosis, because that falls outside the remit of the current Act. I did it with the consultation listed, because I am aware that the medical workforce in Northern Ireland is already in a pretty critical state and anything that jeopardises doctors going into general practice and risks people not remaining in general practice further imperils the overall healthcare of the population there. I hope that people bear that in mind in terms of the time required for consultation.
I am grateful to the Minister and to the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, for having spent a lot of time discussing this with me. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, who is not in her place. There has been a lot of discussion about this. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, with whom I have also had discussions. It is a credit to all of them that we have been able to have very open discussions about these complex issues.
I had a conversation with the president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, who said that I may quote her today. She has been involved in education programmes to help doctors and midwives understand. She pointed out that they need time, but that attitudes change when people understand how to implement and put the needs of the woman first. She would like the CEDAW changes to come in, because she and her college are in favour of them. However, the House needs to be aware that those changes go further than the current Act, to which the noble Lord, Lord Steel, spoke so elegantly just now and on many occasions over the years.
My request is to allow a longer time period. I looked up the data from 2018 for the number of abortions beyond 24 weeks in England and Wales. There were 289, but none proceeded to any prosecutions, as far as I could ascertain, so those regulations seem to be working well. I am aware, from having looked at the legislation and from conversations with other noble Lords, of the need to consult under Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act, which the Minister has laid out so clearly. I hope that that may help to explain the background.
The other amendment that I have in this group is a simple requirement in line with the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill report from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, which recommends that both clauses in the Bill should be subject to the affirmative procedure and that the use of the made affirmative procedure would ensure that the procedure did not undermine the requirement for the regulations to be in force by
I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, will accept this amendment to her amendment, which puts in the affirmative procedure. With that, I leave the debate to the rest of the House.
My Lords, this is a strange Bill, and it seems to get stranger as we go along. Clause 9, we were told, was not workable. As the noble Lord, Lord Steel, said, the Government indicated repeatedly that they were going to bring amendments which would remedy the defects in Clause 9. What we have now, I am afraid, is equally lacking in clarity, although it contains more subsections.
I will say at the beginning that this is not a Bill in a situation of grave emergency. There are no human rights judgments that require action by the Government in the absence of the Northern Ireland Assembly—and even if there were, there would be no obligation on us to act. We do not always act in accordance with the Supreme Court. I do not know how many of your Lordships have sat and read the CEDAW recommendations in this report. They are interesting, in part, because proposed new subsection (2) states that we will repeal Sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act, but it does not seem to deal with all the consequences of that. I will come back to that later. I look forward to hearing why there is no government amendment that would really put it right.
I will ask the Minister some questions about proposed new subsection (1) in Clause 9. Recommendation 85 requires the repeal of the Offences Against the Person Act. They require some form of legislation to enable abortion, and a moratorium on the application of criminal laws concerning abortion. What does this mean? Does anybody know what it means? It is obviously separate from the Offences Against the Person Act. What is the difference, and to which criminal laws does it refer? I wonder whether it refers to the Criminal Justice Act 1945, of which noble Lords will be aware, which prevents infanticide. Will the Minister tell me exactly what we are doing as we legislate to give effect to recommendation 85(c) on this moratorium on the application of criminal law.
There are many other issues in recommendations 85 and 86 which we are adopting wholesale. I am not sure whether all noble Lords are familiar with them. Some of them are a bit odd. One says that there must be access to contraception freely. In Northern Ireland we have something which possibly does not apply to the rest of the United Kingdom. We have free prescriptions for everyone. No mother, no matter her personal circumstances, is precluded from getting free any contraception that she requires.
I do not want to hold back your Lordships too much. Proposed new subsection (2) seeks to abolish the Offences Against the Person Act. Have noble Lords considered what this means and what they will vote for? It means the removal of all restrictions—as I understand it—on any abortion for any reason at any time up to 28 weeks. The most recent medical information which I have been able to find tells me that babies born at about 22 weeks of gestation had a 50% survival rate in 2008. Medical science has advanced considerably since then, so that even smaller babies are surviving. Will we have a situation in Northern Ireland, even for a few months, where abortion on any grounds, in any place, for any reason, without any protections is available? I suggest that that is not safe and I will come to the reasons why later.
It is not the law here, where abortion is available only up to 24 weeks. We know that about 30 babies a year aborted in that situation are born alive—presumably because some doctor failed to make sure that it did not happen—and they are left to die. I am not sure that Northern Ireland wants that situation, even for a matter of months. What will the regulations that give effect to proposed new subsection (2) actually do? We do not know. They may be very much wider than the laws which apply here. Is this what your Lordships want? The laws which apply here are now regarded by many as unsatisfactory because of the advances in medical science and the care of children.
There is no limitation at all on the scope of the regulations in Amendment 12. Although we do not know what the regulations will do, or how they will do it, we know that for months there will be no requirement for abortions to be performed in a safe place, and no legal protection for the freedom of conscience of practitioners—a huge issue for them.
