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My Lords, on
I turn first to the talks and the formation of an Executive. I stress that it remains the Government’s paramount priority to get Stormont up and running before the deadline of
On abortion, the Government are working towards the laying of regulations necessary for a new legal framework for the provision of abortion services in Northern Ireland to be in force by
The public consultation on the legal framework closed on
On the presumption of non-prosecution and Troubles prosecution guidance, reforming the legacy system in Northern Ireland remains a priority for the UK Government. The Government are opposed to our service personnel and veterans being subject to the threat and reality of vexatious litigation in the form of repeated investigations and potential prosecution arising from historical military operations. The Government recognise the concerns that have been expressed about the way the current system operates in Northern Ireland and are committed to seeking the prompt implementation of the Stormont House agreement proposals on legacy to provide both reconciliation for victims and certainty for military veterans. Any legislation that improves the legacy system in Northern Ireland will need to be agreed by the UK Parliament and have the support of a restored Northern Ireland Executive. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is working closely with ministerial colleagues, the Northern Ireland parties and the Irish Government towards this end.
With regard to the transparency of political donations, Northern Ireland parties are now subject to the same reporting requirements as all other parties in the United Kingdom. That is a significant step forward, but the question of opening up historic records from before 2017 remains a challenge. At a time when threats to elected representatives are all too common, we must be careful that anything we do does not lead to intimidation of members of the public who have donated to parties in the past when rules were different. We will consult with the Northern Ireland parties in due course about any change to this legislation.
On higher education and a Derry/Londonderry university, there has been no formal proposal for the establishment of a university since we last discussed this matter. I am aware, however, of proposals for a graduate school for medicine on the Magee campus in Derry/Londonderry, and I am happy to take questions on that at the appropriate moment hereafter. We are aware that support exists for the extension of further education provision in the north-west of Ireland, and we are also very much aware of the deficiencies that exist in the medical profession in Northern Ireland, all of which can be addressed by these matters.
With regard to victims’ payments, in October the Government launched a public consultation on a scheme for regular payments to, or in respect of, individuals living with serious disablement caused by injury in a Troubles-related incident through no fault of their own. The consultation closed on
On same-sex marriage and opposite-sex civil partnerships, the Government are under a duty to make regulations to provide for these matters in Northern Ireland by
There remain two key issues on which we will consult further before legislating: same-sex religious marriage, and the right to convert from a civil partnership to a marriage and vice versa. Future legislation must, of course, take account of the specific circumstances in Northern Ireland and provide adequate religious protections. The consultations will seek views from religious bodies and individuals on how religious same-sex marriage will be provided for in Northern Ireland, and how protections would be best achieved. We also want to get the right approach on conversion entitlements for Northern Ireland, given the different approaches taken in the rest of the UK. The Government hope to launch short consultations on these two issues from mid-January and will bring forward regulations as soon as practicable thereafter.
In conclusion, I reiterate the Government’s support for the ongoing talks in Northern Ireland, which we are all clearly and very timelessly aware of. I also note that this will be the last report in this sequence as expected via the previous obligations. I hope that these reports have been useful in generating debate and casting a light on some of the issues affecting Northern Ireland.
My Lords, it would take more than five minutes—the allotted time—to cover all the issues that need to be covered on this vast subject. I am going to focus on abortion, and the steps that the Northern Ireland Office has taken to implement Section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019.
It is well known that I strongly opposed the introduction of Section 9. It remains my view that it was completely wrong of the 2017-19 Parliament to override the devolution settlement, in the way that it did last summer, to introduce widespread access to abortion in Northern Ireland, thereby shredding the Belfast agreement. The process through which this was allowed to happen was shambolic. I sincerely hope that we will never again see it in this or any future Parliament.
How legislation is introduced and scrutinised matters. This Act is a great example of precisely how it should not be done. We had hugely controversial amendments on abortion tacked on to a piece of emergency legislation which had nothing whatsoever to do with the subject. We had no consultation conducted on the contents of the amendments. We then had a rushed legislative process, marked by chaos and confusion, in which the abortion text inserted in the Bill in the other place was completely rewritten by your Lordships’ House. The final version of Section 9 was ultimately debated only for a paltry 17 minutes in the other place before it became law. Of course, if the Executive had reformed by
The Northern Ireland Office, in seeking to uphold its legal obligations, has run a consultation on a new set of regulations. I am grateful that the NIO sought to run a consultation, although, as I could point out, it was a deeply flawed one. Before I turn to that, however, I want to pose some specific questions to the Minister about the current limbo period in Northern Ireland. This situation will pertain until
First, can the Minister clarify for the House that it is in fact legal for women to purchase abortion pills online in Northern Ireland without restriction at the current time? I would value his comments. While it may be an offence under the Human Medicines Regulations 2012 to provide such prescription medications, it is not illegal to take them in Northern Ireland any more. Additionally, can the Minister make it clear that there is no restriction currently in place as to where these pills can be taken, unlike in Great Britain?
Secondly, it remains unclear to me which criminal statute criminalises non- consensual abortions in Northern Ireland in the absence of Section 58. I remain particularly concerned about the practice of placing noxious substances in the food or drink of pregnant women without their knowledge for the purpose of ending their pregnancy. In cases of this that have gone to court in the UK, the law that has been cited to protect women is Section 58. I raised this matter with the Minister when we debated these matters on
“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.”—[Official Report, 17/10/19; col. 276.]
I was very grateful to the Minister for that response. However, in saying,
“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” he did not tell us which laws he had in mind. I sincerely hope that he was not thinking of Sections 23 and 24 of the Offences Against the Person Act because, while these provisions are relevant, they do not provide women the same level of protection that they receive in England and Wales under Section 58.
