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Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019: Section 3(5) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:39 pm on 17th October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 6:39 pm, 17th October 2019

To be very clear and to correct that, it is not the GMC’s guidance; it is our guidance. It is the Government’s guidance that we have asked it to pass on to ensure that practitioners are fully informed about and entirely aware of their obligations. It is fully transparent. If any noble Lord wishes to see it, they can consult the website and it is also in the Library.

The noble Baroness raised a number of issues, particularly with regard to the conscientiousness element. I note that a number of practitioners may well have written on this matter. That is important, but I stress categorically that they are entitled to exercise their conscience in this matter and will not be obliged to act against it unless they find themselves in a situation in which the life of the female is endangered. The professional obligations will kick in at that point and they will be obliged to save the life of the female. However, it is important to stress that nobody will be obliged to act against their conscience. Importantly, from 22 October onwards, we will be consulting very broadly to make sure that we get the language absolutely correct. We have no desire to place anybody in the invidious position of having to act against what they believe, so we will make sure that there are consultations. We are looking not just at the medical professions or professional bodies but at the religious groups that might be affected.

I listened with some interest to the notion of noxious substances, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, and the deliberate attempt to abort a foetus by a dominant male administering the process. I note in saying that there are a number of laws in Northern Ireland that would be absolutely applicable should an individual seek to abuse the body of another person in this regard. They carry with them very significant sentences. At present, the law has not been used in this regard, but it certainly could be. There would be no question that somebody could, with some sort of lightness of touch, escape from criminal justice in this regard. I would like to make sure that nobody in Northern Ireland is of the view that there may be secret poisonings that could somehow go both unreported and unaddressed. That would be the wrong thing to take from this debate here today.

I recognise that there are going to be challenges in each of these areas, but I want it to be clear that during this particular period there is no carte blanche but rather a recognised period of necessity until we are able fully to frame the law as needs be—the law that we wish to see that will come in in March. The laws now in existence will protect the mother from poison or other abuse of that nature. There are existing laws that protect the viability of a foetus that could be born alive. Although we might argue where that particular window might rest—it is between 22 and 28 weeks—it will be on a case-by-case basis, determined not by us here or others, but by the practitioner who is involved in the delivery of that medical situation. That is as it should be.

This is not a legal free-for-all. It is not an opportunity for those in Northern Ireland to create a whole new sector of abortion clinics. It is a recognition that in Northern Ireland, there are challenges because of the situation over the years with the abortion law. As I said before, I would have much preferred this to have been done elsewhere, but it will not be so. It is therefore important for us to ensure that we do all we can to ensure that during that period, the health and well-being of females is paramount. That is our guiding light and that is what we are seeking to do.

We do not believe that during that period there will be a fully-fledged abortion regime put in place because of the challenges that will exist within that, not least just trying to make it so. That is why we are making sure that those who wish to seek an abortion are able to do so in England, and that all costs will be met; and that advice and information can be given by medical professionals without fear or recourse to the criminal law to females to make that decision for themselves. They can, at that point, come to Great Britain to undertake that particular medical procedure.

However, the issue that we need to be more conscious of is the notion of people buying medicines online. The difficulty there is that it is not just for abortion purposes: more widely, there is a criminal offence of individuals selling those particular medicines unprescribed. Again, should a female find herself in a situation where she is suffering because of this, she can now go to a medical professional and seek the necessary help to ensure that she is safe and well. That is important. We need, as a Government, to consider how medicines are now being marketed or purchased online, because it is a matter where health is much more difficult to ensure when we are unable to be sure what the medicines themselves are. That is even if they are what they claim to be, let alone when they are not what they claim to be.

I realise that this is not where any of us would wish to be, but it is important for me to stress that going forward, the most important issue will be the health and well-being of the females of Northern Ireland. We will do all we can to ensure that that is so, and we will make sure that where we can offer that guidance, it will be understood by those who now will be able to take forward their own approach to the question of abortion. After March, there will be a fully-fledged regime in Northern Ireland. I hope that this period will give us the opportunity to ensure that it is fit for purpose and carefully constructed, and that it recognises the challenges that we have witnessed in the debate this evening and, more widely, the question of people’s own conscience and views.

The important thing today, however, is to recognise that we need an Executive in Northern Ireland. On that we can all be absolutely clear. I can assure noble Lords that I do not want to be back doing this again. The important thing for us all right now, however, is to hope that the deal itself might well bring a new opening and a new opportunity for Northern Ireland; and that the parties themselves recognise that there is a way forward and that they can begin to work again in the interest of the people of Northern Ireland. They are better fit and able than we are to do that. On that basis I would like to close my remarks.

Motion agreed.

House adjourned at 6.54 pm.