I will not articulate all the defects, but perhaps I will give one more. In the situation which will result from Amendment 12, Northern Ireland will become a rather more perilous place, particularly for pregnant young women whose husbands or families want them to have an abortion for whatever reason when they do not have the time, space or capacity to say no.
Parliament is currently considering domestic violence legislation. Abortion is one of the major issues in the world today. It is a major issue here in the United Kingdom. Article 39 of the Istanbul convention—the convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence—requires us to have a criminal provision to prevent forced abortion and to deal with it as a criminal offence. The Offences Against the Person Act is used in that connection. For example, a man who wanted his wife to abort the baby that she was carrying was convicted under that Act of putting abortion pills into her drink to ensure that she would abort.
I am trying to say that I accept that noble Lords are well intentioned, but there are huge gaps in Amendment 12, which are dangerous for women in some ways. We have had 16 hours to look at the amendment; it should have taken much longer and we should have allowed proper consideration of these matters, in the normal manner. Even if your Lordships are still minded to ignore the Sewel convention and all the other issues relating to devolution, legislating for lacunae, as Amendment 12 does, is possibly irresponsible.
Brett Lockhart QC is a leading member of the Bar in Northern Ireland. He said that the absence of regulations between October and January would be legally chaotic and would have significant implications for quality assurance, et cetera. Moreover, the extent to which the current guidelines would have any impact on the new legal situation remains entirely unclear. Can the Minister assure us that there will not be legal chaos in Northern Ireland for months—and possibly longer if things go badly wrong in the process of trying to get this together? I ask noble Lords not to rush into legislating in this way. It cannot be said to be fit for purpose.
My Lords, in speaking to the suite of amendments in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, and her co-signatories, I want to engage with two points. The first relates to due process and how we must understand these amendments in terms of the broader approach adopted by Westminster to the Bill. The second relates to the impact of the amendments themselves. In approaching the amendments, we must remember that the Bill has become distorted as a result of our dispensing with constitutional due process. That was seen in the dispensing of scope and the insertion into a Bill of matters that should have been the subject of Bills in their own right—a Bill that was subjected to fast-tracking and without regard to the recent vote of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The issue of scope is raised in the amendments but, to understand its significance, we need some context. It is noticeable that, in the other place, two amendments were laid that sought to change the law on abortion. Proposed new Clause 5 sought to create a new regulation-making power for the Minister with respect to changing abortion law in Northern Ireland. Proposed new Clause 10 required the Secretary of State to use powers already invested in her through Section 26 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to make regulations on abortion with special regard to our international obligations. The clerks ruled that both amendments were outside the scope of the Bill and should not be selected because they sought to change the law on abortion. The Speaker, however, caused great shock by dispensing with this advice and selecting proposed new Clause 10, although he did not select proposed new Clause 5. Although proposed new Clause 10 was not in scope, proposed new Clause 5 was more seriously out of scope in that it would have created a new, independent, free-standing regulation-making power with respect to abortion.
Proposed new Clause 10—now Clause 9—is actually more out of scope than it need be on account of its flawed drafting. Properly drafted, it should require the Secretary of State to make orders rather than regulations. Those orders could have been used to address problems that the Member for Walthamstow articulated when making her speech; for example, regarding prosecutions. Subject to the identification of suitable powers, orders could require a much more restrictive approach to prosecutions or police involvement and, on the same basis, the making of subordinate legislation to give colour and detail to such matters as information, detailing the circumstances in which the termination of a pregnancy can occur. Amending Clause 9 to bring it within the scope of the Bill would also have the benefit of giving the Bill more integrity because it would sit much better with the abortion requirements in Clause 3(8), which require that a review of abortion law in Northern Ireland be conducted and that proposals for changes in the law be considered. This is entirely incongruous with any attempt to read Clause 9 as introducing a radical change in the law.
On previous occasions, the Minister has said that this House has been given an instruction by the other place. It seems quite difficult to say that the instruction was clear. The clearest message from the other place in relation to abortion pertains to Clause 3, which was passed unanimously in the other place, whereas Members were divided on proposed new Clause 10. In this context, it would be more respectful of the Commons to tidy up its amendment by replacing “regulations by statutory instrument” with “orders” because, first, the democratically elected House has placed this matter within Section 26 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Secondly, tidying up the amendment would enable it to address difficulties, expressed by the Member for Walthamstow in moving it, with respect to matters like the role of the police. Thirdly, doing so would move us back towards the scope of the Bill. Fourthly, it makes sense to read the provision in this way if we are to respect the strongest abortion message from the House, which came in the form of unanimous support for the abortion provisions in Clause 3, which call not for significant changes in abortion law at this moment but for a consideration of the options.