My Lords, there is no question that the deep divisions over Brexit have poisoned the process of resurrecting devolved government in Northern Ireland. I want, therefore, to make some points pertinent to resolving all this, especially in the light of the series of parliamentary amendments initiated by Northern Ireland’s business community, crucially, supported by all the political parties in Northern Ireland. How often have we been able to say that in recent years?
The remain v Brexit contest may be over but do not be tempted into thinking that the protocol on Northern Ireland/Ireland in the withdrawal agreement gets Northern Ireland’s Brexit-related concerns done. Nobody yet knows what will be required to maintain north-south co-operation and manage trade relationships between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, not least because there will be checks and controls on goods moving both ways across the Irish Sea. Moreover, these will change as the EU-UK relationship develops and if and when the UK secures more free trade deals with other countries.
There are four main requests that business, civic groups and all the parties have jointly put forward, and I ask the Minister to consider these. The first is that the UK Government’s commitment to “unfettered access” be given legal form through the withdrawal agreement Bill. That is first by defining what “unfettered access” means; for example, being able to sell goods to Britain without tariffs, origin requirements, regulatory import controls, dual authorisations or discrimination in the market. Let us remember, this is about UK businesses and UK goods being sold into other parts of the UK.
Secondly, they seek protection for Northern Ireland companies and consumers from the costs of the consequences of any new trade frictions. We should bear in mind that these frictions will arise within the UK internal market and as a direct result of the very Brexit which the majority of people in Northern Ireland voted against.
Thirdly, they ask that the Stormont Executive be consulted by the Government on regulations which could impact Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market. Although the protocol requires a vote from MLAs every four or eight years on whether to keep aligned with EU rules or UK ones, full democratic consent is surely a living rather than an occasional requirement. Trade frictions could come about as a result of decisions by the UK Government, not just the EU. Northern Ireland businesses and politicians are asking for the consent of their own elected representatives before further trade frictions are imposed within the UK—that is between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. This is surely not just a reasonable expectation but a basic democratic right for every citizen in the UK.
Finally, they ask the Government to publish an assessment at least every 12 months of any negative impacts arising from the protocol on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and vice versa, and to develop mitigations to safeguard Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market. All these measures are intended to ensure that necessary mitigations and compensations are in place to protect business and consumers in one part of the UK from any negative consequences of the withdrawal agreement that this Parliament is being asked to ratify.
I recognise that this will be debated next week, but I wanted to flag it up now because noble Lords should be under no illusion: the amendments proposed are essential damage-limitation devices and impinge upon the prospects of getting Stormont resurrected. In light of all this we have not only an obligation to listen but a duty to act, and I ask that the Government consider these all-party Northern Ireland amendments, which are now on the Commons Order Paper, very carefully this week because they will be tabled next week in the Lords, not least in the context of resuscitating Stormont and, crucially, giving it the kind of economic stability it needs for a long-term future.
Finally, I say to the Minister that if the Secretary of State sets a deadline—which is, as he said, in law next Monday—it has to be kept. Deadlines are there to be kept, unless there is agreement to move forward and major concessions are made; otherwise, deadlines carry no credibility at all and could hinder rather than enhance the prospect of getting Stormont resuscitated. I speak from experience, in 2005-07 in particular, and I urge him consider that.
My Lords, the Secretary of State extended the period for Executive formation to
The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Bill was rushed through all its parliamentary stages, casting aside the normal practices of consultation, and showed total disregard for the devolution settlement that was lauded by so many in this Chamber. In the other place, one of the Conservative Members said that the way issues had been handled was
“unconstitutional, undemocratic, legally incoherent and utterly disrespectful to the people of Northern Ireland”.—[
I concur. Such changes were pushed through, simply tagged on like a dog’s tail to legislation that had nothing to do with these issues that deeply affect the people of Northern Ireland and their religious convictions.
It is abundantly clear that the vast majority of even this House put abortion and same-sex marriage ahead of democracy. In relation to same-sex marriage, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has recently confirmed that a series of legal changes will be made to coincide with the introduction of same-sex marriage. When will the elected representatives here in Westminster see these recommended changes? Will they be consulted on and debated openly? He said that public order law will be amended to underline that criticism of same-sex marriage is not an offence. When will these amendments be known and debated, or does debate no longer matter even in a democracy? He also said that equality law will be amended so that religious bodies and staff cannot be sued for declining to take part in a blessing or other event marking a civil same-sex wedding. Changes will also protect the ability of religious organisations to dismiss a staff member who enters a same-sex marriage if that is incompatible with the organisation’s values. Can the Minister inform us of the details of these changes and when they will be brought into force?
The Secretary of State also said that he is in discussion with the Northern Ireland equalities bodies about guidance for employees and schools to make it clear that beliefs and opinions about marriage should be respected. Can the Minister tell us when these discussions began and what guidance has been given by the Government to the equality bodies, which in the past have certainly had their own agenda? He also said that additional legal changes will be required to protect ministers of religion and places of worship from being obliged to facilitate same-sex weddings. When will these changes be made? Why has the Secretary of State not yet met the moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church to discuss these issues, a meeting the presbytery has requested?
In the light of all these changes, does this whole saga not prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that the legislation was rushed through to appease Sinn Féin, irrespective of the consequences felt within the whole community? This is a disgraceful way to legislate for a part of the United Kingdom.
