Amendment 12

Part of Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill - Report – in the House of Lords at 8:30 pm on 17th July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland 8:30 pm, 17th July 2019

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 21 October 2019 to ensure that all possible necessary steps are taken, but I return to the fact that I am still struggling with the ultimate deadline in the amendment. It is also important to stress at this point that our ambition is to try to realise this in a safe and secure manner for the women of Northern Ireland. That is the guiding point of this.

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.