In contrast, the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, break with scope in a much more radical way—more so than proposed new Clause 5, which was not selected in the other place. The idea that we could accept an amendment that seeks, through this Bill—whose purpose pertains to setting the date of an election—directly to repeal Sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act is extraordinary. It makes a complete mockery of any sense of constitutional due process or a rules-based approach to lawmaking. We must be deeply concerned about the precedents that would flow from this and the havoc that it would create with the way we make law. The amendments in the name of the noble Baroness would remove from criminal law all remaining protections for the unborn until 28 weeks’ gestation. This would permit abortion for absolutely any reason, including any kind of disability or gender, up to 28 weeks. It is curious that, in 2019, we should be presented with a proposal for abortion law reform based on a 50 year-old understanding of viability. Babies now survive at 22 weeks, as the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, said. The amendment would propel Northern Ireland from having the most restrictive abortion law in the UK to having the most liberal, not only in the UK but in the whole of Europe.
That a place whose democratically elected Assembly voted in 2016 by a clear majority not to change abortion law in any way—a vote which was right across the whole political spectrum—pending an inquiry into abortion in relation to fatal foetal abnormality, should have a regime imposed on it by parliamentarians from other parts of the UK where the abortion law would be more conservative, leaves me lost for words. It would result in women who were 27 weeks pregnant travelling from England to Northern Ireland to get abortions in our Province because the laws protecting the rights of the unborn in England would be stronger than those in Northern Ireland.
If we are interested in listening to the other place, this does not represent their intentions at all. When scenarios such as these were set out in another place, they were described by the honourable Member for Walthamstow as “myths to be dispelled”. If we are interested in fostering trust between the different parts of our union, this is not the way to go. I earnestly implore noble Lords who believe in respecting constitutional due process to reject these amendments.
I remember, and the noble Lord, Lord Empey, may remember as well, that many years ago, on Belfast City Council, when it was proposed that the Brook clinic be able to establish itself to give advice to young women on a range of issues, including where they might have to go for abortions, my own party was supportive of the clinic. Then two older, rather socially conservative unionist councillors stood up. I imagined that I knew what they were going to say. One of them was Alderman Tommy Patton, and the other was Councillor Frank Millar. Both were solid, working-class men with impeccable loyalist credentials. Both of them said the same thing. They said, “I have come back too many early mornings from the shipyard and from my work and seen young girls bleeding in back alleys. If the Brook clinic coming to Belfast makes sure that never happens again, I am voting for it”.
The situation has changed a great deal in many ways, but not in every way, and we are dealing with one of the ways it has not changed—the legislation on abortion. The mood on abortion, however, has changed dramatically in Northern Ireland, even since the 2016 vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Not only has the Supreme Court declared that the United Kingdom is in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights because of the position of Northern Ireland on abortion, but political party views have also changed.
It is true that the Democratic Unionist Party still takes the same position—indeed, a position upon which it imposes a party whip, which it is entitled to do. The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, will know that, as a former chief whip of the party. The position of Sinn Féin, however, has changed quite strikingly, because when there was a referendum in the Republic of Ireland it changed the position. It said, “No, we are going to impose a whip on our party members to say that, whatever their conscience—and they are entirely entitled to have it—as public representatives they should vote for a change”. What Sinn Féin wants, of course, is a change to harmonise the law in the north with the law in the rest of the island.
It is also the case that the position of the SDLP—the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, will know this because her husband was a representative of the SDLP—has changed in that, while the party maintains the same position as party policy, it has opened the door for members who are elected representatives to speak to their own conscience on the question. The leader and the deputy leader and other significant colleagues have decided that in all conscience they can no longer support the party’s position on this issue.
The Ulster Unionist Party has also allowed it to be a question of conscience, and the Alliance Party always has, although the overwhelming majority of members and elected members vote for abortion in reasonable circumstances when the opportunity arises.
The situation has changed in Northern Ireland. As I said on same-sex marriage, I do not believe that most people, including in the nationalist community, will look on legislation here as being an imposition from this side of the water. Many will look on it as a harmonisation of legislation between north and south. That is why I ask the Minister, when he speaks about consultation, to ensure that the consultation does not look just at how far there is harmonisation with legislation on this side of the water but at how far there is harmonisation with legislation in the Republic of Ireland. This is not an idle question, because one thing that has not been mentioned when there has been talk about young women having to come to this side of the water for abortions is that the Health Minister in the Republic of Ireland, when the referendum was held and the legislation was changed there, said that they were prepared to welcome young women who needed to have abortions to come across the border.
Those who live here have no idea what an extraordinary change of position that was. The idea that young women in the north might be going south for abortions is almost incomprehensible to those of us who grew up in Northern Ireland. It just shows how hugely the situation has changed. We need to facilitate that change of attitudes. It is not a question of people being forced to have abortions. It is the opportunity to do so when it is needed. It is usually a very painful business emotionally. It does not do for us to make it any more painful or difficult. That is why I support the amendment but ask the Minister to ensure that in the consultation it is not just a question of harmonisation within the UK but harmonisation within these islands.
I do not question that things have changed a great deal, but I do say to my noble friend on the Front Bench that the Commons do not send us instructions and our function is not to concur with them. They send us proposals for legislation, and they seek and consider our views on them, and our views are important. There is a momentum behind this proposal. It is driven by enthusiasm. It has an enormous backing in the House of Commons. But we still have a duty to see that it is fit for purpose.