It has been said that the proposed law could allow unrestricted abortion up to 12 or 15 weeks, with abortion for social reasons up to 22 or 24 weeks; there would be no requirement for a doctor’s approval; any registered healthcare professional could perform an abortion; abortion on grounds of disabilities could be allowed up to birth; no prohibition against sex-selective abortion; and abortions would not need to take place in a hospital or clinic. Are any of those misunderstandings of the legislation? If so, can the Minister clarify them? If not, can he not see how repulsive that is to the majority of the people of Northern Ireland?
I make it clear that I believe in devolved government but not at any price. Sinn Féin has to realise that there must be respect for both traditions in Northern Ireland. We have an intolerable situation in the health service. Health workers and nurses do not receive parity of pay with the rest of the United Kingdom, yet the Secretary of State could have granted parity of pay and allowed the health service to face the many winter pressures with staff knowing that they are appreciated and fully supported by the whole community, rather than making them a pawn in the political talks game.
Devolved government is being hindered because of the Irish language Act—a language that only 0.2% of people in Northern Ireland can speak fluently. The vast majority of people have no stomach for such an Act, especially when the sick are dying, the elderly are lonely and seem forgotten, those suffering mental health are neglected and poverty continues. The education of our children is being undermined through the lack of finance, yet Sinn Féin simply wishes to weaponise the language for mere political advantage, to the detriment of all.
Finally, if an election is called, the DUP will not be afraid of the exercise of democracy, and I believe that it will gain the confidence of the vast majority of the unionist population in Northern Ireland.
My Lords, the great majority of the Members of both Houses of Parliament supported the legalisation of abortion and same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland, and I applaud the Minister’s early remarks about the steps, including the preliminary steps, that the Government are taking to make it possible for women there to access abortion rights. The noble Lord, Lord McCrea, referred to democracy, but of course at the moment we are facing the absence of a devolved Assembly, and it cannot be right that human rights and the capacity to resolve burning injustices in Northern Ireland are simply suspended because no political institutions are operating in the Province.
Another area where we face a similar crisis is higher education, and I wish to press the Minister somewhat further on that. We had debates last year on higher education provision in Northern Ireland, with which there is a general problem. There is far too little of it at the moment. There is a big outflow of students from Northern Ireland simply because there are insufficient higher education places in the Province. In the last year, 17,440 Northern Ireland students—28% of all students there—studied in England, Wales and Scotland. As I know from my conversations in Belfast and Derry, many of those students study outside Northern Ireland not by choice but simply because they cannot access the places that they want in Northern Ireland. This is doing huge damage to the society and economy of the Province. Two-thirds of students who study elsewhere in the United Kingdom do not return after graduation, so this situation is leading to a systemic outflow of some of the most talented people in Northern Ireland. They never come back simply because the politicians there have not been able to agree on a satisfactory level of higher education provision.
The situation in Derry is particularly serious because there is no dedicated university for the second city in Northern Ireland. As your Lordships know, the big debate about higher education provision in Derry goes back 60 years. However, far from getting better, the situation is getting worse. Commitments given in the last 10 years have not been met. The number of places available to students in Derry at the Magee campus of Ulster University is pitifully small. There are only 3,429—barely more than were available 10 years ago. The medical school, which we have debated in the House several times, is not proceeding. What now needs to be done to give it the consent required to make it possible for people to undergo medical training in Derry, which does not happen at present?
The finances of the University of Ulster are clearly in a shambolic state. The proposed new campus in Belfast, which is almost certainly located in the wrong place anyway, is more than £100 million over budget and more than three years late in delivery. To cap it all, the vice-chancellor of the University of Ulster has just announced that he is departing for Canberra after only four years, so the university is now without a strategy, without leadership, with a massive deficit, and not providing places in the second city of Northern Ireland, which desperately needs them.
Given the enormous damage being done to the life chances of young people in Northern Ireland, particularly in the city of Derry, I consider this situation as big an infringement of human rights as the issues relating to abortion and same-sex marriage about which we legislated last year. I do not believe it is satisfactory for Parliament, which is responsible for safeguarding the human rights of the people of Northern Ireland, to allow it to continue. I seek a commitment from the Minister that, if devolution is not restored in the immediate future, as we all hope it will be, the Government will come forward with concrete proposals for boosting higher education provision in Northern Ireland in general and, in particular, for an action plan to ensure medical places this year in the Magee campus of the University of Ulster in Derry, and proposals for a dedicated university for that city.
My Lords, I am sure that all political parties in this House want to see the devolved institutions restored in Northern Ireland. Let us all hope that an accommodation can be reached to restore the institutions in the next number of days. However, whatever accommodation is reached, it must be fair and balanced. It cannot be a situation where one party takes all.
Three years from the collapse of the previous Executive, people have a right to be angry and frustrated at the absence of an Executive in Northern Ireland. As my noble friend Lord McCrea has indicated, we have only to look at our health service, which is in a critical mess. We have health workers—thousands of them—coming out on to the streets because of the whole issue around the imbalance of pay between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Our education system is suffering greatly. We have only to speak to our educationalists across Northern Ireland, to speak to many of our principals and schools and colleges, to learn that all their budgets are in the red by thousands and thousands of pounds. It is so bad in education that schools cannot afford even to buy toilet rolls. They expect the parents of children at these colleges and schools to pay some money towards resources. This just cannot continue.
There needs to be a resolution, but not specifically around education, health, economic development, inward investment or job creation; all areas are suffering from the lack of an Assembly. One area where there is severe suffering is mental health provision. More people have died since the Troubles through suicide than died during the Troubles. That figure is a dramatic but true representation of what is happening to mental health in Northern Ireland. We urgently need more investment in mental health. Northern Ireland has a much higher need than the average across the United Kingdom and the need is certainly growing.
