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Volume 791: debated on Wednesday 6 June 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the result of the referendum to repeal the eighth amendment of the constitution of the Republic of Ireland, what assessment they have made of its impact on the ongoing criminalisation of women seeking access to abortions across the United Kingdom.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as the chair of the All- Party Parliamentary Group on Sexual and Reproductive Health.

My Lords, under existing arrangements women across the United Kingdom have access to high-quality, safe abortion services. Parliament decided the circumstances under which abortion can be legally undertaken. It is accepted parliamentary practice that proposals to change the law on abortion come from Back-Bench Members and that decisions are made on the basis of free votes.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. Do the Government not think it is wrong that women in Northern Ireland can be coerced to continue with a pregnancy under legislation passed in 1861 by MPs, all of whom were men elected solely by men? Does he not agree that to overturn Sections 58 and 59 of the Offences against the Person Act would enable the men and women of Wales, Northern Ireland and England to determine under what circumstances women should be able to access safe, legal abortion?

It has been the position of successive Governments that abortion policy and law is a devolved matter for Northern Ireland, to be decided by elected politicians in Northern Ireland on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland. That is our position: they should be the group that makes the decision.

Can the Minister confirm, given the decision by a majority of the democratically elected Northern Ireland Assembly made in February 2016—an Assembly elected by the men and women of Northern Ireland—that it does not wish to change abortion law, and given that it has been recognised since the Government of John Major that Westminster would not impose abortion on Northern Ireland, that if the Government move to decriminalise abortion in England and Wales or to direct rule in Northern Ireland, they will not impose any change in abortion law on the people of Northern Ireland, particularly at this most difficult and sensitive time?

Our intention—that of the Government and the Northern Ireland Office—is to restore a power-sharing agreement and arrangement in Northern Ireland so that it will be up to the people of Northern Ireland and their elected officials to decide on abortion policy.

My Lords, the Northern Ireland Assembly is not meeting at the moment. This matter, which is the issue of the Question put by the noble Baroness, is not a devolved matter. Could the Minister give the House an indication of the Government’s response to the debate led by my honourable friend Stella Creasy in the Commons yesterday? A cross-party amendment will be tabled to the upcoming Domestic Violence Bill that will seek to decriminalise abortion across England, Wales and Northern Ireland through the repeal of Sections 58 and 59 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861. That is not a devolved matter.

I merely reiterate the point that abortion policy is a devolved matter. Indeed, that has been the policy of successive Governments of all hues. Of course, it is ultimately up to Parliament to make a decision, and any move that came from Parliament would emanate from within Parliament, from the Back Benches, on the basis of a free vote, as I set out in my first Answer.

My Lords, would the Minister agree with me that if, in fact, Westminster legislates on this matter, effectively devolution has been put off for a long time? Does he accept that this is a matter for the people of Northern Ireland and its elected representatives? Incidentally, the DUP is ready to go back into the Assembly tomorrow morning.

I agree with the noble Lord that it is and should be a decision for the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland. As anyone who watched or read the transcript of the debate in the Commons yesterday will know, there is a profound disagreement about what the implications would be of repealing Sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Act. If that were brought forward, there would be a discussion in Parliament on the consequences of that and on its interaction with the devolution settlement.

My Lords, following yesterday’s debate in another place, the Minister for Women and Equalities said:

“With authority comes responsibility. Message from NI Secretary of State today: NI should take that responsibility. Message from the House of Commons: if you don’t, we will”.

Does my noble friend agree?

The position of the Government is that this ought to be a decision for the elected representatives of Northern Ireland representing the people of Northern Ireland, which is why we are determined to restore power-sharing agreements and arrangements as soon as possible—so they can make that decision.

If the Supreme Court rules tomorrow that Northern Ireland’s abortion laws are in contravention of human rights laws, will the Minister confirm that the Government will move to repeal sections of the 1861 Act and decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland?

As my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland set out in her statement yesterday in the debate, we are aware of the decision coming imminently tomorrow and that both we and the Northern Ireland Executive will consider that judgment carefully.

My Lords, will the Minister agree that the caricature of the people of Northern Ireland as living in some antediluvian society has to be measured against a law that has led in Great Britain to some 9 million abortions—that is one every three minutes, 20 every single hour and 600 every working day, with one in five pregnancies now ended by abortion, and abortion up to and even during birth in the case of babies with disabilities, leading to 90% of all babies with Down’s syndrome being aborted? Is that something that we have a right to export to Northern Ireland, or do we not have a belief in devolution and the right of people in Northern Ireland to make up their mind on that issue for themselves?

I would not presume to make a caricature of the people of Northern Ireland in one way or another. What this debate has demonstrated is that there are deeply held beliefs in this area and, of course, there are significant consequences of decisions on abortion law in one regard or another. It has emphasised that those decisions, which are incredibly significant, ought to be made by the people whom they affect, via the elected representatives whom they put in power.