What worries me, and should worry your Lordships, are all the things that the noble Baroness has just referred to as to how in some ways it will make things worse. It will allow children to be born who will then have to be left to die. I mention the most emotive of these, but there are many. It seems to me that we should not simply give in to a pressure to get things done quickly and do them wrong; we should do them perfectly. In my view, your Lordships should consider very carefully whether we should not adhere to our function and our traditions and take the time to ask the other place to consider whether in fact what has been shown to be wrong can be put right.
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, said, some parties have whips on the issue of abortion; some parties take it as a matter of conscience. I support the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, in many of the things that she has said.
The Minister said earlier that there appear to be many experts on Northern Ireland. I am not going to pretend to suddenly have become an expert on Northern Ireland. I want to touch on two things. One is my surprise that a Bill that was supposed to be about Northern Ireland’s Executive formation appears to have become a Bill that goes far wider—as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said in introducing his amendments earlier—to matters of life and death. Clearly, Amendment 12 comes into that category.
On Monday the Minister told us that there was an instruction from the House of Commons. Like the noble Lord, Lord Elton, I was surprised to hear about this instruction. Given that we have a very clear indication from the Commons that they wish the issue of abortion to be brought into this Bill, and there clearly appears to be a view across the Chamber that any consultation should be on how, not whether, I have a set of concerns that I would like the Minister to address, many of which have been touched on.
The Minister said that the consultation will be completed by
The amendment raises many questions. It would appear that it could allow abortion up to 28 weeks. While 22 weeks is perhaps the lower end of viability—the Minister is shaking his head again but if he can give an indication of what will be proposed it would be helpful. Is it expected that the laws will replicate in their entirety those in Great Britain? Will there be provisions on freedom of conscience? What scrutiny will there be? In line with what the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, said, will there be an affirmative vote?
My Lords, I know that this debate is going on somewhat—I notice some faces that are dismayed that it is doing so—but I had an appointment tomorrow morning with a consultant in the Royal Victoria Hospital which I had to put off to be here for this debate tonight. Therefore, I do not think it is an inconvenience for people to deal with such an important issue as the life or the death of a child or to spend time debating it properly.
We must bear in mind that this Bill is being rushed through the House, as it was in the other place, and that there seem to be a number of experts in the wings who know what people in Northern Ireland think. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, told us how things have greatly changed. Yes, they have changed because the noble Lord has left Northern Ireland and come across the pond.
I am making no comment whatever. I had a long personal relationship with the noble Lord in the Northern Ireland Assembly—we spent many happy occasions together—and I am not making any personal aspersions on him. I am stating a fact.
Many noble Lords’ authority for much of what they have said is that the Northern Ireland Assembly voted for same-sex marriage and that a petition of concern was used against it, and that is the reason it was stopped. But it is amazing that they are not using that argument now. They are not appealing about what the Northern Ireland Assembly did in its last vote two years ago because it does not suit their argument. The Northern Ireland Assembly took a stance and, by a large majority, voted not to change the legislation. I wait for the Front Benches of both parties to say, “Let us listen to the Members of the Assembly. They made a decision and we have, as it were, a democratic authority to take this forward”.
The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, mentioned my party’s policy and its members being whipped to vote for it. Without apology, let me explain why. It was because we put it in our manifesto. We put it before the people and they voted for us. I know it is strange for a party to actually stand by its manifesto—today it seems you say one thing to get elected and then do the opposite when you get elected—but I will not apologise, nor will my colleagues or my party, to anyone in this House for standing by the promise we made to the electorate and asking them, on the basis of it, to vote for us—and they did. They made us the largest party in the Assembly. I will take no lectures from someone who says, “We dismiss the DUP because they whipped their members to vote for it”.
“consult individually with members of the Northern Ireland Assembly on the proposals of the regulations”— ask them if they have changed their mind? This is being rushed through before they have the opportunity to say, “We have not changed our minds”. The majority of the elected Assembly are still standing by what they believed before. If this House believes they have changed their minds, it should support the amendment which allows them to be asked rather than make the decision before they are asked.
The 59th report of Session 2017-19 of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee on the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill is important. It states:
“Given the very wide-ranging nature of the powers, including the power to amend primary legislation, and the politically sensitive nature of the provisions, we firmly believe that the negative procedure does not offer an appropriate level of Parliamentary scrutiny and that the affirmative procedure should apply instead”.
“Neither clause”— that is on same-sex marriage or abortion—
“requires the Secretary of State to consult bodies and interests in Northern Ireland before making the regulations … However, we accept that imposing such a duty would be incompatible with the timescale for making the regulations”.
It then makes the recommendation:
“We recommend that both clauses should be subject to the affirmative and not the negative procedure”.
It then states:
That was not written by me or any of my noble colleagues but by the distinguished members of that committee. I ask Members of this House: do we dismiss them too?
The issues we have been discussing today have tremendous moral implications for our nation, especially in Northern Ireland. I am sad that, at a time when we need spiritual leadership, there is a Bench that is completely empty and its members are not present to give us that spiritual leadership on issues which have major moral implications for the people of the United Kingdom.
