I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Report pursuant to section 3(5) of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, which was laid before this House on Monday 14 October.
On 9 October, the Secretary of State published a report updating information on progress on Executive formation, transparency of political donations, higher education and a Derry university, presumption of non-prosecution, troubles prosecution guidance, and the abortion law review. It is the second report published on those issues in line with our obligations under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019.
I believe that the Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), has raised some concerns with the Leader of the House about the availability of the report. I apologise for any confusion, but I can confirm that it was available online on gov.uk on 9 October. Copies of the report were also available from the Vote Office on 14 October, the first day on which the House sat following its publication.
Let me first take this opportunity to welcome the inclusion of the Bill on historical institutional abuse in the Queen’s Speech. I was personally very pleased to note its inclusion, having heard the poignant testimonies of victims and survivors shared by Members on both sides of the House. I look forward to working with colleagues across the House to ensure that the Bill is passed, so that we can begin to see redress for the victims of this awful legacy.
The Minister will be aware that victims of historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland were very disappointed on Monday when the Bill to provide them with compensation did not feature in the Queen’s Speech itself, but was tucked away on page 113 of the background briefing notes. However, in fairness to the Minister, victims’ spirits will be lifted today by the First Reading of that essential Bill in the House of Lords. For the benefit of the victims, will the Minister outline the timetable for the completion of the legislation in the House of Lords and in this place?
I think we can all welcome the fact that the Bill is being introduced and is moving forward. I am afraid that I do not have the full details of the timetable, but I will seek to consult colleagues in the Lords and, perhaps, write to the hon. Lady. I join her in paying tribute to the victims’ groups, about whom we have heard a great deal from Members throughout the House, and who have waited so patiently for redress and worked so constructively with those involved in the Hart inquiry, and with officials and politicians.
Let me now turn to the talks. The House should be in no doubt of the strength of our resolve to get Stormont back up and running. In the weeks since the first report was published, the Secretary of State has intensified his work with the Northern Ireland parties—particularly the two largest parties—to seek solutions to the remaining issues, which include rights, language and identity. He has continued to work closely with the Tánaiste, in accordance with the three-stranded approach, and the British and Irish Governments share the view that there remains an opportunity in the coming days to reach an accommodation. Indeed, the Secretary of State is not here in person to open the debate because he has decided to stay on in Northern Ireland tonight in order to continue to engage with the parties this evening.
The people of Northern Ireland have gone for more than 1,000 days without an Executive and Assembly, and I, along with colleagues throughout the House, do not want that stagnation to continue. Northern Ireland needs effective decision making, and its people deserve progress on key issues, including many that have been raised in the published reports.
The last time there were official cross-party talks was in July. We are now literally five days away from the Bill becoming an Act, and the provisions on abortion and same-sex marriage being extended as equal rights to Northern Ireland. What could it possibly be in the next couple of days that has suddenly renewed the Government’s vigour and their desire to reopen the talks, and to offer the idea that the abortion law for the people in Northern Ireland could be suspended when there is a Brexit deal to be done? Will the Minister update us on what has happened to change things now, of all times?
I do not accept that characterisation. The Government have always been clear that we want to see devolved Government restored and that this deadline set out in the Act of the 21st would be when legislation would have to be brought forward if the Executive were not in place. Of course it is right that we are engaging with the parties—as I suspect any Government of any colour would be doing—to try to restore the Executive and Assembly, and we should continue to do that right up to the deadline.
As the hon. Lady notes, the current period for Executive formation expires on Monday, 21 October, and in the event that the institutions have not been restored, we will be required to extend the Act by statutory instrument. On this, I want to be absolutely clear with the political parties in Northern Ireland: this would not be a good outcome. Northern Ireland needs political decision making. The Assembly has had over two and a half years to reach a compromise and get Stormont back up and running, and the people of Northern Ireland are sick and tired of continued delay.
I understand why the Secretary of State is not with us tonight, but can the Minister confirm that there is no part of this country of ours that will be more affected by either a deal on Brexit or, worse, no deal on Brexit? The Secretary of State committed to come to the House and give a clear indication of what powers he would need to take in the event of any outcome of Brexit. We have not yet seen this before the House. Can the Minister guarantee that at a very early stage we will see what legislation is necessary in order to ensure that we have an orderly exit with a deal and, even more importantly, without a deal?
It is absolutely clear, and my Secretary of State has been clear, that in the event of no deal there would need to be further powers for Ministers to take action, but of course the hon. Gentleman will agree that we do not want to be in that situation. We want to have a deal, and I think we are all hopeful that in the coming days we might be able to have moved forward in debating that.
The Minister will be aware of Baroness O’Loan’s call to re-engage with the Assembly and recall the Assembly, which my party fully supports, but will he accept and acknowledge tonight that there is one party that is holding back the formation of the Assembly again: Sinn Féin?
The hon. Gentleman makes his point clearly. It is not for me to assign blame between parties; it is for me to call on all parties to ensure that not only an Assembly but a power-sharing Executive can be restored and say that agreement needs to be reached in order to achieve that.
As colleagues across the House are also aware, should no Executive be formed before the 21 October deadline set out in the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, this Government are under a statutory duty to change the law in Northern Ireland on access to abortion services, to introduce same-sex marriage and opposite-sex civil partnerships, and to introduce a new victims payments scheme. While every effort is being made to restore an Executive, I must also take appropriate steps to ensure that the Government are able to meet our obligations should an Executive not be formed within the statutory deadline. That is why we launched an awareness campaign last week to ensure that people know how the potential changes to the law may affect them; further information will continue to be provided over the coming weeks if the duties come into effect.
As the Minister knows, Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom where women do not have access to safe abortion in the place where they live, and they are really looking forward to a change in the law. The Government have set out that they are talking to Church groups; can the Minister set out which women’s organisations the Government have been talking to in advance of this very important and much longed-for change in the law?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. I can assure her that we have been engaging with a range of organisations, including human rights organisations, women’s organisations and campaigns—[Interruption.] I would perhaps have to write to her with more detail.
Turning to the issue of abortion, one has only to look at the passionate and sincere demonstrations in recent weeks on both sides of this issue to appreciate that it remains a highly sensitive matter in Northern Ireland. I understand that there are many people in Northern Ireland who may, as the hon. Lady says, welcome the change. There are also many who would not. I would prefer, as would the Government, that the Northern Ireland Assembly was considering reforms of Northern Ireland’s abortion law. This is, as I have noted, a highly sensitive devolved issue and as such it would be best addressed by Northern Ireland’s locally elected and locally accountable political representatives.
On both issues, it is clear that we will take action should the deadline be reached, but I think that both issues would be best addressed by the Northern Ireland Assembly taking responsibility itself and delivering on the requirements. I support the right to same-sex marriage and have voted for it consistently, but I would prefer that locally elected representatives were able to deliver it in the most suitable way, no doubt arguing about it passionately and with conviction on all sides.
I think it is both. The Executive will be required for the Assembly to be in place and to work effectively.
