Amendment 12

Part of Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill - Report – in the House of Lords at 8:15 pm on 17th July 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 8:15 pm, 17th July 2019

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.