I trust I am not reading too much into it but, when the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, sat down, I noticed that the Minister was immediately able to read off detailed scripts to answer all the points that she raised in the debate. It is interesting that all the answers were immediately given rather than the Minister waiting for help at the end of the debate. It makes one believe that much of what we are going through has been carefully choreographed and all we are being allowed to do is to go through the motions of being able to speak. However, I am happy to have the opportunity to speak for the unborn child and to say that they have a right to live, and not to be told that they should die.
My Lords, I had not intended to speak but I would like to ask about two matters in the light of what the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, has said. Yesterday was my first sitting on the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, on to which your Lordships have kindly placed me. The noble Lord is right: the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and others mentioned the determination of our committee in not looking at the policy or the moral issues of the two clauses before your Lordships’ House but looking at the technicality of whether this is good legislation, and whether it is properly drafted and is not going to cause problems with existing legislation as we go forward.
On the question of the need for an affirmative rather than a negative resolution, as a member of that committee, and as that is our report’s main recommendation, I would be grateful if my noble friend the Minister would confirm what his view is of the committee’s report with regard to the need for an affirmative resolution. Perhaps he could also give some indication, in the light of that and his previous remarks about the legislation as drafted in another place, of whether he is minded to introduce government amendments in line with the recommendations of the committee, if only to correct what he himself has identified as flawed legislation.
That is a purely, if you like, techy contribution to this debate, because it seems to me, after 27 years in this building, in both Houses, that good legislation is our job—that is what we are required to do—and if we do not do it properly, there are consequences. It is not unknown for courts to ask, “What was the intention of Parliament at the time?”. There is nothing worse for a court case than not to be absolutely clear what Parliament intended when we legislated. That is what we are sent here to do, so we have to get it as technically good and as legally correct as we possibly can.
My second point to my noble friend the Minister is a more personal one. I am not against abortion, although I would certainly like to see the upper limit for abortion come down. I agree—I have seen 22 week-old infants in prem baby units survive, and it is time for an adjustment there. However, that is not the matter of this debate. I have heard one or two contributions tonight which I am not absolutely clear about, on this matter of 28 weeks in Northern Ireland. Can my noble friend confirm whether, if this goes through, it will be compatible with the rest of the country or whether in fact there will be some differential in Northern Ireland? The thought of 28 weeks fills me with horror.
My Lords, this is a conscience issue and a sensitive one and, certainly on these Benches, it is a matter for a free vote. Nevertheless, we are also faced with the fact, as the noble Baroness just said, this is not necessarily the ideal way to legislate on this issue. But we are not in an ideal situation: we have no Assembly, we have growing pressures for change, and we have the view of the House of Commons, which wants change. Therefore, effectively, these amendments are trying at least to move forward to implement the will to address the issue.
When one looks at the statistics of 12 abortions being allowed in Northern Ireland and more than 1,000 women travelling out, it is patently clear that there is an imbalance that needs to be considered, at the very least. It is not just the conscience issue; we are facing the basis of a probable human rights issue. We have had the guidance of our own Supreme Court that we could be in breach of the European convention, and there is a case that we are awaiting a judgment on, which might confirm that fact. As I have said on a number of occasions, if that is the case, the United Kingdom Government and Parliament will be obliged to ensure that we comply with the European Convention on Human Rights. It would of course be much better if it were done in a way that is managed by the elected representatives in Northern Ireland—that would be the preferred way to do it.
Finally, on the idea that those Members should be consulted individually, it seems that the best way to consult the Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly is for them to convene the Assembly and consult themselves. If that was the case, we would not have to continue with these amendments at all.
My Lords, the noble Lord ends on a note I would have started on. I think all noble Lords would far rather these decisions were taken in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Many of us, over many years, have supported devolution and campaigned for it, and some of us have been direct rule Ministers working towards establishing the institutions. The noble Lord strayed into another debate later when he talks about Amendment 16, which is not in this group. On that issue, the best way to consult Members of the Legislative Assembly is for them to sit and conduct their business so that they can take these decisions.
I shall pick up a couple of points from the debate. One was the issue of these amendments not being in scope. I have to say that my experience of the Table Office and the clerks of your Lordships’ House is that they are sometimes infuriatingly proper. I can think of many a discussion that my team and I have had where we insisted that something was in scope, but there was no way the clerks would shift if they said it was out of scope. I therefore urge your Lordships’ House to recognise that if we have an amendment before us, it is because it is in scope.
I always thought that the scope of the Bill was articulated in its Long Title, which in this case does not refer to abortion. Therefore, I do not quite understand why there is such a rejection of the question of whether these are proper matters for the Bill.
I refer the noble Baroness to the Companion and the Standing Orders of the House: if an amendment is accepted by the clerks, it can only be accepted if it is in scope of the Bill.
