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Supreme Court Ruling: Abortion in Northern Ireland

Volume 642: debated on Thursday 7 June 2018

(Urgent Question): To ask the Northern Ireland Secretary, following the ruling of the Supreme Court, whether sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and section 25 of the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945 are incompatible with articles 3, 8 and 14 of the European convention on human rights.

I thank the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) for this question and I once again pay tribute to her and to all the other hon. Members who contributed to the debate on these issues in the House on Tuesday. I recognise the strength of feeling and the personal stories that lie behind this issue, many of which we heard on Tuesday. That is the case regardless of where people’s views lie. As I have said in the House before, abortion is an extremely sensitive issue and there are many strongly held views across all sides of the debate on reform right across the UK, including Northern Ireland.

Members will be aware that the Supreme Court issued its judgment in this case this morning. The Government are carefully considering the full judgment and its implications. No formal declaration has been made by the Court, and the appeal has been dismissed. The analysis and comments of the Court on the issue of incompatibility will be clearly heard by this House and by politicians in Northern Ireland. While the Court made no formal declaration, a majority of judges stated their view that the laws on abortion in Northern Ireland are incompatible with article 8 of the European convention on human rights—the right to respect for private and family life—in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape and incest.

This is clearly a complex area of law and an extremely sensitive subject matter which raises a number of different issues to consider. I am sure that the House will understand, given that the judgment is more than 140 pages in length, that further consideration of it is needed. I am continuing to engage with the parties in Northern Ireland, where these issues are understandably being raised and discussed. It is therefore important for all of us, including the people of Northern Ireland, to consider this judgment and to approach ongoing debate on this issue with due care and sensitivity. My urgent priority is to continue to engage with the parties in Northern Ireland and to re-establish devolved government in Northern Ireland so that decisions can be taken there.

Today, our Supreme Court has ruled that the law on abortion in Northern Ireland is in breach of the human rights of women in Northern Ireland. Let us weigh that sentence for a moment, as a House. Our own law is breaking the basic human rights of our own citizens. These are laws that the Government have said they will retain whether we leave the European Union or not. They are the laws that underpin our own democracy and our own freedom.

A clear majority of the Law Lords have found that how women in Northern Ireland are treated is incompatible with article 8: the right to respect for private and family life. Two judges have also held that the law on abortion is in breach of article 3: the right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment. The Court was clear that to deny a woman access to abortion care breaches a woman’s right to bodily autonomy—to be able to control what happens to her own body and not to be forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy even in instances of rape and incest.

The Court also was clear that the Government must have known that that was the case because of the United Nations ruling. Despite this, just two days ago the Secretary of State told this House of Parliament, as she has said today:

“Abortion has been a devolved matter…and it would not be appropriate for Westminster to seek to impose its will, or to be the arbiter”.—[Official Report, 5 June 2018; Vol. 642, c. 220.]

Clearly this ruling challenges that disregard for the human rights of women in Northern Ireland.

The only reason the Government are not facing a requirement to act today is that those bringing the case were not victims; the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission brought the challenge. The House should hear the words of Lord Mance himself:

“the present law clearly needs radical reconsideration. Those responsible for ensuring the compatibility of Northern Ireland law with the Convention rights will no doubt recognise and take account of these conclusions, at as early a time as possible, by considering whether and how to amend the…1861 Act.”

Are the Government today really going to require a rape victim to give evidence in open court to be able to access this declaration and to force them to act? Are we parliamentarians, with the responsibility under the Good Friday agreement to uphold the human rights of all Northern Irish citizens, going to pretend that if they make that happen, we are doing our job? The women of Northern Ireland deserve better. They deserve control over their bodies. They deserve not to be forced to go to court and talk about such issues to get the Government to listen. They deserve the kind of control that Arlene Foster currently has over this Government.

The Secretary of State has the power to direct Northern Irish Departments to take such action that is required under international obligations. Human rights are an international obligation. Minister, I beg of you, do not make a victim go to court. Name the date that the domestic abuse Bill will come to Parliament, so that we can get on and end this scandal. We cannot just take back control; we can give it.

I know that the hon. Lady feels strongly about this issue. The whole House will have heard her words, which were delivered with such passion, but we need to be clear about what the Court was considering. It was looking specifically at the laws in Northern Ireland. She talked about a clear finding, but the Court has not made a declaration of incompatibility. In fact, on fatal foetal abnormality, the judges found five to two in favour, but it was only four to three on rape and incest. Those were majority decisions, not the judges’ unanimous view.