There can be a Northern Ireland solution to this issue, but for that to materialise, Northern Ireland needs the Assembly and Executive back in the coming days. In the absence of a restored Assembly and Executive, the Secretary of State has taken steps to ensure that the Government are ready to fulfil their obligations. As part of the information campaign, my Department has worked closely with the Department of Health and Social Care and published guidance for healthcare professionals to provide clarity on the new state of the law and their duties and responsibilities. The guidance sets out changes in the law in this area, should they come into effect from 22 October 2019, until a new regulatory framework is in place by the end of March.
The immediate changes are the repeal of sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 in Northern Ireland, meaning that no criminal charges can be brought under that Act against women and girls who have an abortion or against qualified healthcare professionals or others who provide and assist in an abortion. There will also be a moratorium on current and future criminal investigations and prosecutions. The Government then have a duty to introduce a new legal framework to come into force from 31 March 2020. It is worth noting that, during this interim period from 22 October until the new legal framework comes into place on 31 March, other relevant laws relating to the termination of pregnancy will remain in place. That includes section 25(1) of the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945, which makes it a criminal offence for anyone to assist or wilfully act
“to destroy the life of a child then capable of being born alive”,
except where the purpose is to preserve the life of the mother in good faith.
From 22 October, women resident in Northern Ireland can continue to access services in England and will now have all their travel and, where needed, accommodation costs met by the UK Government. Healthcare professionals will be able lawfully to refer patients to services in England by providing the details of the central booking service or directing them to information on gov.uk.
Does the Minister accept that offering women the opportunity to go abroad or to travel to have an abortion is not the same as enabling them to have one at home by recognising their rights under the conventions? Does he accept that simply to say, “We will not prosecute” is not enough?
Broadly, yes—I do accept that, but I also accept that the legislation allowed for this interim period so that the right guidance could be put into place to ensure that when services become available, they are operating under the right framework.
It is expected that access to abortion services will not be routinely available in Northern Ireland until the new legal framework is in place after March 2020. The guidance notes that, if healthcare professionals choose to offer an abortion service to women during the interim period within the bounds of the relevant law, they should do so in line with their professional competence and guidance from their professional body. The guidance also notes the state of play relating to conscientious objection and what to do in cases in which patients have purchased abortion pills online. We are continuing to work at pace to be ready to continue to take forward all the necessary work to be able to implement new regulations by 31 March 2020 if there is no restored Executive by the deadline. Make no mistake: we will change the law on these issues if there is no Executive within the deadline.
My Department is therefore preparing to launch a consultation on changes to the law, on access to abortion services, and on the scheme for a victims payment once the 21 October deadline passes.
The Act is exceptionally clear that it is solely the Executive being reformed, not the Assembly, that would be the trigger. It is also very clear that this is not dependent on the Assembly being in place post 22 October. For avoidance of doubt, will the Minister tell the House whether the piece of legislation that we passed in July this year will be amended by this Government if the Assembly is up and running after 22 October to give the Assembly the power to set these laws, or is he going to do what the Act, which this House passed overwhelmingly, asks him to do by March 2020?
I am slightly confused by the hon. Lady’s intervention, because I think I have been absolutely clear that we will do what the law requires in this respect. We are not intending to amend it. What I am saying, though, is that, if the Executive and Assembly were to be up and running before the deadline, those requirements would not apply. The requirements very specifically, as she said, require the Executive to be in place.
For the avoidance of doubt, the Act makes no mention of the role of the Assembly if it is reconstituted once the 21 October trigger passes. Will the Minister tell the House that he intends to amend the legislation that we passed in this House about the provision of regulation by March 2020 if the Assembly is back in place? Surely the Assembly Members need to know whether the Government are expecting them to step in if the Assembly is reconstituted, because that is not what the Act says.
For the purposes of clarity, it may be useful to note that termination of pregnancy and abortion is a devolved matter, so if the Assembly is restored, that will rightly fall back to the Assembly. A devolved Assembly of the United Kingdom can amend or change the law regardless because these are devolved powers under the constitutional settlement of the United Kingdom. I am sure that the Minister agrees that legal clarity can be obtained on that issue if some Members remain confused or in doubt about it.
Further to the previous discussion, the Minister will be aware that the UN said that the UK was effectively torturing the women of Northern Ireland by not enabling them to secure an abortion if they had a fatal foetal abnormality or were pregnant due to rape or incest. Will the Minister commit that that torture will be stopped by March 2020 at the latest?
I have been absolutely clear that we will bring forward this legislation. Clearly, if the Executive were restored, it would be for them to take action on this matter, but we are talking about a matter of days. We are taking forward the necessary steps to ensure that we can put the regulations into place, as the hon. Lady says, by March 2020.
I have taken many interventions on this issue, so if my right hon. Friend will forgive me, I will try to make some progress.
Alongside substantive updates on Executive formation in the abortion law review, reports were also published on transparency of political donations, higher education and a Derry/Londonderry university, presumption of non-prosecution, and troubles prosecution guidance. The section of the report on transparency of political donations states:
“The regime in place for political donations and loans is specific to Northern Ireland and reflects circumstances that are unique to Northern Ireland parties and their donors. The current law maintains anonymity concerning most donations and loans made before 2017.
The legislative framework provides that greater transparency may be introduced in respect of donations or loans made after 1 January 2014, however, in considering the merits of doing so the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland would wish to be satisfied that it creates no risk of intimidation.
The current legislative arrangements are based on broad consensus among the Northern Ireland parties and moves towards changing the law on donations before July 2017 will require a similar level of Northern Ireland consensus. There is a broader long-standing convention that changes to legislation directly affecting political parties are not made without wider discussion and consultation between parties and the Government.”
Higher education and a Derry university are a devolved matter, which once again underscores the importance of getting Stormont back up and running. The decision on the business case for Ulster University’s proposed Northern Ireland graduate-entry medical school for the Magee campus is, therefore, a matter for Northern Ireland Ministers in a restored Northern Ireland Executive. The Government remain open to considering the eligibility of contributing inclusive future funding towards the capital costs of the project. However that, too, will be dependent on a restoration of the Executive.
On the presumption of non-prosecution, the report published on 4 September set out the current position on the investigation of troubles-related deaths and the steps being taken to develop an improved system for dealing with the legacy of the troubles. Since then there have been no significant updates on which to report.
Again, on troubles prosecution guidance, the report of 4 September set out the current position with regard to the relevant elements of policing and the justice system in Northern Ireland and the steps the Government are taking to improve the current system for investigating the past in Northern Ireland. Since then there have been no significant updates on which to report.
I hope I have made my position clear: I want to see Stormont back up and running. The Secretary of State is doing everything in his power to achieve that objective, and I hope the parties will do the same and commit to reaching an accommodation on restoring the institutions at the earliest opportunity.
That is important, because the House will address some substantive issues tonight and we need answers.
The Minister rightly said it is now over 1,000 days since the Stormont Assembly and the Stormont Executive last functioned, which is outrageous. It is almost unrecognisable in terms of modern democratic governance.