I will try again to reassure the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, who sounded quite suspicious of the Minister. Drawing on my experience as a Minister, if I was responding to a debate, whether in Committee or on the Floor of the House, if I was going to be asked questions, I would always ask those who had them, “Can you let me know them before?” If you are to have an informed debate and make an informed decision at the end of it, you need to be able to answer those questions. That is something I do regularly for Ministers to this day when I speak at this Dispatch Box. If there are questions I want answers to, I do not want the Minister at the end of the debate not to have had time to find them—I want them during the debate. It was courteous of the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, to let the Minister know what those questions were so that he was able to inform today’s debate and let us know the answers. It is good practice and helpful to your Lordships’ House to have that made available to us.
On the matter itself, we have had a long debate about whether abortion is appropriate and whether people support or oppose it, and so on. That is not what is before us today. The House of Commons, on a free vote, as it is in your Lordships’ House, voted by 332 to 99 on an amendment to say that there should be safe and legal abortions for women in Northern Ireland, as there are in the rest of the United Kingdom. There is an obligation on Parliament to act, under international and domestic law, to assure such access to free, safe and legal abortions.
If we rejected this today, it would not cut the number of abortions at all. At the moment, as a result of the laws in Northern Ireland at present, we see over 1,000 women and girls from Northern Ireland travelling to England and Wales—and now, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, to the Republic of Ireland. However, we also find—this is one thing that worries me enormously, particularly as technology moves on—that women risk their life and liberty by illegally buying abortion pills online, which they then take without any medical expertise or support, and they will often delay seeking care if there are any complications. In doing so, they risk their life and their liberty—they could go to prison. Today the Minister is trying to give effect to what was agreed in the House of Commons.
I will say something about the Minister’s comments in his reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Barker. His explanation of and reassurance on regulations was welcome. There have been concerns about this issue, and he dealt with it with enormous sensitivity. He will understand that some were sceptical about the reasons for having a longer timescale—the point my noble friend Lord Dubs made—than for same-sex marriage. I think he was clear, but can he reiterate any of the points on why that is the case?
We know that there are strong opinions on this and that this is a matter of conscience for everybody. Everybody in this House should respect that it is a matter of conscience for everybody, and we all have to abide by our conscience.
I listened carefully to the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, and there is some distance between us; we do not agree. As I pointed out, this is a matter of conscience and we should all respect other people’s views. We have to do what we believe in our own conscience to be right.
My Lords, I have a large number of pieces of paper. If you will forgive me, I will just assemble them into an order I can make sense of.
As it was at earlier stages, this has been an emotive and thought-provoking discussion. I spoke earlier to, I hope, help the debate to be informed. On choreography, I always welcome people giving me the questions beforehand, because it helps me work out the answers. It really is as simple as that; it is not collusion in any sense. It may well have been that I gave the noble Baroness answers she did not like, but the point was that I knew at the outset what the questions would be.
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, began his contribution by asking why the length of consultation could not be the same for abortion as for same-sex marriage. There is a relatively simple explanation for that. On same-sex marriage, we have established precedent in England and Wales, and in Scotland, that can be built on in a straightforward manner. What we seek to do in Northern Ireland is quite different; there is no roll-across regime we can borrow from. As a consequence, the new elements of that will require a fuller consultation. We cannot equate the two consultations, because they seek to consult on quite distinct and different elements.
I welcome the thought-provoking contribution today from the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. She raised the issue of conscience. I know that a number of Peers have been concerned about the conscience element. As I did during previous discussions, I stress again that the conscience element must be at the heart of this. We cannot compel any practitioner to act beyond their own conscience. We must make sure that that is understood in the guidance that will be issued thereafter to all those involved in this process; that is absolutely critical.
The noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, raised a number of issues. If she will allow me, I will do my best to do justice to them. The first, which I think I touched on the last time we discussed this, was the Sewel convention. The important thing to recognise is that under normal circumstances we shall use the Sewel convention, but I do not think there is any doubt that we are not in normal circumstances. The Sewel convention in this instance will not apply.
The question that I suspect my noble friend Lord Elton, the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, and others will raise is that of what happens during that limbo period when we move away from where we are now but before we have brought into play the functioning abortion regime. It is important to stress that, although we are looking at the 1861 Act and the elements we shall remove from it, during this limbo period the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945 will still apply. Section 25 will still apply; this makes it a criminal offence to destroy any life of a child capable of being born. That will apply during that limbo period, until we have got to the stage where we have the newly functioning regime.
There seems to be some discussion on this, but I have the answer to that as well. There is some debate on the exact number of weeks at which a foetus will be viable, but it is around 22 to 24 weeks. The important thing to stress here is that we are not repealing that Act, and there will be no period during which there will be any sense of an opportunity or free-for-all for that aspect to be in play. It is important to recognise that. We cannot have that misunderstood as we move through.
In response to the noble Lord, I am a scientist. On occasion I will use scientific words, and on this occasion I just did. That was snippy. I am sorry; that was not my intention. Forgive me for that, but frustrations can come out in debates such as this.