The Government’s view is that the decisions about abortion and the laws that apply in Northern Ireland should rightly and properly be decided by the people of Northern Ireland and their elected politicians. That is why I call on those politicians to come together to form a Government in Stormont and deal with the issue, because I, like the hon. Lady, want to ensure that the personal stories that we have all heard are dealt with. [Interruption.] I can hear her talking from a sedentary position, and I know how strongly she feels about this, but many people in the House feel strongly about this issue, and the right way to deal with it is in Stormont. I will continue to consider the judgment, which is 143 pages long, and there is much that we need to look at. However, I repeat that this is a matter for the politicians in Northern Ireland, all of whom I will be speaking to later today.

Order. This is an extremely important matter, of which the House partly treated earlier in the week, but I gently point out that it is not reasonable for colleagues who were not here at the start to beetle into the Chamber and stand with the expectation of being called. I announced the urgent question some considerable time ago, and it is incumbent upon colleagues to be here at the start of the exchanges. If for whatever reason they were not here at the start, it is discourteous to stand and expect to be called. Everybody is busy and has many commitments and full diaries, but it is incumbent upon colleagues to be here at the requisite time.

This is a heart breaking legal case. It has basically been lost on a technicality—nothing more—and it is too important simply to be left at that. The women of Northern Ireland deserve better than the outcome of today’s judgment. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is now time for the Northern Ireland Assembly and Government to get back in place and to take their responsibility to set the way forward? In the absence of that, I urge her to accept that Parliament will now start to examine what steps we can take to ensure better outcomes for women in Northern Ireland.

I thank my right hon. Friend. I agree that this is another example—one that affects people’s lives—of why it is so important that politicians in Northern Ireland come together and form a Government, and it is quite right that they should do so. They represent their constituents in Northern Ireland, and they know what their constituents want. I am sure that they will have heard my right hon. Friend’s comments.

I re-emphasise the point that we are talking about real people. Although this is a legal judgment written in legalese, nevertheless we are talking about real people, which is why there is urgency in what our Parliament must consider.

Although the judgment is disappointing in that it foundered on a technicality as to who brought the case to the Supreme Court, nevertheless the Supreme Court was crystal clear, by a majority verdict, on the important point that, in relation to obligations under article 8 convention rights, it is the United Kingdom—not Northern Ireland—that is incompatible with international human rights law. The summary of the Court’s judgment states:

“If an individual victim did return to court in relation to the present law, a formal declaration of incompatibility would in all likelihood be made.”

That is in relation to cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape or incest, for example.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) is right that it would be grossly unreasonable to ask a rape victim to pursue a case up to our United Kingdom Supreme Court to have that measure of incompatibility brought to legal justice. I accept that the Secretary of State must ask her legal advisers to pore over the whole judgment, but nevertheless it is clear the judgment insists that the law must change.

I agree with my hon. Friend that it would be better if the Stormont Assembly were to seize the moment and change the law for Northern Ireland but, in the absence of Stormont, the Secretary of State now has to begin setting out a clear timetable that says to Northern Ireland politicians that, if they are not prepared to come to the Stormont Assembly, Westminster would have to act, and would have to act on the moral and legal basis that the judgment is a judgment about the United Kingdom’s compatibility, not Northern Ireland’s compatibility, with international law. The Secretary of State must consider that seriously and set a timescale within which the Government must act. The law must change. Who does it is now a matter for politicians in Northern Ireland.

I put on record how much I appreciated the hon. Gentleman’s thoughtful and thought-provoking contribution to the debate on Tuesday.

Some Members have suggested that repealing sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 would somehow enable politicians in Northern Ireland to come together to create the laws that are right for Northern Ireland. Let us be clear that this is about the situation in Northern Ireland. I do not think anyone in this House is suggesting that the decision should not be taken in Stormont—we need the politicians to be in Stormont to do that—but if we proceeded down the path of repealing sections 58 and 59, we would be left with no laws on abortion in Northern Ireland. I do not think a vacuum of laws in Northern Ireland would be helpful to those women and girls we are all thinking about.

I make it clear that we want the politicians in Northern Ireland to make the law on abortion in Northern Ireland. We want them to come together, and we want them to do what is right for the people they represent.

The United Kingdom Government have devolved these issues to the Northern Ireland Assembly. It would therefore be extraordinary if the United Kingdom Government removed or changed some part of the law—that would make the law a complete mess. Whatever our views on this issue, we should have respect for both sides of the abortion debate, as I do. We should also have respect for the people of Northern Ireland who ultimately, ab initio, have to deal with this.

My hon. Friend is right. The laws on abortion in Northern Ireland were not devolved at the time of the devolution settlements in the 1990s; these laws have always sat with Stormont since it was first founded and since it first sat in the 1920s. It is therefore right, constitutionally and morally, that these decisions are taken in Stormont.

