Amendment 12

Part of Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill - Report – in the House of Lords at 6:45 pm on 17th July 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Barker Baroness Barker Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Voluntary Sector) 6:45 pm, 17th July 2019

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.