As we look at these matters, it is important to try as best we can to be as sensitive as we can. I fully understand the point raised by the noble Lord. There will be a range of views across this House on these matters. It is right that we understand and respect those. As we move this matter forward, we seek to give effect to the legislation as it progressed from the other place. The important part that I need to stress—it is important for me to do so and be understood—is that the date within the Barker et al amendment, as currently drafted, would cause the Government some difficulty, because we would be unable to deliver the very consultation we have discussed within that timeframe.
I am sorry; I must be missing something here. Can my noble friend just explain to me why it is that if this amendment proceeds the timescale for the foetus is not the same as in the legislation in the 1967 Act? Foetal viability—whether it survives—is gauged only after the foetus is born and becomes a child. What does 22 to 28 weeks refer to? I have not been able to find it in any of the words on any of the papers available tonight.
It is important to recognise here that we are not discussing the 1967 Act at all, I am afraid. That will not be moved across in any way. Right now, we are looking at a new regime that will be constructed in Northern Ireland. In answer to the earlier question from the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, about why the consultation period is longer, were we moving across the 1967 regime we would, in truth, be able to do this a little more swiftly. We would be doing so on the basis of established precedent and rules that exist within the current scheme. However, we are not doing that. The instruction we received from the other place was quite clear.
There is this question about why there are no government amendments to move forward on this matter. The simple answer to that is that, at present, we have received an instruction from the other place—
Let me answer my noble friend Lord Elton. If we are not able to move it forward, it will not be just an instruction—he is quite right—but the law. That is different, because it will be the law that will move forward, and we as a Government will struggle with that deliver what we need, which is a safe and secure system that places women at its heart. We will not be able to do so in the time limit we have set out, and that is the reason we have a problem. My noble friend Lord Elton, is absolutely right: we are not talking about an instruction. This is a law that will come into force, which we will have some difficulty trying to maintain and will potentially allow itself to be opened up to further judicial interrogation and review. Ultimately, this will do a disservice to honourable Member in the other place who has tried to move this forward in the manner in which he has.
This is a minor point, in some ways, but it is fundamental. Nothing can be law unless both Houses agree to it, so while this is not agreed by both Houses and assented to by the monarch, it is a law in the making. I am concerned about the process here, as I referred to in an earlier debate. It is not desirable. In the light of that, in a fast-track process we must have clarity. This has been asked by various Members in this House: what is the guarantee that there will not be a case in Northern Ireland where a child—or foetus, if the Minister likes—is aborted after more than 24 weeks in the period after the passage of this law? What is the guarantee? What is the safeguard in law? What is the case law on the subject? Perhaps my noble friend the Minister will able to advise the House before Third Reading.
The challenge that my noble friend sets me is a difficult one. I cannot give a guarantee in that regard because I am not in a position to control the situation in Northern Ireland nor the medical profession. It is beyond my ability to do so. What I have said is that before we have been able to bring in the necessary elements of the new regime, there will be a period during which we will be bound by the established earlier Act from the 1940s which will give the confidence that we are not seeking to undermine in any sense the practice that has gone on there. But we have to recognise that during that limbo period, health practitioners, doctors and others will not be in receipt of guidance from us because we will not be in a position to draft that guidance by that point and that will be the reality that we will face. It is not one, unfortunately, that I can answer or offer or afford any guarantees on.
It might be helpful to the Minister to be aware that, in the Assembly of 2007 to 2011, the then Health Minister redid the guidance to give clarity to the profession. It proved not satisfactory to the profession at that time and work commenced on doing it again, but the mandate ran out before it was done. Perhaps it might be helpful if the Minister asked the officials to look that up because there is uncertainty and that is very disturbing. The guidance was the problem in the past. It is not that the Assembly never looked at the abortion issue because it did, but it did not succeed in getting agreement that was acceptable to the professions.
As someone who had to work with the guidance before the legislation came through— and this is for reassurance to colleagues—I know that the problem was that the medical profession had to work without guidance for a long time. What happened was that the guidance was introduced partly to satisfy—
I heard the noble Lord, if that helps, so I understand the point that was about to be made. I welcome that and appreciate it, as indeed I appreciate the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Empey. There is no doubt that, as the consultation process unfolds, these elements will be drawn on. We cannot simply ignore them.
It is important to ensure that the regime that we bring in to Northern Ireland is human rights-compliant—that is absolutely at the heart of this—and that within those human rights remain elements of conscience and freedom of expression which we also spoke of earlier when we spoke about same-sex marriage. The amendment would also see the repeal of Sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, together with putting in place a moratorium against current and future investigations and prosecutions, which will decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland, allowing terminations to take place where they fall within the framework of other existing protections and laws.
As this change will come in before the details of the new medical regulatory regime are finalised and that scheme is introduced, to mitigate the risk of abortions being carried out in circumstances that would fall outside the prospective regulatory scheme, we will ensure that appropriate measures are put in place, such as guidance issued by relevant Northern Ireland bodies, to provide legal clarity for the people affected and for the medical profession. Therefore, in answer to my noble friend Lord True’s point, our ambition is for this process to be recognised—and it will be a significant change—but to allow each step to take place in a carefully considered legal manner.