The Supreme Court judgment is as irritating as it is enlightening, with majority views holding sway, rather than unanimity. I note, however, that Lord Kerr, the former Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, was one of the justices who considered that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission had the right to bring the case and that the law was incompatible. Given his in-depth knowledge of the Northern Irish legal framework and the fact that the judgment points to the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945 as the barrier to addressing that incompatibility, will the Government be taking the advice of the judgment and treating that Act as secondary legislation to be amended, or will they prepare the ground for a reinstated Assembly to repeal section 25 of that Act and bring the law into line with human rights?

As I said in my opening remarks, at 143 pages there is a lot to digest in this judgment. Together with my officials and lawyers, I will make sure that we have gone through every point of the judgment in order to make a final determination, but I think the hon. Lady would agree that where matters are devolved they should rightly be dealt with by the devolved legislature that has responsibility for them. That is why I want to see those politicians come back to Stormont, form that devolved Government and make those decisions.

Clearly, the number of abortions we have throughout this country is far, far too high, but when they have to happen the present state of the law means it is a question of where they happen, rather than whether they happen.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) has suggested that the Northern Ireland Assembly will have to look at this ab initio. If we were to repeal sections 58 and 59, it would be in the same position of having to legislate ab initio, on the civil side and on the controls on abortion.

I ask my right hon. Friend to understand that those who back her basic approach are willing to do so only for a certain amount of time. Unless and until those in Northern Ireland who are elected are prepared to come together to deal with this issue, there will be an obligation on this country, not a European obligation, but a national, practical and moral obligation, to take action.

Again, my hon. Friend makes his long-standing views on this matter known, and I am sure the politicians in Northern Ireland will have heard them.

May I say to the Secretary of State that the fact the decision on rape was a four-three majority decision means that it was a decision, an announcement, a pronouncement of the court? That is how the Supreme Court works; it does not matter how narrow the majority. May I also remind her of what Lord Kerr said? He said that

“it is incumbent on the state”—

the UK—

“to recognise the vulnerability of girls and women”

in relation to rape. Does she agree that human rights cannot be devolved and that she and the Government have the responsibility for them?

The questions the hon. Lady asks bring into question the whole constitutional arrangements we have and who and which legislature is responsible for which action. I repeat that my urgent priority is to get the parties back to Stormont, to get that devolved Government up and running so that they can rightly make the decisions in the interests of the constituents who elected them.

I do not agree with the law in Northern Ireland, but surely the whole principle of devolution is that people in devolved areas can make decisions with which we disagree. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we allow devolved areas only to make decisions with which the Westminster Parliament agrees, there is not much point any more in any form of devolution?

My hon. Friend always has an ability to use an appropriate turn of phrase to put his finger adeptly on the problem.

A constituent has written to me as follows:

“I grew up in Northern Ireland before moving to London in 1982…I fell pregnant in 1997. My child would have been very much loved and wanted, but a scan revealed that he had Edward’s syndrome, a chromosomal abnormality incompatible with life. I was ably supported by the NHS in London through the subsequent weeks of decision and grief. I was not forced to continue the pregnancy to bear a dead child”.

What advice would the Secretary of State give to a young woman in Northern Ireland today who was facing the same dilemma that my constituent had in 1997?

It is those personal stories and the reality of the situations in which women find themselves that really bring home why it is so important that this matter is addressed, but I repeat that it needs to be addressed in Stormont by politicians elected in Northern Ireland—that is the right way to deal with this issue.

The women of Northern Ireland deserve a long-term solution and their human rights need to be respected, but with regard to the short term, will my right hon. Friend confirm that no women who have abortion procedures in England are being charged for them?

My hon. Friend is right. As well as the Supreme Court judgment, we have today received the figures for women who have travelled to Great Britain for abortions. In 2016, the figure was 724 women, and in 2017 it was 919, following the Government’s announcement that we would ensure that all costs were covered. It is not a perfect solution, but it does at least show the House’s intent.

Earlier this year, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) and I were part of a delegation to Belfast. We heard evidence on a long and harrowing day from many parties, including Sarah Ewart, whose name has been mentioned in the Chamber previously, on the difficulties for not only vulnerable women but practitioners, who are often in a dilemma. At the time, my thinking was the same as the Secretary of State’s—that it looks a bit neo-colonial for us in Westminster to impose our will—but things have changed since then: there is continuing deadlock over the lack of an Assembly in Northern Ireland; there was the vote in the Republic; and now we have this 140-page judgment, which finds that there are breaches of many aspects of human rights. Will the Government not think again, as they did on Heathrow?

I understand the hon. Lady’s intent. I, too, have met many organisations and people in Belfast and, in so many ways, this is something that tugs at the heartstrings and makes one want to act. But it is clear that taking rash action that may produce the wrong result is not the right approach. We need time to digest the judgment and to consider what it means, and we need those politicians in Northern Ireland to come back together.