The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, touched on higher education in my own city of Londonderry. He has visited Northern Ireland on several occasions and has visited the city as well. I know that he has met nearly every political party in the city. Unfortunately, however, he has not met the largest unionist party in the city. When he comes to the city again, we as a party would be keen to meet him and talk to him about the future of higher education in the city. He is right: this issue goes back well over 50 or 60 years. There is a long drawn-out debate about whether the university should have been in the city or in Coleraine. Coleraine built the university; the city did not. But it would be wrong to say that the city does not have a university. The city of Londonderry does have a university. All right, there is a cap on the students that can go there, but for any viable university there is a huge economic off-spin for the city.
We have the whole issue around the medical school in the city. Once again I am told by reliable sources that this cannot move forward without ministerial approval. The business case is done. It is sitting there and ready to go. A lot of work has been done through the two universities, Queen’s and the university in Londonderry, but nothing can move without a Minister. It is important that the Minister clarifies that position again.
I believe there is a notion across Northern Ireland that with the Assembly up and running all the ills in Northern Ireland will be solved. That will not be the case, but it would certainly help if we had local Ministers in charge taking local decisions on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland. Let us hope that these talks are successful as we move forward over the next couple of days.
My Lords, I do not think it will come as any surprise to the Minister that I am here to resume our exchanges on the future of the welfare mitigation scheme, which were so rudely interrupted by the general election. Now that is behind us, it is imperative that we have some clarity on the future of the scheme. Following the debate on
I believe there is a consensus that the mitigations package continues to be necessary because of the differential impact on Northern Ireland of a number of key social security restrictions introduced since 2010. The package will be “sunsetted”—to quote the Minister’s letter, but is “sunsetted” really a verb?—at the end of March unless there is an Assembly in place to legislate for its continuation. As much as we all hope that current negotiations will be successful, although I am told the omens are not looking good, it would surely be foolhardy to bank on there being an Assembly in place in time to pass this legislation.
The alternative is what the Minister called
“delivery options for providing top up payments in lieu of the present mitigation scheme”, which are being looked at by the Department for Communities in Northern Ireland. However, these top-up payments turn out to be no more than our old friend discretionary housing payments, which all concerned agree are totally inadequate, not least because, as it says on the tin, they are discretionary. Furthermore, there are various restrictions on DHPs relating to both the amount and the length of time for which they can be paid.
The Government’s own report, required by the law that we are debating today thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Empey, spells out the implications of their discretionary status:
“Discretionary Housing Payment provision would not be an extension of the existing welfare mitigation schemes. This is primarily because it requires an application from the claimant and it is a discretionary scheme, which means that a payment cannot be legally guaranteed. This provision would only be available for claimants affected by the Social Sector Size Criteria and the Benefit Cap. In the continued absence of the Assembly, the Department for Communities is now taking the necessary steps to prepare for a possible extension of the existing welfare mitigation schemes should appropriate legislation be made. Simultaneously, the Department is working with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive on preparatory work to broaden the eligibility criteria for the Discretionary Housing Payment scheme.”
This is crazy. How much Civil Service time is being wasted because the Department for Communities is having to prepare for two possible scenarios, little more than two months away, because of the Government’s refusal to act? How does it make sense to jettison a cost-effective scheme for one that will be much more costly to manage? More importantly, how much anxiety is this causing well over 30,000 low-income citizens of Northern Ireland, many of whom will be living in vulnerable circumstances?
In conclusion, will the Minister now acknowledge that the only alternative to the mitigations scheme is the wholly unsatisfactory discretionary housing payments? Will he therefore commit to go away and discuss with colleagues what can be done to guarantee now that, one way or another, the mitigations scheme will continue after the end of March? Will he undertake to report back to your Lordships’ House quickly? This, too, is a question of human rights, because the right to social security is a human right.
My Lords, as we start a new decade, the 2020s must be about restoring stable devolution in Northern Ireland, where the Executive are committed to building a successful Northern Ireland. During the recent election, the majority of people on the doorstep made it abundantly clear that they wanted their politicians to focus on delivering better public services. The ongoing crisis in the Northern Ireland health service, for example, highlights the urgent need for the full restoration of the devolved Assembly with executive Ministers in place to take urgent decisions.
No issue supersedes healthcare, both in its importance and in the scale of its impact on every single person. Since the Assembly ceased to function, waiting lists have continued to grow and the pressure on hospitals and hard-working front-line staff has increased. In fact, I am sorry to say that the health system in Northern Ireland is no longer fit for purpose and urgent reform is now required to protect front-line services. Indeed, it is clear that we have reached a critical moment when it has been clearly stated that patient safety may be at risk. Faced with such stark warnings, politicians must not allow any further drift.
Education in Northern Ireland is also under huge pressure. Teachers and staff in schools across the Province have been doing an incredible job at a difficult time, when their budgets are being squeezed. Wherever children come from, and whatever their background or financial circumstances may be, we want them to have the opportunity to succeed. These objectives can be achieved only when a new Northern Ireland Executive are formed. On a number of occasions over the past three years in your Lordships’ House, I along with other noble Lords have warned of the ever-increasing backlog of key decisions which, in the absence of a functioning Executive, have had to be postponed by the Northern Ireland Civil Service. Often these relate to the allocation of resources and the prioritisation of spending, matters that are crucial to the proper functioning of all public services.