If not for other factors, I would be talking tonight about the failure of the political system to reform the education of our young people in Northern Ireland. I would be talking about the failure to reform the health service, and the fact that the Bengoa report is now receding dramatically in the rear-view mirror of life. That is, quite frankly, tragic because it is letting down patients, as the health service in Northern Ireland now sees increasing waiting lists and other things that are unacceptable.
Mental health provision in Northern Ireland is grossly inadequate. If there is one statistic that ought to frighten Members on both sides of the House, it is that more people have died since the troubles through suicide than died during the troubles—that figure is dramatic but true. It is immeasurably sad, and we ought to dwell on that. It is a failure of politicians of all stripes in Northern Ireland.
I absolutely agree with the shadow Secretary of State about mental health, on which we urgently need more investment. Northern Ireland has a much higher need than the average across the United Kingdom, and it is only growing—of course we need investment in mental health across the UK.
The shadow Secretary of State says that the Bengoa report is disappearing—I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as my husband is the permanent secretary at the Department of Health. Fortunately, the Northern Ireland Executive agreed the Bengoa recommendations. They are very high level, but that policy framework is currently being implemented. It is important for clarity to make sure that people are fully aware of that, but we need Ministers back because health and education are suffering enormously.
I think the hon. Lady and I are in agreement. Not enough is being done and the political decision-making capacity is not there. These things are outrageous and tragic in their own right, but of course the reality is that we also have two dates approaching very quickly: 21 October and the things that will move forward on the back of that and, of course, 31 October. I wish to talk about the two events that those dates touch on.
First, of course, is Brexit. As I said to the Minister, there is no part of this United Kingdom of ours that will be more changed than Northern Ireland. Irrespective of whether we have a deal on Brexit or a crash-out Brexit, either will transform Northern Ireland in a way that will be massively different from the effect on any other part of this United Kingdom. We need to dwell on that. I said to the Minister that the Secretary of State had said he would need to bring forward regulation and legislation to equip himself as Secretary of State, and the Government, with the necessary provisions. Even if we sit not just this Saturday but every other weekend day between now and 31 October, we are now some 14 days from that Brexit date. That is worrying and frightening.
We need to have some certainty about issues such as policing. We know that the previous Chief Constable warned that a hard border across the island of Ireland would create targets for would-be terrorists, and we know that the current Chief Constable has asked for more resource in the event of a no-deal Brexit. In any event, we know that, with the possibility of an increase in civil disturbances, almost irrespective of the type of Brexit, there needs to be some concentration on keeping the peace and on the questions relating to stability. We are simply not seeing that. I hope we get clear answers from the Minister as to what the timetable is for when the Secretary of State will come to the House.
The Secretary of State and the Minister know Northern Ireland, so I do not doubt that they will recognise that there can be no hard border across the island of Ireland. The Prime Minister’s red lines are such that they must take that into account. In that context, the need for an Assembly and an Executive to be up and running is paramount. That really has to be a driving force. I accept that the Secretary of State is in Belfast today bringing the parties together—I do not simply accept that; I want him to be there—but I have to say to the politicians that the gap between them is so small. I need to say this through the House. I cannot recognise the principle that keeps them apart, out of the Assembly and out of the Executive when we look at issues such as health, education and the very important issue of Brexit. I hope the Minister can reflect on the questions that we need to address that will help to bring the Executive back into operation between now and 31 October, because we need the Executive there, irrespective of what takes place there—save for the Prime Minister having to write the letter, which so far he has been reluctant to say he will do, to ask for an extension. If he writes that letter, there is of course some leeway in the formation of the Executive, but frankly not an awful lot.
I wish now to turn to the question of abortion, which other Members will want to raise as well. I have two specific questions for the Minister. He talked a little around the issues, and I am not sure that we have had absolute certainty on them. If the Assembly does not meet before 21 October, the provisions of the legislation will come into operation. There has already been an exchange on what that means. My understanding is that, once the clock begins to tick on 22 October, the Assembly will not be able to annul the legislation. Will the Minister guarantee that, from 22 October, there will be a proper campaign to make people aware of how they can access safe and legal abortion for women in Northern Ireland? Such a campaign would guarantee that health professionals, and those who would give advice more generally, know that they have comfort in the law to give proper and adequate advice to women who seek that kind of advice. That is of fundamental importance during the interim period.
The second question may be even more important, and it has been raised, either directly or indirectly, by other hon. Members. Will the Minister guarantee that, if we move into this phase, come 1 April when the new regime moves in, it will be the case that there will be the provision of safe and legal abortion for women in Northern Ireland? That is the intention of the law as this House voted, and it is absolutely necessary that we have a commitment from the Government tonight not simply that the law will allow it, but that the Government will institute it, provide for those services and make sure that they are available. Women in Northern Ireland are entitled now to know that they have certainty about the direction of travel of this Government.
I do not intend to speak for long, because I know that other Members wish to speak, but may I simply say to the Minister that I hope he can answer some of these difficult questions tonight? Those he cannot answer, will he undertake to return to Members, both individually and collectively, so that we have proper answers on the record and we know where we are traveling both in terms of the formation of the Executive and, of course, on this very difficult, but very necessary, issue of providing safe and legal abortion?
I thank the Minister for his statement and for the report that has been laid before Parliament under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019. It gives us another welcome opportunity to interrogate the Minister and the Government on the progress in the negotiations towards establishing a new Northern Ireland Executive. Let me say that I understand absolutely why the Secretary of State is not in his place just now, but, given the monumental significance of the next few days for Northern Ireland, it would surely be helpful for him to bring a further statement to this House in the very near future and to answer further questions.
We are clearly not significantly further forward towards restoration, as we would have liked in the time since the September report was laid before this House. However, we note that it is the view of the Secretary of State, and that of the Tanaiste, that there remains an opportunity over the next few weeks for the parties to reach an accommodation. We are, of course, in complete agreement when the report states that
“a restored Executive Assembly and North South Ministerial Council remain the best way forward for Northern Ireland.”
We have just passed, as we have heard, a landmark 1,000 days from the collapse of the previous Executive, so it is little wonder that there is huge frustration at the absence of an Executive, given the huge number of pressing policy issues—several of which were alluded to by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd)—that cannot be properly addressed in the absence of a functioning devolved Government. We are talking about issues such as the schools funding crisis that the Northern Ireland Committee recently reported on; the lengthening waiting times and growing frustrations in the NHS; and the workforce issues, including the threat of recession, reported on by the Northern Ireland chamber of commerce just earlier today. In short, it is the bread and butter of normal government that the people of Northern Ireland want to see the politicians able to get on with. Restoring the Executive does not fix all these issues, but it is the only way to start addressing them sustainably.
Looming over all this is Brexit—a process that, on the one hand, complicates the process of negotiations, but that, on the other hand, makes it utterly essential that those negotiations are successful so that devolved government is restored. We are within touching distance of going through the entire article 50 process without a functioning Executive and Assembly to represent all of Northern Ireland, and what a monumental constitutional failure it would be if that were to happen.
In conclusion, I think that I am saying nothing controversial when I say that previous processes and talks have managed to overcome hurdles that are significant—perhaps way more significant—than those that are currently blocking progress today. I simply encourage all parties to ask of themselves whether the negotiating positions that they are holding on to are capable of just a little further compromise—compromise that could finally see the massive problems being caused by the vacuum at the heart of Northern Ireland politics finally being addressed and tackled.
