Amendment 16

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill - Report – in the House of Lords at 9:00 pm on 17th July 2019.

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Baroness O'Loan:

Moved by Baroness O'Loan

16: After Clause 9, insert the following new Clause—“Requirement for majority of MLAs to support regulations(1) Before a statutory instrument can be laid in each House of Parliament under section 9 of this Act, the conditions in subsections (2) and (3) must be met.(2) The first condition is that the Secretary of State must—(a) consult individually with members of the Northern Ireland Assembly on the proposals of the regulations; and(b) lay a report before each House of Parliament on the outcome of the consultation held under this section, including the number of members of the Northern Ireland Assembly in favour of and against the regulations.(3) The second condition is that the relevant regulations under section 9 may only be laid before Parliament if a majority of the members of the Northern Ireland Assembly support the regulations as stated in the report laid before Parliament under subsection (2)(b).”

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My Lords, in moving Amendment 16 I shall speak also to Amendment 16A. Amendment 16 is in my name and those of the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay; Amendment 16A is in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Morrow. In speaking, despite the result of the last vote, I make it plain that I intend to divide on these amendments.

Our amendments have a simple intention: to address the very real democratic deficit that underpins the Bill. As we all acknowledge, there has been no consultation with the people of Northern Ireland about this Bill. They have not had a say. While I accept that the Bill as originally drafted was necessary, it seems that the way it has been fast-tracked has had the unfortunate and destabilising effect of enhancing the democratic deficit which is so obvious when one reads the Bill, dealing as it does, in many cases, with transferred matters.

The uncertainty about all this is somewhat demonstrated by the vote we have just had. The reality is that we still have an Infant Life (Preservation) Act. It is not repealed by this Bill. Therefore, the period of 28 weeks to which the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, referred is the period in that Act, and the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945 makes that the offence. That is why the period will be up to 28 weeks, not 24 weeks. I accept that the Minister was unaware of this, but that is the situation. There is an awful lot of uncertainty around this Bill, as I said in my previous speech.

In normal circumstances, we would have had a minimum of 31 days to consider this Bill. We have had seven days since Second Reading and we received the final marshalled amendments today—I think I got the last one at 12.44 pm. I do not know how your Lordships feel, but I think it is very difficult to grasp the implications of the various amendments to this now very complex Bill. That is demonstrated by our last exchanges.

In my previous amendment, I focused on the provisions in this Bill that have the scope to change the law on abortion and same-sex marriage. I listened to your Lordships and decided to narrow my focus to abortion, for the simple reason that the Northern Ireland Assembly debated same-sex marriage and voted on it by a majority, and it was then blocked by a petition of concern. Given that the matter was effectively passed by the Assembly, I felt it was unnecessary to include same-sex marriage in this amendment.

However, it continues to be my view that abortion is a transferred matter which, having been rejected by a significant majority of the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2016, really should not have been dealt with in this very rushed manner. It does, after all, go against the advice of last week’s report from the Constitution Committee, which said:

“We reiterate our concern about the routine nature of fast-tracking legislation relating to Northern Ireland. It is constitutionally unacceptable save for exceptional and urgent circumstances”.

The letter to the Prime Minister, which I drafted with the noble Lord, Lord Eames, has attracted a remarkable response from right across what is sometimes described as “our divided community” that has been extraordinary to see. More than 19,000 people have now signed the letter to the Prime Minister. That would be the equivalent in England, Scotland and Wales of half a million people responding over the weekend, which I do not think has ever happened. We are asking the Prime Minister to withdraw the Bill—because of the uncertainties demonstrated in your Lordships’ House and to which I have referred, and because it is such significant law—or, at this very late hour, to support Amendments 16 and 16A.

In proposing new Clause 10 in another place, on abortion, which became Clause 9 in our Bill, I am conscious that the honourable Member for Walthamstow spoke of the importance of devolution. She said:

“New clause 10 is carefully crafted to respect the fact that, at the moment, we do not have an Assembly. If there were an Assembly, it could step in and deal with the criticisms that have been levelled at us”.—[Official Report, Commons, 9/7/19; col. 182.]