Turning to legacy issues, I welcome the recent commitments made by Her Majesty’s Government in relation to the full application of the Armed Forces covenant across the United Kingdom. This is especially important in Northern Ireland given the number of people who served throughout the Troubles. Many are still living with the consequences of our troubled past, and in Northern Ireland they have not had the same level of access to services as in other parts of the United Kingdom. I also welcome the Government’s promises that legacy issues will be dealt with fairly, so that ageing veterans will no longer have to prepare for a knock at the door to inform them of a reinvestigation of events that took place 40 or 50 years ago. To drag veterans through the court system in these circumstances is clearly unacceptable.
Turning to how Brexit will affect Northern Ireland, both my party and I fully support the UK’s forthcoming withdrawal from the European Union at the end of the month. We recognise that the Government have a clear mandate to deliver this under the terms set out in the withdrawal agreement. However, the terms of the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU will not be agreed until the end of the year. I have some concerns regarding any special arrangements for Northern Ireland that may be specified in the final trade agreement. I hope that significant special arrangements will not be required, but to the extent that they are necessary it is important that the principle of consent at the heart of the Belfast agreement should be maintained. We shall continue to work with the Government to seek assurances and a commitment in relation to this.
It is vital that the future relationship between the UK and the European Union will allow us to move forward and prosper as one nation, sovereign and equal. To achieve this objective, it is important that Northern Ireland should be represented along with the other countries and regions of the UK when negotiations begin in earnest to agree a future trade deal. We must ensure that this deal with the European Union, and indeed any trade deals agreed with other nations, will benefit Northern Ireland in line with the entire United Kingdom.
Northern Ireland has been deprived of devolved government for three years. My party, the Democratic Unionist Party, stands prepared to form a new Executive so that new Ministers can take the necessary key decisions. Restoring a sustainable and fully functioning Government in Northern Ireland has to be a priority. Public services must not continue to suffer. My party will continue to approach the current talks process with a clear focus and a determination to restore the Stormont Assembly and Executive. I remain optimistic that there will be a positive outcome to this process. Much work has been done, and some has yet to be done, but to achieve a positive outcome the parties must work sensibly together in the interests of everyone across Northern Ireland’s society.
My Lords, I want to address the abortion consultation conducted by the Northern Ireland Office and reported on in this report. Because of the way that the legislation was enacted, against the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland and propelled by Members of the other place from England, Scotland and Wales—none from Northern Ireland—this was a profoundly important consultation. The regulations will be presented to Parliament and be incapable of being changed, by virtue of their format. They can only be rejected in their totality, not amended; therefore, their content will be of the utmost significance to the people and, more importantly perhaps, the unborn babies of Northern Ireland.
Like many others, I have deep concerns about how the consultation was conducted, with a six-week period granted, during which the general election was taking place. I note the Government say that there was a high level of consultation; it would be helpful if the Minister could tell us how many respondents there actually were. No special effort was made to make the consultation accessible, despite the way in which the law was passed. The consultation document was available online to those who use the internet. If you did not use the internet the instruction was to email the NIO—do you hear that, my Lords?—asking for a copy of the document. You could not phone and ask for one. If you could not access a computer or suffer from a disability which restricts mobility or eyesight, or causes literacy difficulties, there was no obvious special provision. There was no publicity after the initial announcement. One could be forgiven for thinking that the Government were not overeager to receive responses.
The Government are of course required to introduce new regulations to legalise abortion only in limited circumstances. Those circumstances are described in the CEDAW report and in the Act. They refer to cases of threats to the woman’s health where the threat does not need to be permanent or long term, to pregnancy resulting from rape and incest, and to pregnancy involving severe foetal impairment, including fatal foetal abnormality—whatever this means. The Government are also required to ensure appropriate and ongoing support, social and financial, for women who decide to carry such pregnancies to term. There was no invitation in the consultation to consider how such support might be delivered.
What deeply shocked me is that despite their stated commitment to devolution, the Government now propose, through the consultation, to needlessly undermine devolution to a far greater extent than Parliament requires. There is no requirement in Section 9 to introduce abortion on request for any reason up to 12 to 14 weeks’ gestation. That is not required by the CEDAW report but appears to be what is proposed. There was no opportunity in the consultation to answer the basic question: “Should abortion be available on demand?” and simply say no. That question did not exist.
The Government also asked whether abortion should be available to 21 weeks and six days or 23 weeks and six days if
“the continuance of the pregnancy would cause risk of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or girl, or any existing children or her family, greater than the risk of terminating the pregnancy”.
The document did not define or qualify that risk, even where the pregnancy might be a threat to the health of family members. It did not even define “family members” —grandmothers, aunts, husbands, someone living with their extended family? This is effectively planning for abortion on request. I have seen no evidence in England and Wales of an application for an abortion on ground C ever being turned down, certainly in the past 10 years.
Most shockingly, question 4 asked whether abortion should be available up to birth
“where there is a substantial risk that the fetus would die … in the womb … or shortly after birth” or
“would suffer a severe impairment, including a mental or physical disability which is likely to significantly limit either the length or quality of the child’s life?”
Yet under the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945, it is an offence to terminate the life of a child capable of being born alive despite a disability.
There was no definition about what constitutes severe impairment, yet people were asked to respond on that basis. In England and Wales, 90% of babies with Down’s are aborted at birth. Many conditions might significantly affect the length or quality of a child’s life. It does not mean that the life is not worth living. In effect, this legalises all abortion, including sex-selective abortion and disability-selective abortion. Why is there no attempt to provide protection for unborn babies against discrimination on grounds of gender and disability, and why is there no recognition of the need to protect pregnant women from being coerced into abortion?
Why do the Government suggest that the law on conscientious objection should reflect that in England and Wales, which is inadequate? For those who recognise and acknowledge the harm inherent in the deliberate killing of a child in the womb, there should be a right not to be involved at any stage.