The Secretary of State must continue to work closely with the Tanaiste, the Irish Government and all parties to resolve outstanding issues. For the sake of all the people of Northern Ireland, I wish all involved in the forthcoming talks success in the days ahead, because it is long overdue.
I do not think there is a difference across the House in wanting to see the Stormont Assembly and Executive up and running. We all agree that it is important that the people of Northern Ireland have that Government restored. We also think, however, that the women of Northern Ireland deserve some honesty about what will happen to their human rights, which, in this House in July, we pledged to uphold. Tonight, the Minister has shown that what most of us feared might happen—the slow unpicking of the commitment the House made to ensure that we treat all UK citizens equally when it comes to their ability to make choices about their own bodies.
For the avoidance of doubt, let us set out some clear principles. It is written in the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 that this is about the Executive reforming, not the Assembly. Let us be specific: it is about having a First Minister, a Deputy First Minister and 10 Ministers with departmental responsibilities by the end of next Monday—nothing less, nothing more. That is not the preserve of the Government, or one single party, to deliver. It is about power sharing. There is absolutely nothing in the Act about mandating the Assembly to take on the legislation post 22 October. Indeed, it would be bizarre, given hon. Members’ concerns, to uphold the role of the Assembly and then direct it to take over the legislation.
There is plenty in the Act about the importance of the role of the Secretary of State, and I quote section 9(7):
“The Secretary of State must carry out the duties imposed by this section expeditiously, recognising the importance of doing so for protecting the human rights of women in Northern Ireland.”
What does that mean in practice? What have we seen over the past couple of days, with this sudden flurry of interest in trying to get the Executive up and running?
I am disappointed that the Secretary of State is not here, because I had hoped that he would account for his words on Twitter—[Interruption.] I had hoped that he would account for his words because he said something very powerful and threatening. He said that he understood that Church leaders were worried about abortion reform and that he would be
“working all week…to ensure that I do everything I can to encourage political leaders to get back into an Executive and ensure that they can shape the abortion laws for Northern Ireland.”
People might think that that is a worthy sentiment, but given that if the Assembly is reconstituted by Monday, the regulations on same-sex marriage will also fall, it is telling that he highlighted only abortion. Only women’s rights have become a bargaining chip in the Brexit process.
The Minister tells us that he has been talking to women’s groups, but he cannot name a single one. We cannot find a single women’s group in Northern Ireland that has had a meeting with the Secretary of State, that has been consulted or that the Government have talked to. It is very clear, however, that they are listening to the Churches.
I hope they can, because then the Minister could answer the words of Lyra McKee’s partner, who said:
“It seems that pleas from people who have seen their loved ones murdered mean a lot less than the demand of church men desperate to repress women.”
Lyra McKee’s family are deeply concerned by the way in which her memory and legacy have been used in the debate.
The Minister has to show us, not just by next Monday, but until March next year, that he is prepared to uphold what is in the legislation about acting expeditiously to protect the human rights of women in Northern Ireland. That is not the same as giving powers to the Assembly to deal with it. That is not what is in the Act. He needs to be honest that that is how the Government now intend to deal with it and get the House’s approval for that.
The consequences of not doing that are very real for women in Northern Ireland. The Minister knows that, right now, we cannot tell women in Northern Ireland who might need an abortion how they will access that service next Tuesday. He and I have talked about the issue of pills. We are all worried about women accessing products online that may not be safe. In 1967, when the House legislated to exempt women in England and Wales from prosecution, we did not say, “Look, it’s okay, you can continue to have a backstreet abortion, but at least you will be able to go to a doctor.” We recognised the importance of making sure that people could access safe procedures. Yet it is very clear that that will not be the case for women in Northern Ireland from next week.
Many hon. Members will have heard the brave words of Sarah Ewart, who had to take our country to the High Court because her rights were violated. She had a fatal foetal abnormality and she was not able to seek support in her home nation of Northern Ireland to deal with that. Indeed, when faced with that horrific prognosis, the response that she got from doctors was, “I’m not going to get prosecuted to help you.”
Hand on heart, none of us can say that from next week that situation will change for women in Northern Ireland. Indeed, with hand on heart, many of us have to look Sarah Ewart in the eye, because the Supreme Court has said that it will wait to see what happens with this legislation before acting to see whether the Government have to uphold the human rights of women in Northern Ireland. What a shameful situation that we are still quibbling over treating our fellow UK citizens with dignity and respect, in the way that we would expect for our constituents here in England and Wales.
There is nothing in the legislation that will change the time limits and nothing that will change the existing medical regulations that would allow abortion to take place. It simply removes the criminal element and sees this as a medical matter. It sees women as able to make choices over their own bodies, just as men would wish to do.
I understand my hon. Friend’s passion about people in Northern Ireland being treated equally. This is not to divert us from that important issue, but does she not think, as a Labour Member, that our party should allow people in Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, to vote for Labour candidates? Does she not think that that is a democratic principle? Yes, this issue is hugely important, but it is about a principle of democracy.
What I do know is that you, Mr Deputy Speaker, would not forgive me for straying into what is essentially a family matter for the Labour movement. The Labour movement has stood up for human rights around the world. We stand up for the human rights of the people of Northern Ireland to love who they love and to marry who they want, yet when it comes to the human rights of women in Northern Ireland to have control over their bodies, suddenly this place is stuttering.
The Government have issued guidance on this legislation, but there is no public information campaign. What do we say to people in Northern Ireland next week? Can they go to a doctor and ask for misoprostol and have an early-term abortion—yes or no? It will not be illegal anymore, so physicians could certainly prescribe the pill, but the Government have not done the work to tell people what the legislation will be. We will be in an interim period. That is exactly why the legislation was drafted not just with decriminalisation in mind, but to keep the regulatory period as short as possible to avoid this confusion.
What the Minister has done tonight, by waving in front of one party in this place the opportunity to kill this measure through providing the role of the Assembly, is to create further confusion about how women in Northern Ireland will access their basic rights. We know that he is going to do that, because he has talked about having a public consultation on how to do abortion, as though it is something that we all have an ability to make happen. People on Twitter think that I have the ability to do that, but I want to be very clear that I have never made an abortion happen.
The point here is that we do not ask for public consultation on other healthcare issues. At no point do we put the concept of doing a vasectomy up to people in the community, yet somehow—
The reason we have to have a public consultation in Northern Ireland is that this Parliament passed into law section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998—part of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement —which says that on such issues that affect certain groups, there must be a public consultation. That is a statutory responsibility on the part of the Government.
I have a lot of respect for the right hon. Gentleman, but on his point about a section 75 consultation, he will find that that is not the case. The whole point about how the 2019 legislation was drafted was that it was about human rights—it was about not devolving human rights. Absolutely, there could be a consultation, but nobody can tell me what non-medical questions we should be asking people who are not medical professionals about abortion. That is the challenge we face.