Although the Assembly is suspended, and we do not have an Executive, we still have 90 Assembly Members. Without in any way changing the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, our new amendment provides a means whereby it can be given effect in a way that better demonstrates respect for devolution, which, as the honourable Member for Walthamstow says, is important. It also demonstrates respect in this House for the constitutional integrity of Northern Ireland.

This is democracy. I believe passionately, as do 19,000 others—and the number is growing all the time —that if Northern Ireland is to be treated with respect on this important devolved matter, MLAs must be given a say. If noble Lords turn their back today on the 90 MLAs, and deny them this rule, they will effectively be saying, “Let’s go back to direct rule”. As someone who lives in Northern Ireland, let me tell the House that the people have no wish to go back to direct rule.

The Minister talked about consultation, initially in terms of Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act, the equality consultation requirement. That is a statutory requirement. The Government have no option; there has to be a Section 75 consultation. All the policies and everything else will have to be Section 75-proofed. The Minister indicated a much wider consultation.

I have so many questions about this Bill that we need to consult about. It is not just about what your Lordships are proposing. Amendment 12—now new Clause 9, I guess—is completely lacking in detail. I do not know what abortion law will look like when your Lordships are finished with it. I do not know whether it will be like Irish law, which is drafted, so the Government of Ireland have said, to limit abortions in most cases to 12 weeks, or whether it will be like your Lordships’ legislation, the Abortion Act, which allows abortion up to 24 weeks, and allows the abortion of people with a disability right up to birth. I do not know what your Lordships are proposing to impose on the people of Northern Ireland. That is a very important deficit in what is being put before the House today, and the product of a very rushed process.

We have MLAs and we trust and vote for them; it is imperative that the Bill is the subject of some negotiation with them. I think the House knows, having listened to this debate, that far too many questions—what the time limits could be, how that could work, what the impact of doing this or that would be, how the royal colleges will respond and how we would provide—remain unanswered. This is not, in my experience, how your Lordships normally make legislation—in a way that precludes proper consultation. There are fundamental principles of constitutional law at play here.

I want to take your Lordships to two homes just very briefly. In the first are a couple who are very happy and expecting their first child. They are told that the child has Down’s syndrome and they are counselled to have an abortion. They have that abortion, grieving desperately that they must have it, but do not feel they could manage a child with Down’s syndrome. Having had the abortion, they are then told that the child did not have Down’s syndrome. It happens. The second home is that of a friend of mine who was told that their baby had anencephaly. Again, abortion was counselled. They did not have that abortion. They decided they wanted to bring their baby into the world, say hello to it and keep it safe for as long as possible. When their baby was born, it did not have an anencephaly. The science—and the way the Abortion Act happens in England and Wales—is not perfect, and we need to think very carefully about what we are doing and why we are doing it.

Most of your Lordships come from England, Wales and Scotland. There are a few of us from Northern Ireland, but we are very few in your Lordships’ House. Your Lordships live in jurisdictions with more conservative laws than would be suggested by the recommendations in paragraphs 85 and 86 of the CEDAW conventions, so I looked at what your Lordships and Parliament have done in the past. What are the moments now regarded with profound embarrassment? One, I found, is the imposition of the poll tax on Scotland before the rest of the UK, even though everyone knew that opposition to the poll tax in Scotland was particularly strong. Possibly the best example was when parliamentarians from the rest of the UK imposed a Bill on Wales, against the opposition of practically every Welsh Member of Parliament—just as was the case in the House of Commons last week—and quickly created the Tryweryn dam in the early 1960s to provide water for Liverpool. Both instances became driving forces for nationalism—think about that in the context of Northern Ireland—and are now regarded in Westminster, I believe, with some embarrassment, and public apologies have been issued.

I do not think your Lordships want to author a similarly black moment in the history of the union. That can all be redeemed by voting for Amendments 16 and 16A. I commend the amendment to the House with my three parliamentary co-signatories and my 19,000-plus compatriot co-signatories. This is an amendment that we cannot allow to pass unamended—the stakes are too high. I beg to move.