The suggestions in the consultation were invariably lacking in definition. We have heard the reference to registered health professionals, not doctors. Going beyond what is strictly necessary under Section 9 contradicts any assertion that the Government want to uphold devolution in Northern Ireland. The way in which this consultation was drafted reflects a political decision made by the NIO. Yet we are at another critical point in Northern Ireland’s political life. Our nurses are on strike again.
Many people in Northern Ireland have protested and argued in many ways since July. The consultation was flawed; it was not accessible. To build law on a vague, flawed consultation lacking in specificity of almost any kind without the necessary impact assessments would be most dangerous. I ask the Minister, the NIO, the UK Government, your Lordships and the other place to have regard for constitutional due process and in drafting regulations, which will of course be incapable of change, to ensure that what is provided does not go beyond what is strictly required by law.
My Lords, before I address the matters before us, I want to pay tribute to a former colleague and friend who passed away last night. Mrs May Steele JP MBE joined the Ulster Unionist Party in the 1950s and served in many positions for the next seven decades. Her final role was as president of the Ulster Unionist Party. May Steele was one of a kind. I will miss her greatly, as will her family and many friends, both in the Ulster Unionist Party and in the wider Northern Ireland community.
It is always a pleasure to hear from the Minister. However, with the utmost respect, I fervently hope that this is the last time he stands before us with the task of presenting one of these reports. I have no doubt that he will share that sentiment.
As we debate tonight, efforts continue to restore the Northern Ireland Executive. My own party is involved in these talks but, as we all know, what happens next is in the gift primarily of the DUP and Sinn Féin/IRA. Having had the pleasure of visiting various different parts of Northern Ireland over the festive period, I can report that frustration at the failure of these two parties to agree has reached even greater heights. There are several reasons for frustration but primarily, as the report before the House states:
“Northern Ireland’s public services are struggling in the absence of local leadership, accountability and decision-making that a functioning Executive would bring.”
The noble Lords, Lord McCrea, Lord Hay and Lord Browne, mentioned the situation of the health service in Northern Ireland. Here is an indication of how serious this is. Official figures released in November showed that 108,582 people in the Province were waiting longer than a year for a hospital appointment. That accounted for 35% of the total number of patients on waiting lists, which stood at 306,180—an all-time high for Northern Ireland and an increase of 8% since the previous year. The situation is considerably worse than anywhere else in the United Kingdom and, with all due respect to the Minister, would simply not be acceptable if it was in any other part of the United Kingdom. As has been stated, members of the Royal College of Nursing will go on strike in Northern Ireland for the second time tomorrow, with UNISON members in healthcare positions following suit on Friday. Given the lack of a devolved Administration in Northern Ireland, one might think that Her Majesty’s Government might have chosen to make an Oral Statement in this House and the other place to bring the country up to date, but no. Was doing so even considered?
I could go on and on, but time is not available. I will therefore come straight to the most important point. The withdrawal agreement that the Prime Minister negotiated with the EU threw the people of Northern Ireland to the wolves. Despite his repeated public denials that he would treat the Province any differently from the rest of the UK after Brexit, he has chosen to do exactly that. There will now be a trade barrier down the Irish Sea and higher costs for consumers and businesses. The Prime Minister chose to renege on his promises, repeated many times, that Northern Ireland would not be treated differently from the rest of the kingdom. But there are no votes for him in Northern Ireland. I am sorry to say that, with the exception of a small number in the Conservative Party in the other place, its Members now care little about Northern Ireland.
Despite the differences in areas that will be familiar to your Lordships, one subject that unites Northern Ireland politicians is their utter distaste for the Prime Minister’s wretched Brexit deal as it affects Northern Ireland. Those involved in the Stormont talks can do little about that now, but they—and the DUP and Sinn Féin/IRA in particular—can come together to agree a path through the impasse and restore devolution. At least then the people of Northern Ireland will have the chance of the better lives that those of us involved in the Good Friday agreement 22 years ago sought to secure for them.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for bringing forward these reports. He is doing so at the behest of this House, as he has had to do on several occasions. He has done it with considerable commitment in terms of detail and update. All noble Lords appreciate this; it helps the sense of engagement which we have asked for and which the Minister has applied himself to.
The reality is that the biggest affront to democracy is the lack of an Assembly in Northern Ireland. At a meeting of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, I said that the politicians of Northern Ireland had effectively let the people down. One or two Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly who were attending took offence at this, but I challenged them to explain how they could not say they had let the people down. In many ways, the one bright spot of the UK election for my party and for people sharing my perspective was the result in Northern Ireland. Even from outside you can see that people in Northern Ireland were saying: “We have had enough of this and we are voting in greater numbers for parties which are not the two polar extremes but in the middle in one way or another, because we want this issue resolved.” If the DUP and Sinn Féin do not hear that, I suggest that they will drop below a combined share of 50% at any coming election.
I pick up a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hain, that the deadline is Monday. I ask the Minister whether my understanding is correct: if an Assembly and an Executive are not formed or committed to by Monday, do we require primary legislation to avoid an election, or is an election required otherwise? I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hain, that we cannot let this run on. There is no justification for anything other than an agreement, for very temporary, short-term purposes, to enable everything to be resolved and for the Assembly and Executive to get up and running, otherwise there must be elections as the only way to resolve it. If that were to be in primary legislation, I think there would be a lot of resistance to it, but it would be good to have some clarification.