Women in Northern Ireland deserve honesty. From next week, if the Executive are not reconstituted, will those women be able to get an abortion and, if so, how? That is what the 2019 Act pledged—it pledged to treat them as equal citizens, just as we pledged to treat our fellow citizens who want to marry somebody of the same sex equally. Yet somehow one of those is being disposed of in favour of political gain. At least if the Government were honest about that, women in Northern Ireland could prepare themselves.
I fear what will happen next Tuesday, because we will enter a period in which the Government will try every single trick to undermine this very basic piece of legislation that this House passed. I tell the Minister now, just as I tell the protestors in my constituency: they will not stop us standing up and fighting for the rights of women in Northern Ireland to be treated equally and fairly and to ensure that what this place promised overwhelmingly in July that it would do happens by March 2020. The Government set that deadline, not us. Now we can see why they wanted the delay, but I tell the Minister that it is not in the legislation, it will be contested, and he needs to be honest, if he is going to seek new legislation, that that is what he will do.
Surely, those women who have waited—who have watched rape victims not be able to get abortions, watched women with fatal foetal abnormality suffer and seen parents prosecuted for trying to protect their children in abusive relationships—at least deserve that from the Minister: some honesty.
First, let me say that I believe very firmly in the principle of devolution for Northern Ireland. As someone who served in Northern Ireland Assembly for 12 years and on his local council for some 26 years, I can attest to the fact that local people having power in their own hands to shape local outcomes is something worth having.
During the period 2007 to 2017, representatives from the main parties in Northern Ireland worked together to deliver for our people. I believe that all parties who served in the Government can point to significant achievements in terms of improvements to our public services, keeping the cost of university education down, and record levels of foreign direct investment. Devolution works. It is a source of profound sadness and frustration to me that Northern Ireland has gone so long without a fully functioning Executive and institutions. The absence of the Executive has had a damaging effect on our society. Essential reforms of public services, particularly healthcare, are waiting to be actioned, as my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly) said. Decisions about the future of our education system have also been left to wait. This is not good enough.
It is important to state in simple terms why we are in this position. The decision to collapse the institutions was taken by one party—and one party, by refusing to return to them, is preventing Northern Ireland from having a devolved Administration. Hon. and right hon. Members need to know that there can sometimes be a tendency to blame the two parties—Sinn Féin and the DUP—by saying, “A plague on both your houses.” This is a lazy analysis. The truth is that my party, the DUP, stands ready and willing to return to Stormont tomorrow. We have no red lines; we have no preconditions.
For everyone’s information, I understand that a recall of the Assembly has been asked for by different individuals across Northern Ireland and the parties have to respond to that. Just so that everyone understands what that means, if we were able to have a recall of the Assembly at Stormont on Monday, a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister would have to be in place so that they could make these decisions. That is what the people who contact me want to see. That is what this House should be talking about—devolution that can actually work. The absence of devolution is the greatest instability in Northern Ireland. It is important in a post-conflict society like ours that political vacuums are not allowed to develop. Local politicians working strongly together is the surest way to deliver stability, which is so important for our people but also for potential investors in the Province.
The abortion section of this report is quite simply mind-blowing. I speak today unapologetically on behalf of the 100,000 children who live today—who have a life today—because of the legislation that we have in Northern Ireland. If that had been changed when it was proposed before, those 100,000 children would not be alive today and would not be contributing to society. The proposal that the women of Northern Ireland should be subject to great indignity between 22 October and 31 March would be deemed wholly unacceptable by any self-respecting democracy, including Great Britain.
I wonder on what evidence the hon. Gentleman is basing the idea of the children walking around today. As somebody who has myself had an abortion, I can guarantee that had I had the child that I aborted, my son Danny would not be walking around today, so where is the evidence for what he is suggesting?
I can very clearly state the evidence. The evidence is on record. It has been agreed by Government bodies that the figure of 100,000 is correct. The hon. Lady can sneer, smile and laugh, but the figures are on record. I am very happy to put them on record again to make sure: 100,000 children live today because we do not have the abortion legislation that there is here on the mainland.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this figure was challenged whenever it was put out? It was challenged the entire way to the court, and the court ruled that it is a defensible figure in terms of the laws in Northern Ireland. We may disagree very strongly on a number of matters. However, I can say very categorically that those people who strongly take a different position care just as much about women, but they also care about this issue. We should be respectful of that and the different views we have across this House.
The hon. Lady has had her chance.
It would have been one thing for this House to vote to impose abortion on Northern Ireland in the face of every Member of Parliament representing Northern Ireland voting against the measure, in the knowledge that the most recent abortion vote of any UK legislature on primary legislation was in the Northern Ireland Assembly in February 2016, when the people who should be making the decision voted not to change our law in any way. A national opinion poll last week showed that the majority of people in Northern Ireland do not want to see the liberalisation of abortion planned by Members of this House.
When I think about what will be imposed on my part of the United Kingdom from Tuesday, I am left utterly speechless. Between 22 October 2019 and 31 March 2020, the only law on this that will be in place in Northern Ireland will be the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945, which is not engaged until the point at which a child is capable of being born alive. That effectively means that we would have a legal void in terms of protections for the unborn until at least 21 weeks of gestation, and potentially up to 28 weeks’ gestation. It means that from Tuesday some unborn animals subject to research will have more statutory protection in Northern Ireland, thanks to the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, than some unborn human beings. It is absolutely unbelievable that anyone would do this, and the Members responsible need to look at themselves very seriously. It is deeply troubling.
It also means that from Tuesday, quite unlike any other part of the United Kingdom, we will effectively have unregulated abortions, with all the attendant risks for women. The Government say in this report that they intend that the NHS will not significantly change the way it provides abortions until 31 March, but I find the emphasis that they place on this deeply disturbing. The Minister knows that; I spoke to him this afternoon about it.
Abortions need not come from the NHS. From Tuesday, it will be legal for private clinics to provide abortions in Northern Ireland. The Independent Health Care Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2005 place a statutory duty on the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority to register and inspect independent hospitals and clinics that meet the stated requirement for registration, but those regulations are wholly inadequate. We must have legislation in place that protects people.
Currently, there are two conditions that would require an independent clinic to be registered with the RQIA: the first is that an independent clinic intends to carry out a prescribed technique or make use of prescribed technology; and the second that a medical practitioner working in the clinic is not otherwise engaged in providing services to health and social care in Northern Ireland. Abortion provision is not a prescribed technique or technology under the regulations, which means that only independent clinics that do not employ any doctors who also work for the NHS will be subject to this regulation. Again, a minefield of regulation.
Moreover, and this is of huge concern, this regulation will be quite unlike that pertaining to abortion clinics in England, where the activity of providing abortions is subject to abortion-specific regulation and the premises is subject to abortion-specific regulation and a series of abortion-specific required operating standard procedures. It is about the technical parts of the procedure. The Minister knows this; we talked about it this afternoon. None of those abortion-specific regulations will apply in Northern Ireland on Tuesday for at least five months.
