Amendment 12

Part of Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill - Report – in the House of Lords at 7:30 pm on 17th July 2019.

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Photo of Baroness O'Loan Baroness O'Loan Crossbench 7:30 pm, 17th July 2019

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.