A number of Members, including the noble Lords, Lord Hay, Lord Browne and Lord Rogan, spoke about the crisis of public services in Northern Ireland, which is absolutely shocking. It includes education and, desperately, health services. Nurses have been driven to strike and, anywhere else in the UK, the waiting lists would have people demonstrating in the streets. It has been suggested that the situation is putting health at risk. I think it categorically must be true that people are dying in Northern Ireland because of what is happening. If people are waiting that long, by the time the appointment comes around they are no longer waiting, because they have gone. It is crucial that this Assembly gets up and running and that public services are engineered and supported. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hay, that the situation is not going to be resolved overnight but we cannot go on like this. We need to be sure that we can start to rebuild the practical business of government and politics in Northern Ireland.
The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, mentioned higher education, particularly in Derry, but across the Province. I have also raised this issue, having visited Derry. The building for the medical school is available and the university there is desperately keen to get started. It cannot happen immediately, but all these things are simply waiting in limbo. I suggest that we hope that we will not be here again, and that Northern Ireland business will be decided in Northern Ireland by the elected politicians of Northern Ireland. The only thing I hope we will be here for is a Statement in the next few days to say that progress has been achieved, a breakthrough has happened, and an Executive will be formed. I accept that there will then have to be engagement between the UK Government and the new Executive and Assembly in Northern Ireland to try to help get things up and running and probably provide some emergency support.
The other issue is Brexit. It is crucial that if Brexit happens on
My Lords, the hour is late—perhaps too late to be discussing these grave and weighty matters. Like the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, I hope that next week the Minister will be at that Dispatch Box making a Statement about the success of the all-party talks in Stormont.
All the contributions noble Lords have made this evening have centred on what effectively should be devolved issues: whether it is the state of the health service, which is grave; whether it is higher education in Derry/Londonderry, which my noble friend Lord Adonis referred to; whether it is education generally; or whether it is abortion or same-sex marriage, which could have been resolved by the Northern Ireland politicians had an Assembly been up and running. All these point to the fact that the most crucial issue facing not just Northern Ireland but the United Kingdom at the moment is what is going to happen in Belfast this week.
It has always been the case that something was going to stop it—a local government election, a European election, a general election, Brexit. Two of those things have happened. Brexit will happen, presumably by the end of this month, although my noble friend Lord Hain has rightly pointed out the complications and difficulties that will still face Northern Ireland even after the withdrawal Bill has been passed. Of course they are important issues, but the elections—as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce—have followed a pattern over the last few months, starting with the European elections and then the general election. We now have two SDLP Members and one Alliance Member of the House of Commons. We have a change even in this House, with the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, who made a very good maiden speech this afternoon. Things are changing, and my guess is that, were there to be an election as a result of no Assembly being formed, that trend would continue. I make no comment one way or the other as to whether that is a good thing; I simply say that I do not think it is like it used to be, where each election was an action replay of the election before it. No, things are changing in Northern Ireland, and I hope that the participants in the all-party talks in Belfast are talking about precisely that change.
I do not know what the stumbling-blocks are. I assume that they are what they have always been: the Irish language, the petition of concern and other issues. I have said many times before that, on the language issue, perhaps an independent commission looking into what happens in the rest of the United Kingdom—in Wales and Scotland, for example—could help matters in Northern Ireland. But none of these things is insurmountable, as they were not insurmountable 22 years ago when the Good Friday agreement was signed. With just under a week to go before the
It is an extremely important week. I think the Secretary of State has done well. He has brought them together in a way that had not happened over the previous months, and we wish him well in the next six days. Even if it means that they have to talk on the weekend before that deadline happens, all of us believe that it is vital we have an Assembly and an Executive up and running and that next time the Minister addresses us it will be with a Statement saying that that has happened.
My Lords, thank you for what I hope will be the final instalment of these debates. Again, it has been wide-ranging and thought-provoking. I will seek to answer each of the points raised, but let me quickly state that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will work through the weekend. I think he will be working through the night to try to bring together those parties for the final step that has to be taken.
The noble Lord, Lord Murphy, is correct to identify the issues that remain divisive, but other noble Lords this evening have pointed out the issues that need to be addressed. Perhaps they should outweigh the reality of what is faced with those other issues that need to be brought together. I will be very clear: the approaching deadline of
We have sought to extend the Executive formation period on a number of occasions, which we have discussed over the past few months. This is now the last step of the last stage, and the deadline has to be meaningful. It should crystallise thinking and ensure that for those who are casting an eye over their shoulder at the result of the last election, as they consider what will come next, it may be an issue which I hope they will use to sharpen their thinking in the last few days.
I will try to address each of the issues that were raised this evening as best I can. I will start with the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and the question of higher education provision in Derry/Londonderry. The issue at the heart of this is a decision taken by the Executive to cap the number of students. By doing so, they created a problem for provision in Northern Ireland, which is one of the principal reasons why so many students from Northern Ireland end up being educated in the rest of the United Kingdom. That decision needs to be addressed. I have looked with some care at Ulster University’s proposal for the Magee campus for the graduate school of medicine. To coin a phrase, I believe that it is oven-ready, and I believe that it could be moved forward in short order. However, it needs an Executive, or other powers, to move it forward. Again, I believe in endorsing the view that that is the only way to ensure the indigenous retention of medical practitioners; indeed, I will look at other academic disciplines as well.
The noble Lord, Lord Hain, brings great experience to this issue. He is right to observe that the amendments proposed in the other place are cross-party and should be given due consideration either there or here when the Bill arrives. We need to be careful in looking at them and recognise where they have come from. It is important to do that very thing going forward.