Another important safeguard that currently applies in England but will not apply in Northern Ireland on Tuesday is regulation 20 of the Care Quality Commission (Registration) Regulations 2009, which deals with requirements relating to the termination of pregnancies. What is most shocking, however, is that the change in law means that from Tuesday there will be nothing to prevent someone without any medical qualifications at all offering abortion services. With respect I say that Government will thus cross a line that has never been crossed before: Government will potentially make backstreet abortions legal. This should not be about going back to the pre-1967 days, but it will be on Tuesday unless the Assembly returns by Monday. That recall is in process and hopefully can be achieved; if it can, this can be stopped, and the responsibility will lie with the Northern Ireland Assembly’s elected representatives, as it should.
Regardless of what one thinks about abortion, we cannot countenance this outrageous legislative framework for a day, let alone five months. In that context, I have a simple question for the Government and those in the Northern Ireland Office specifically: what were Government thinking when they agreed to the text of section 9 of the 2019 Act in the other place? They could have stood up for the women of Northern Ireland, as I am doing tonight, for the unborn and for babies alive in the womb, and pointed out that the safety implications of what section 9 proposed were just as inappropriate for the women of Northern Ireland as they would be for the women of England. They did not. This has to count as one of the most serious failures of governance that I have ever encountered. I say this honestly and respectfully to the Minister and to Government.
We debated the matter in this House and we made it clear—I said it myself—that the way in which it was done, and I understand that it was made clear by the proposers, with the date as it was, left inadequate time to deal with many issues that need to be in place. We have ended up with a period when the regulations will not be in place. Some Members have already acknowledged that. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is wholly unacceptable, sad and disappointing and that it should never have happened?
Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. If the Assembly is not restored on Monday, the Government have an almighty problem on their hands.
I say again that the majority of people in my constituency are very clear that they do not want liberalised abortion in Strangford or across Northern Ireland. It would be better if the Northern Ireland Assembly made that decision, and I hope that the recall on Monday will be a way forward.
I had not intended to speak. I do not know that this necessarily needs to be an argument about the rights and wrongs of abortion, although it seems to have strayed into that.
I start with the point that we are now in a Trumpian time, when we talk about big issues on Twitter rather than in these Chambers. The Secretary of State commented on Twitter that the Government had discussed this issue with Church groups. I ask the Minister what other health matters on the UK mainland and in Northern Ireland we have discussed with Church groups. I wonder whether on, for example, the hormone replacement therapy crisis—there is a lack of HRT—the Government have spoken to St Mary’s Church in Moseley, Birmingham.
The hon. Lady may not be aware of many of the sensitive issues in Northern Ireland, but Church groups have been talked to particularly around historical institutional abuse. Many young children were abused by Church institutions. It is a particularly sensitive issue, and we are asking the Churches to be involved in the compensation process.
My father is from Northern Ireland and I have grown up in the shadow of some of the issues of Northern Ireland, given where I come from. I understand the issues incredibly well, and the problems that Northern Ireland has faced over the years, including with the Church and institutional abuse. There is a something of difference between talking about institutional abuse that the Church was a perpetrator of with Church groups and discussing whether we should file prescriptions for certain things with them. The point I am making is that there is no other health issue in this country that we would first discuss with Church groups, so why is this clinical, health matter being discussed with Church groups rather than clinicians or women’s groups? I ask the Minister to let us know. I am sure that the people who scurry along to the Minister with bits of paper can tell us which women’s groups the Government have spoken to—here we go. I will be fascinated to hear the answer.
Very often there are matters, including in healthcare, that touch on life and death, in which the Churches become involved—for example, proposals for end-of-life issues. Many Churches have come forward because members of their congregations are midwives and nurses. There is an absence of any reference to conscientious objection, which is common—for example, there is a case in the Republic of Ireland. There are legitimate reasons for members of congregations across the Church community to get involved, not just in the life and death issues, which they are also concerned about, as many people are on these Benches and across Northern Ireland.
I absolutely do not doubt that all sorts of organisations have people in their congregations, in this instance, or in their number who lobby them. Lots of women lobby me every day from Northern Ireland, from every constituency over there represented on these Benches, asking me not to forget about the women of Northern Ireland and asking me to stand and give voice to their voice. I totally understand why Church groups might also want to give their voice. But I have never heard a Secretary of State tell me that they have been discussing this particular clinical health matter with Church groups. I do not mind if they discuss it with Church groups, to be honest, as long as they also discuss it with women’s rights groups: Women’s Aid Northern Ireland, for example, who have very strong opinions on this, specifically in the cases of victims of domestic abuse, or the rape crisis centres in Northern Ireland. I very much hope that every single one of those women’s rights groups, equal to any Church group, was consulted. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how that was done.
I also ask the Minister how he would feel if he had to have an examination that he felt a little bit uncomfortable about—I will not embarrass him by naming some of them—and he had to get on a plane and go to Belfast to have it, and not just that, but to have any treatment. I ask him now to imagine that he had not had to go to Belfast and that he was in lovely Worcester, a fine place in the midlands, and that he went to the doctor to ask a question about something that was wrong—again, I will not embarrass him, but let us say something about his fertility, or because he did not want to have children any more—and the doctor told him that he could no longer continue the conversation because if he did he would be criminalised. That would never happen here. My husband went to have a vasectomy; if it had happened in Northern Ireland nobody would be criminalised for that, yet when a woman wants to talk about her fertility that is exactly what happens.
To take that one step further, what if someone was unable to travel because they did not have any photographic ID, because they had childcare that needed to be taken care of, or because they were in a relationship where, because of its nature, they were desperately worried about the other person finding out the situation?
My hon. Friend makes an incredible point, and that is something we were told again and again when I and colleagues from across the House visited Northern Ireland with the Women and Equalities Committee. We absolutely met with Church groups and pro-life groups, but we also met women who had been victims and had not been able to escape. We met migrant women who would not have had the paperwork to travel. We met lots of women who told us how tortuous the journey had been, as we heard earlier.
I think—in fact I do not just think, I know, because this House has voted for it—that this House wants the situation to change. This House wants things to change under the auspices of the powers in Northern Ireland, but that has not happened before this date. I therefore seek some more assurances from the Minister that this is not an issue that can just be given back to the Assembly halfway through. One of our colleagues from Northern Ireland made the point earlier that if a recall is successful over the next few days, there would be a First Minister in place if the Assembly is recalled as opposed to the Executive being formed—[Hon. Members: “Nobody said that.”] I am afraid somebody definitely did say that.
What I said was that if there was a recall of the Assembly on Monday—it takes 30 Members for that to happen—the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will have to be nominated. Only then can it go forward. That is what I said; Hansard will prove that.
I retract, then; that was not how I heard it. So even if the Assembly is recalled, unless the First Minister can be nominated, as has been explained, we are still in exactly the same position as we are today where our legislation continues to roll over.
I ask the Minister to understand why people—women mainly, but lots of people in this House—have felt the need to come here and make these representations, and why we feel more nervous about this issue than we do about equal marriage. No mention has been made of that issue. My experience in this House is that a woman’s right to choose is, for some reason, much more difficult for people to deal with than the idea that you can love who you want, although both have been difficult over the years. I ask the Minister specifically to say that there is nothing going on that we should have to be concerned about, because it very, very much seems to us and to the women of Northern Ireland who have been in touch with us today that that is what is going on.
