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.