In putting in place the new regulations, it is only right that a period of consultation is taken forward, not on the question of whether this should be done but focusing on how it will be done and to seek views on the proposals for how best the recommendations of CEDAW can be implemented in Northern Ireland. That is our purpose. We appreciate that there is existing evidence supporting this type of case for reform, which we have spoken about before, such as legal judgments, domestic inquiries and international reports. We recognise those and have heard that case.
We will need to think very carefully about how we implement the CEDAW recommendations generally, including how we meet the recommendation to provide an exception in cases of rape and incest, which will require very careful consideration of the sensitive and distressing nature of these circumstances.
We will also consider all the necessary other amendments which may be required as part of the introduction of the new abortion regime. We will carefully consider the impact of Section 5 of the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967, including whether any amendments are required as part of the changes made elsewhere in legislation. The Government will work expeditiously between now and
I was asked a question about abortions at 24 weeks. We can guarantee that no abortions will be carried out over 24 weeks. In this limbo period, it would be an offence under the 1945 Act as these would indeed be deemed to be viable, and would be children. I say that in response to the noble Lord, Lord McCrea. After the new regime, we would not introduce legislation that allowed later abortions than are taken in England or Wales. We would seek harmony.
Not as I understand it, no. It would not. If I am incorrect, I will happily correct the record.
I will attempt to be helpful. I think the focus on the 28 weeks comes from the Infant Life (Preservation) Act, which gave the number of weeks as that when we had the debates on the Act from the noble Lord, Lord Steel. As I understand from the Minister, the 1945 Act—which I am not familiar with—talks about viability and his solution to that problem was guidance that viability would have occurred by 24 weeks.
I thank the noble Baroness. That is very useful indeed. I ask my officials in the Box to remember that.
In drawing these remarks to a close, I am also conscious of the remarks about the affirmative procedure. I would be minded to accept that if things came forward in a fashion that would allow me to do so. As we are potentially at an impasse, I turn my attention directly to the noble Baroness, Lady Barker. We can discuss the date of the amendment before Third Reading in the hope that we can find that common ground. Returning to the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, I say that we may also be able to consider that as part of a common approach on the affirmative procedure.
I appreciate that this has not been an easy debate. I am fully aware—as a number of noble Lords have said—that this matter appears not to come under the title of the Bill. However, I return to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that these procedures have been deemed to be in scope. Indeed, I will go further and say that criticism of the other place in this regard is deemed to be out of order in this House.
The noble Baroness wants a piece of paper that has now become buried in the strata on my desktop. It is important that we now recognise the reality of the time we have. The holiday period primarily limits our ability to begin any serious consultation. We will have to design it carefully. We anticipate being able to initiate such a consultation in the early autumn. In an ideal world, we could see it being 12 weeks but we may be able to pull it forward to eight. We have to recognise thereafter that simply doing a consultation is not enough: we have to consider its elements. We are not able to deliver the outcome of that by the October date.
Oh, I have the piece of paper with the questions that the noble Baroness asked—forgive me. I think I will be able to answer the affirmative vote question, which we can take forward at Third Reading, if that is possible. The question of freedom of conscience rests within our human rights commitments, to which we remain committed. The guidance must be very clear that no doctor, health practitioner, nurse or anyone else will be compelled to act beyond their conscience or beyond their tolerance in that regard. She asked about events. I have no idea what is going to happen, but we must plan in a smooth and careful manner. I am not looking forward to any serious election issues; I hope that does not happen.
That touches on the answers to the questions, I think. On that basis, I look across the divide to the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, in the hope that she is willing to consider it.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords—particularly the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan—for their contributions. It is extremely important that we have discussed these matters in the fashion that we have. At this late hour, I do not intend to say anything in great detail. I thank the Minister for the very thorough way in which he has addressed questions from all sides of the House. He has managed to put to rest a number of fears.
There are just three matters on which I need to respond. The first concerns Amendment 19A in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. In the light of comments—not least those of my noble friend Lord Steel—I hope that she will understand why it would be inadvisable to go ahead with her amendment, and I hope that she will not press it.
The second and key point, made by a number of noble Lords, was whether there would be an interregnum in which there would be no regulation whatever on abortion in the Province. The answer to that is quite clear: there will not be. Notwithstanding what the Minister has said about what the Government intend, there are the professional ethics of bodies such as the RCOG, the RCGP and the Royal College of Midwives. Those bodies have backed this amendment but they have professional standards to which they must adhere. There is also general guidance in general medical law which would be unaffected by any of this.
Thirdly, I say to the noble Lords who pointed out the anomalies between different Acts of Parliament in relation to 24 or 28 weeks that that makes the case for updating the law, and this is an occasion on which we could do so. I take the Minister’s point about his problem with the deadline in my amendment, and I hope that we might be able to discuss that between this stage and the next.
This is an important matter and we have had an important debate. I therefore wish to test the opinion of the House.
Ayes 182, Noes 37.
My Lords, because Amendment 12 is agreed, I cannot call Amendments 13 or 14 for reasons of pre-emption.
Amendments 13 to 14A not moved.