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Northern Ireland: Misoprostol

Volume 792: debated on Wednesday 5 September 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they are making to authorities in Northern Ireland to make the use of Misoprostol legal as is already the case in England, Scotland and Wales.

Abortion law has been a devolved matter in Northern Ireland since devolution was established in 1999. The Government recognise that this is a sensitive issue and that views are strongly held by both sides. Any reform in Northern Ireland is rightly one for a restored Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive to debate and to discuss and ultimately to decide what policy and laws are right for the people of Northern Ireland.

In response to the specific question posed by the noble Baroness, she will be aware that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is legally prohibited from making such representations under Sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act and the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland).

I thank the noble Lord for that Answer, although it is not surprising and it is completely disappointing, particularly for the women of Northern Ireland. I congratulate the Government on the fact that after Christmas women in England will be able to take the abortion pill Misoprostol at home; I congratulate the Government on taking that decision. Meanwhile, however, in Northern Ireland women are forced online to purchase these pills. They risk prosecution, and indeed have been prosecuted when they have done so. This is a human rights and equalities issue, and that is not a devolved matter. What steps will the UK Government take to end this inequality and the criminalisation of women in Northern Ireland?

The noble Baroness makes an important point. We in England are making significant progress with regard to Misoprostol, but the reality remains that Northern Ireland has a number of challenges, all of which require a full and sustainable Executive to be in place. The last time that wider questions on abortion were discussed, only a few years ago, the diversity of opinion within the Assembly was significant. It is right and proper that these matters be addressed by the elected representatives of Northern Ireland. That is why my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is working tirelessly to bring about a restored Executive.

Is the Minister aware that on Monday Belfast City Council, which has members from seven political parties, voted for the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland? Notwithstanding his remarks, does he understand that there is a growing desire to see abortion decriminalised in Northern Ireland, and that at the moment there is no way for that political will to be fulfilled?

I am fully aware of the opinions that are being expressed in Northern Ireland, not just on abortion but on a range of issues. If only we could see such a unity of purpose and opinion across all the parties in Northern Ireland now, it would bring about a restored Executive and we could see significant progress on this matter made by the right group of individuals—namely, those democratically elected by the people of the Province. That is the ultimate sensible and sure way of bringing about policies that have the endorsement of the wider population.

My Lords, as the Minister confirmed, this is a devolved matter—a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly. Does he agree that, as recently as February 2016, the democratically elected Assembly decided not to change the abortion law in Northern Ireland? Does he also agree that, in this context, it would be wholly wrong for Her Majesty’s Government or this House or the other House to change Northern Ireland’s present legislation?

The noble Lord brings to our attention a reality check, which is that in 2016 in the Assembly in Belfast there was not the unanimity of position that the noble Baroness on the opposite Benches alluded to in Belfast itself. That is a reminder of how sensitive the matter is, not least because it is a wider matter of conscience but also, again, as a fully devolved matter it should be taken forward by those elected to the Assembly in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, it may be a devolved matter of conscience, but does the Minister agree that this situation is ridiculous? While women in Northern Ireland can take contraceptives that destroy a human embryo, they cannot have access to a simple procedure that prevents them having a much more dangerous operation later on during a pregnancy.

The noble Lord raises some of the underpinning challenges in this area. It is now very clear that the situation in Northern Ireland can be brought to a sensible way forward only when we have an Executive best able to deliver against those policies. It should not rest either on this House or the other place to do that. I hope that all the representations that can possibly be made by noble Lords today will strongly encourage the parties of Northern Ireland to come back to that table and to secure agreement to form an Executive, so that these decisions can be taken where they need to be taken.

My Lords, cannot my noble friend take steps to ensure that the Assembly, which has been elected, which exists and which could debate this issue, is called together to do so?

My noble friend reiterates a point we need to stress, which is that the last time this matter was discussed in that Assembly, the consensus did not bring about the changes that I think a number of noble Lords wish to see. At present we need to have a fully functioning Executive to draw on the powers of the Assembly and take executive action in this area, should it be the will of the democratically elected MLAs in the Province.

My Lords, following my noble friend Lady Thornton’s Question, will the Minister clarify what is devolved and what is not devolved in this issue?

The wider matter of abortion remains fully devolved. The evolution and introduction of new technologies and drugs that can bring about that abortion still rest under the overarching architecture of the legislation as it pertains to abortion. In these areas, to bring about appropriate legislation to address this, it must be developed and taken forward by the Assembly and the democratically elected individuals of Northern Ireland. That is very clearly the position that we must strive toward: to secure a sustainable Executive who can ultimately deliver their response to the very important questions raised by a number of your Lordships today.