On the wider issues of health and health provision, education and education provision, and social provision, as I have said before and as noble Lords have echoed this evening, the statistics in Northern Ireland are ghastly. They are dreadful. Nobody else would tolerate that; I am shocked that Northern Ireland does. It is only because of the absence of an Executive and an Assembly, where these things can be debated with the anger they richly deserve, that they have gone unaddressed for so long. That cannot go on. After the point when we have an election, whatever follows thereafter, this will need to be a priority for any incoming Executive or any responsible Government taking action in this area. That will require funding. It will require sensible administration. It will require action and it will require urgency. All those things will need to be delivered, I believe, in the first half of this year.
As to the more vexatious issues, let me start with the question of same-sex marriage. There will be two consultations, one concerned with the religious notions of the ceremony itself. Those consultations are beginning. The noble Lord, Lord McCrea, asked whether the Secretary of State will meet with the Moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church. The answer is yes, of course he will. He will meet with other religious leaders on that point because it is important that we ensure that the structures in place are cognisant of the uniqueness of Northern Ireland; Northern Ireland therefore needs to consider that. I hope that when this consultation opens, which I believe will be imminent—I am torn over using the word; you may interpret that as you wish—or very soon, such consultation will happen.
The noble Lord, Lord McCrea, also asked how children will be taught about this matter in school. That remains a devolved matter but we are in touch with the relevant department in Northern Ireland—the Department of Education—to ensure that guidance for schools is appropriate, adequate and measured. Again, that aspect is important. As I have said on this matter on a number of occasions in the past, there will be no compulsion on any individual to breach what they consider to be matters of their own conscience. That will be reflected in any guidance issued in schools and elsewhere, and is part of the ongoing dialogue.
It is important to recognise that these issues have now been broadly brought to rest. On the question of whether that should have been done in the manner that it was, I do not think that that was the ideal way of doing it either. However, as we have said about health and education and all the other issues, I am afraid that this situation is what happens when there is no functioning Executive in Northern Ireland. It is one of the consequences of that and we are living through it now.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, made an important point. At the moment, I cannot make any commitment in advance of the talks concluding on
On abortion, a number of specific issues were raised. I believe that when we have discussed these in the past, I have sought to answer them. I will try briefly to touch on some of them. The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, asked what law would be cited to protect a woman who was the recipient of a noxious substance administered by an individual to try and bring about the termination of a pregnancy. Sections 23 and 24 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861 apply not just in Northern Ireland but across the rest of the United Kingdom. There should be no instance in which this crime is left unpunished and again I stress that this would be a crime and would be punished.
On the availability and purchase of online abortion tablets and pills, it is an offence to sell these products but of course it is not an offence to buy them. I stress that these items can be bought at present. Under the previous regime, the greatest danger was that these pills would be taken by individuals who then could not seek recourse through the medical profession because they would themselves be guilty of a breach of the law. They were placed in the invidious position of taking substances which are unregulated over the internet, and would not then have recourse to medical practitioners to ensure that the consequences were dealt with in a safe environment. That is different now.
I turn to what has happened during this limbo period. It is important to stress again that there has been a slight uptake in the number of individuals who have come to England to undertake these activities. There has been no registered growth in illegal or back-street abortions in Northern Ireland, and attention has been paid to establish whether that is indeed the case. I believe that the rules I set out on the last occasion covered those matters. There is no free for all or Wild West situation in Northern Ireland. There are rules of law which govern both the practice and the administration of medical attention and so forth. I set those out in my previous statement and I will not repeat them at this moment.
I was very clear that the consultation is not about the issue of abortion in itself, but about the framework for the safe delivery of abortion as was agreed in law here. The consultation itself rightly asks specific questions regarding the nature of that framework and does not pose the fundamental questions which have been raised in the debate. It did not seek to do so and those who wish to augment their answers to the consultation were—
I was saying that the consultation itself is specific regarding the framework for the delivery of the services themselves. However, if an individual wishes to make a wider point in the discussion, it allows that to happen, although it is not within the scope of the consideration that will result as a consequence.
My Lords, the point I wanted to make was that I was not saying that I totally rejected abortion; rather I said that it was untrammelled and unfettered abortion on demand to 12 or 14 weeks. This is not what is required by Section 9 of the Act. I apologise to noble Lords, but that was the point: it is not required.
Again, the point I was making about the framework is that it is not unfettered abortion. It is seeking to apply an established process to ensure the safety of individuals and the administration of the service itself. However, the reality remains that in this limbo period, far from being a Wild West of free practice, because of the absence of the detailed framework, there has actually been a regression in that regard. Individual practitioners have not been offering that service and I believe that they will probably not do so until the guidance is clearly embedded. It is not until the point when the regulations become active that we will see a functioning regime. That is why I said that during the interim period there has been an increase in the number of individuals who are now aware of the service that is available here in England, along with the support available from the United Kingdom Government to provide both free travel and free accommodation for those who wish to undertake the procedure.
I hope that the issue of the consultation, which I believe is a straightforward one regarding the framework itself, will be considered by the relevant authorities to ensure that what is put in place is fit for Northern Ireland and its unique circumstances and that each of the elements we have touched on in the past regarding fatal foetal abnormalities or issues of rape, incest and so on are considered alongside those of the wider question of the CEDAW recommendations within the wider report. Each of these elements is still broadly part of what we seek to deliver, as we made clear when this was enacted in the latter stages of last year.
I believe that those are the principal issues have been touched on today. If there are issues that I have not touched on, I am happy to write or to meet personally to try to address any of these, but on that basis I would like to close what I hope will be the final report in this sequence. We then await progress—I hope positive progress—and I would like to be standing here very soon saying that there has been a breakthrough. If there has not been a breakthrough, Northern Ireland has been very badly let down, so I hope I am back on a positive note.