Although I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) about the merits of devolution and where these decisions should sit, the fact is that it has now been more than a year since Stormont has been in a position to make such devolved decisions. This issue is part of a basket of others, including the private Member’s Bill on same-sex marriage promoted by the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn), and there is perhaps a judgment to come about humanist marriage, which would then need some consideration. How long is it reasonable for us in this Parliament to wait, without Stormont sitting, before we begin properly to exercise our responsibilities to the citizens of Northern Ireland?

I want to see Stormont back and functioning. It always feels like a tragedy to me to walk around an empty Parliament building, which Stormont is, rather than seeing it active and making the decisions that the politicians were elected to make. I will speak to the parties later today, and I will continue to do so, because I want to see the parties coming back together. I want devolved government in Stormont and I want it urgently.

I feel very strongly about this matter, as does my party, the Democratic Unionist party. Following the Supreme Court judgment, will the Secretary of State confirm that it is categorically up to the Northern Ireland Assembly to implement any changes that it believes are necessary regarding the matter of abortion? Will she also underline the fact that it is Sinn Féin’s duty to drop its red line, get back to Stormont and democratically debate this issue?

I do not want to get into what is stopping the parties getting back together. All I will say is that the hon. Gentleman sums up the situation well, and it is right that we should have those politicians coming back together, doing the right thing as Ministers in Northern Ireland, and making these decisions.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the last time Stormont debated this issue, it decided by a clear majority to keep the law as it is. Will she undertake to the House to consult all the parties in Northern Ireland, in the light of this court judgment, on what should happen for the future?

My hon. Friend is right that the last time this matter was debated in Stormont—in 2016—the Bill was rejected. That is part of the reason why we have this case before us today. I have spoken to all the parties about this matter, and I will continue to do so.

A British Government in Westminster should not abrogate to themselves powers willy-nilly, but why are the Government adamantine about not intervening when human rights issues affect British citizens? It was the same in Bermuda: the Government refused to say anything about same-sex marriage being banned, but the Supreme Court in Bermuda decided yesterday that the British Government were wrong and that same-sex marriage should be reintroduced. What will happen here is that the Government will keep on losing legal battles. In the end, human rights are indivisible, so we do have to act and intervene.

We need to go through the judgment, which is detailed, and consider it carefully. The way to resolve this issue has to be with Stormont; that has to be the place in which to resolve this.

I take on board all the points that have been made this morning, especially those about maintaining the position on issues that are devolved, but I just say to the Secretary of State that, obviously, our constitution is constantly evolving. I am not speaking specifically to this issue but, as we look across the United Kingdom and all the changes that we are making, including the devolution of more powers as we leave the EU, we should consider minimums that apply across the United Kingdom for our national UK framework. When it comes to rights, for example, there should be national minimums across the United Kingdom, especially as we have elected representatives from across the United Kingdom in this place.

I am deeply obliged to the hon. Gentleman. His question is very well-intentioned, but it suffers from the disadvantage of being unadjacent to the matter before the House and a tad longer than was desirable. Nevertheless, he has volunteered his views and they are on the record.

What my hon. Friend does pick up, however, is that the constitutional implications of decisions that we take in this House regarding devolved matters should be considered and not taken lightly. They need to be carefully thought about because of implications for other parts of the United Kingdom.

It cannot be right to criminalise women in Northern Ireland for actions that would not be criminal anywhere else in the UK. Does the Secretary of State agree with the ruling of Supreme Court Justice Mance, who has held that

“the present legislative position in Northern Ireland is untenable”

and that the current law

“clearly needs radical reconsideration”?

If she does, can she address the point that a number of us have made about how much longer she will allow women in Northern Ireland to suffer this untenable law?

There are many views that we all need to consider in the judgment. As I have said, we will spend a significant amount of time looking at the judgment and considering the points that have been made, but I do come back to the point that this matter needs to be dealt with by the politicians who have been elected by the people of Northern Ireland.

Does the Minister agree that while there has been no declaration of incompatibility on a technicality, and although there is a lot to digest, what is crystal clear is that a majority of the UK Supreme Court has said that, in three crucial respects, the law of Northern Ireland violates women’s article 8 rights. Does she agree that something needs to be done about that as a matter of urgency?

Clearly there is much that needs to be done, but it needs to be done in Stormont. That is why locally elected politicians need to come back together to form that devolved Government.

The Secretary of State’s excuse for inaction is that this is a devolved issue, yet next week we will discuss Lords amendments to a Bill that will steal a whole range of powers from devolved areas to allow the Westminster Government to legislate in devolved fields. Why the discrepancy?