I am very grateful to have the opportunity to speak in this debate. During the course of my remarks, I hope to consider what I can only describe as the conspiracy theories that have been shared in the Chamber this evening: mistruths, suggestions that do not have any bearing in fact, and assumptions that have been raised about the motivations of individuals who represent Northern Ireland, in this Chamber or at home, that are wholly without foundation and, I have to say, incredibly unhelpful when we consider the reports before us this evening.
Before I commence my remarks, may I welcome the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) to the Scottish National party Front Bench on Northern Ireland issues? I hope that that is a recurring thing. He is an honourable man, and we look forward to his contributions and interest in Northern Ireland.
I listened very carefully to what the Minister had to say on a range of issues, but I want to focus on two of them. The first is on military issues and the reports on legacy, investigations, the presumption against prosecution, and measures he will be aware of about the full implementation of the armed forces covenant in Northern Ireland. I know that the reports we are considering tonight were first published on 9 October. I know they were printed and laid before us on 14 October. It is simply not good enough, however, to indicate this evening that there has been no further progress since the publication of those reports.
I was outraged by the text of the report that builds on the one from a number of weeks ago, which does not in any way address the national commitment that this Parliament has given to veterans in the United Kingdom; a national commitment that transcends our internal borders, one that should apply equally to those who put their lives on the line for this country be they living in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. To suggest that nothing substantive has changed, when, following the Gracious Speech on Monday, the Prime Minister stood in this Chamber and confirmed to two hon. Members that he was going to legislate on these matters, is a shame. It is a shame that that was not reflected in the comments this evening. For those who are interested in ensuring that service and sacrifice for this country from Northern Ireland is as equally valued at home as it is in the rest of the United Kingdom, it is a material change and it should have featured in the contributions this evening.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree with me that we are very proud of the contribution made by our armed forces. We are not just talking about Operation Banner. Northern Ireland accounts for about 3% of the population of the United Kingdom, yet more than double that percentage represents Northern Ireland’s contribution to the reserve forces, for example. We box way above our weight when it comes to our contribution to the armed forces. It is wrong that those men and women who are prepared to serve their country do not get the same benefits from the military armed forces covenant as others.
My right hon. Friend is entirely right. This is an issue that we are going to have to return to. When I read the reports before us this evening, the very first line told me that I did not really need to read the rest. The report was based on information from the Northern Ireland Office. That said it all to me. I say that with great deference to the Minister and officials at the back of the Chamber. As somebody who sits on the Defence Committee and who knows the reports that we have published on these issues and what the Government response has been, particularly from the Ministry of Defence, I can say that to rely solely on information from our good friends at the back of the Chamber is simply not good enough.
On talks, it is right that there will be an opportunity, which I hope is seized, for the Assembly to return on Monday. There has been some strange confusion or concern around this quest to have the recall of the Assembly, as though that in some way satisfies the Act. We cannot elect an Executive unless the Assembly meets. One can only follow the other, but it is high time that there was a return to devolution in Northern Ireland. Back in July, when we considered the amendments that are being discussed this evening, we could not have been clearer that, irrespective of the personal interests of Labour Members or the way in which they have campaigned on these issues continually—it is entirely their right to do so—to focus on two issues solely and not in any way to include other issues or aspects of encouragement would have one fundamental impact: it would prove to be a disincentive to the restoration of the Assembly. We need only look at comments made by a party leader in Northern Ireland today. When asked whether their party leaders would support the recall of the Assembly, the response was, “No, because we would lose out on the proposals that are due on 22 October.”
There are many at the moment who clearly have not been following proceedings in this House or the many, many things that my party colleagues have said over the last—sadly—1,000 days since the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive last met. Does my hon. Friend agree that there has been a call for this? Some people have said, “Why now? Is it to prevent this?” Many, many thousands of people care really deeply about the issue on both sides; they are deeply concerned about it and want the Assembly to meet. However, does he agree that this is a point that I—we—have been raising in this House continually? The Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive need to get back now and start delivering the critical public services—health, education and other issues—for the people of Northern Ireland, because everybody in Northern Ireland is suffering?
I could not agree more. It was a great shame that back in July, that disincentive was provided to the restoration of the Assembly, and we are seeing the outworkings of that.
Is it not bizarre that those who propose the changes in this legislation and who framed it in a way that allowed the Assembly to return, failed to recognise that disincentive? Even this evening, when it is suggested that these devolved matters should be considered by a devolved Assembly, should it be restored, they are outraged. They are outraged by devolution, outraged by local democracy and outraged that people who are elected to represent their constituents in Northern Ireland, from whatever perspective, should have the ability to legislate on the issues that matter.
For the avoidance of doubt, no Labour Members are opposing devolution. Many of us have been strong supporters of it in many different ways. We are concerned tonight to hear that a piece of legislation written in good faith in this House is going to be amended to say something different by the Government—that is what the Minister will have to do, because it does not say that. That is the concern. This is about honesty with the British public about what we voted for and intended that is now up for grabs.
There is no concern about honesty. There is no denying the will that this House has shown, nor is there any difficulty in acknowledging the court judgment that came before Belfast last week. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) may shake her head, but she knows very well that the individuals involved in that case are close to me—they are constituents of mine—but the law is the law. However, her refusal to accept that locally elected politicians should have a role in the consideration of regulations that are brought forward is rather obtuse. It is an afront to democracy. If we have devolution, and if we wish it well and want it to succeed, I would rather the House recognise that we should give it the opportunity to do so.
This is a case not just of dismissing devolution but of pretending to speak on behalf of the women of Northern Ireland. In the Belfast Telegraph just a few days ago, polling showed that across every age group and gender, people in Northern Ireland were against changes in the rules on abortion. Some 54% of 18 to 24-year-olds and 51% of women are against the changes proposed.
That is right. The people of Northern Ireland are concerned by the proposals and by the absence of any regulation over the next five months. We will be devoid in Northern Ireland of any legislative protection. The Minister referred to section 25 of the Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Act. I do not believe he was right. I would like him to consider this point. He indicated that it provided a legal protection from termination during this five-month period, but it only applies to a woman whose pregnancy is at such an advanced stage that the child is capable of being born and living. We are talking about towards the end of gestation, arguably 27 or 28 weeks. At that stage, there would be some difficulties, but not a barrier.
People have talked in this Chamber about legislation in England that says that healthcare professionals have to be regulated individually, but that is not the case in Northern Ireland. The piece of paper I am holding here is a legal opinion from a QC who is pre-eminent in the field of healthcare. He is also a former Labour Member of Parliament: David Lock. This legal opinion lays out in stark terms the lack of any legal protection that will be available in Northern Ireland over the next five months. [Interruption.] I see people sitting on the Labour Benches to my right dismissing this, shaking their heads and saying it is not true. Well, it is, and it is not just their former colleague making this point. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has made exactly the same point. It said:
“The likelihood of individuals resorting to potentially unsafe practices remains while prosecutions under the criminal law have been removed and a healthcare process not yet been established.”
In Northern Ireland, we regulate the buildings not the people. I wish to ask the Minister a series of questions. I will understand if he cannot answer them in full this evening, but if he cannot, I think we will need a written response in quick time. Can he indicate which piece of legislation in Northern Ireland over the next five months will preclude terminations where there is not a person qualified to do one? What law stops a non-qualified person, when consent is present, from carrying out such a termination? What legislation precludes terminations taking place anywhere or what legislation requires a termination over the next five months to take place in a hospital or clinic? Those are serious questions.
The hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) raised the concerns of women in Northern Ireland. They are concerned about the lack of any legislative protection whatsoever as a consequence of the cavalier attitude taken when passing the legislation in the House.
I understand that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about this, but he is simply wrong to say that the Act, which only repeals sections 58 and 59 of Offences Against the Person Act 1861, removes all legal protection. For example, will he confirm that the Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 1945, which refers to child viability in Northern Ireland, will still be in place? It is not removed by this legislation. It is simply not true that there will be no legal or regulatory framework. He might want a new one, but it is not true that it does not exist.
The hon. Lady has not answered any of my questions. She does not accept, as the Minister outlined in the report, that section 25 of the 1945 Act is not adequate. She does not accept that in Northern Ireland we do not regulate individuals who carry out procedures, and she does not accept that we have no legislation that would indicate where those procedures can take place. She does not accept the views of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which has expressed its concerns very clearly. I can assure you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission does not often look to me for advice, and nor do I look to the commission. We approach things from completely different perspectives, but we have exactly the same concerns.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to exceed my allotted time. I think that the interventions have been helpful, and I am thankful for the opportunity to speak.
We have heard thoughtful and at times vociferous contributions from Members in all parts of the House. It is clear that, while there are very disparate views on the issue of abortion, the House wants the Northern Ireland Executive to be restored in the shortest possible order. I think everyone who has spoken today has spoken in favour of that.
Let me, however, make clear to the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) that the Government have no intention of amending the legislation. She spoke about the Executive and the Assembly. She was right to say that the legislation refers to the restoration of the Executive, and the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) was also right to say that an Assembly needs to be in place for the Executive to be restored. It is clear that if that happens on 21 October, the Government’s requirement under the Act to legislate on these matters will fall away, and it will be for the Assembly and the Executive to take matters forward. If it does not happen, the Government will act as they are required to do by the legislation. I hope that that gives the hon. Lady some reassurance following the concerns that she has raised.
Although we did not gain much insight into the speech of the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), I have just read a tweet from her alleging that there is some sort of conspiracy, that the Democratic Unionist party made an agreement with the Government, and that that is why this is not going to happen. Would the Minister like to take the opportunity to make categorically clear that that is not the case, that this is a sensitive subject that we all want to get right, given the mess that we are in because regulations are having to be made and there is not enough time in which to do that, and that we should all treat this issue with the utmost seriousness and without this type of nonsense?
The hon. Lady is right to say that this is a sensitive matter, and we should all seek to get it right. Let me make clear that we will take the action that is required by the law, and that means that more guidance will be published. We have already published guidance for healthcare professionals—on 7 October—to confirm the new state of the law during the interim period and their responsibilities. The guidance was published on gov.uk and circulated via the royal medical colleges. It also contains information for healthcare professionals in Northern Ireland about the funded abortion services in England that are available to women from Northern Ireland under the existing UK Government scheme. The healthcare professionals will be able to refer women to the service if the requirements of the Act come into force on 22 October.
The hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) asked about information on service provision. It is already available, and more information will be made available as we move forward with the process. The hon. Gentleman also asked an important question about the Secretary of State returning to the House. I can confirm that, as and when any extension of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act was considered or as and when any other powers were sought, the Secretary of State would need to come to the House in order to deal with that.
When the issue of historical institutional abuse was raised during debate on the Bill that became the Act, the Secretary of State promised that there would be legislation, and it was mentioned in the Queen’s Speech. Has the Minister any idea of the date when that legislation will be introduced? It will affect thousands of people in Northern Ireland.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As we heard from the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) at the beginning of the debate, the legislation is already proceeding in the House of Lords, but I have undertaken to write giving more details about the timetable, and I am happy to repeat that undertaking.
Concerns have been raised about supposed backstreet abortions. We should be very clear that repealing criminal offences specifically relating to procuring abortion does not repeal other relevant criminal laws that exist to protect individuals. Medical procedures are carefully regulated and have to be carried out, as has been noted, on regulated premises with appropriate quality and care oversight. The guidance we published should help to support that.
The repeal of sections 58 and 59 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861 means that women who take pills without prescription and medical supervision will be able to seek assistance and proper aftercare treatment without fear of prosecution. It will remain an offence under medicines legislation to sell or supply abortion pills online without a prescription. It is also an offence to carry out an abortion where the child is capable of being born alive except where it is necessary to save the woman’s life.
As I said in my opening remarks, we will enhance the travel scheme to enable more women to access services free of charge in England and Wales. The point was made that this is not an ideal situation—it is not a situation that anyone wants to persist—and that is why, in answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for Belfast East, services will be available under the framework after March 2020, as required by the law. That is an issue we intend to address. I would say, however, that we believe that the net effect will be to reduce the number of women who might otherwise seek a termination without adequate and appropriate medical assistance; I think Members across the House will welcome that.
I will not be able to answer all the hon. Gentleman’s questions, but I undertake to write to him after this debate and to try to come back with more details on that front.
The hon. Gentleman also raised the important issue of veterans, and I am certainly happy to respond on that. We are clear that the current system for dealing with the past is not working well for anyone, and we want to see more progress on this issue. The Government remain fully committed to finding a solution for dealing with the legacy of the troubles that works for everyone, and that means a solution that meets the needs of victims and survivors, ensures that members of the armed forces and the police are treated fairly, and complies with the UK’s domestic and international legal obligations.
The Prime Minister has said he wants absolutely to protect the armed forces covenant and protect our veterans, and I absolutely support him in that, and my Secretary of State has undertaken to work with the new office for veterans’ affairs to ensure that we can do that in the appropriate way.
As the report notes on the sensitive issue of abortion, if the duty comes into effect on 22 October, relevant criminal law will be repealed and a criminal moratorium will come into effect, but services are unlikely to be widely available given the policy and delivery considerations required in the following months to implement the new framework, and we are going to work at pace to ensure that the appropriate measures, including publication of further guidance and communications, are brought into effect. I absolutely commit to engaging with women’s groups in the process of the consultation period, and with the medical professionals at the forefront of this issue, making sure we get it absolutely right.
It is important that we move forward in a sensitive manner on these issues. It is clear that the time for the Executive to take this into their own hands and for the parties in Northern Ireland to shape this process is running out; only a matter of days are left for them to be able to step up and influence that process. I come back to a point that was made by the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald): greater challenges have been overcome in the past by the parties in Northern Ireland being prepared to work together. I would ask them to rise to that challenge, as the House has so clearly demanded today, and to ensure that we have an Executive in place in the shortest possible order.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Report pursuant to section 3(5) of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, which was laid before this House on Monday 14 October.