Motion to Approve
My Lords, in opening this debate I first acknowledge and express my respect for the deeply held views that many noble Lords hold and will continue to hold on this subject. For my part, since becoming a Member of your Lordships’ House in 2016, I have never taken a position on the moral rights or wrongs of abortion; indeed, I have not previously voted on the issue. Therefore, rather than reopening the ethical debate about abortion, which has been discussed on previous occasions including during the passage of the 2020 framework regulations, I wish to focus on the legal obligations on the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Government and how these regulations will address them.
The origins of these regulations were the decision taken by both Houses of Parliament in 2019 to support an amendment to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill brought forward by the honourable Member for Walthamstow, Stella Creasy, in the other place, in respect of access to abortion services in Northern Ireland. Noble Lords will recall that this took place during the period of nearly three years from 2017 to 2020 when Northern Ireland was without a functioning Executive or Assembly. The effect of her amendment, which subsequently became Section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act, was to place a clear statutory duty on the Government to ensure access to services that are compliant with the report in 2018 of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women—or CEDAW for short.
I remind noble Lords that the amendment was passed by a majority of 332 to 99 in the other place, and a vote to amend that amendment in this House was rejected by 138 votes to 39. The size of these majorities indicated the clear will of Parliament to address these issues and ensure access to services in Northern Ireland in line with those available in the rest of the United Kingdom. As a result, since April 2020, access to a limited range of abortion services has been available in Northern Ireland; the latest figures I have show that between 31 March 2020 and 31 January 2022, 2,794 such abortions took place.
I take this opportunity to put on record my thanks to the medical professionals who have ensured that women and girls have had some local access to abortion services in Northern Ireland up to this point, and the organisations that have supported this work. I do not underestimate the huge efforts that have been made, and I have deeply been impressed when meeting, as I have on a number of occasions, clinicians and organisations who have helped to sustain the limited services currently in place.
Despite their best efforts, however, these services still fall far short of what is required by law, with women and girls still unable to access high-quality abortion and post-abortion care locally in Northern Ireland in the same way as women in the rest of the UK. The reasons for this are very clear. Following New Decade, New Approach and the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland in January 2020, it was always the Government’s expectation and preference that the Executive, with the relevant legal powers, policy and operational expertise, would take forward the commissioning of abortion services and ensure that they were embedded in the health and social care system in Northern Ireland. Yet, despite having had every opportunity to do so, and extensive engagement by the UK Government to see how best we could support delivery, the Executive have failed to act.
As a result, women and girls in Northern Ireland continue to be placed in vulnerable situations, which we cannot allow to continue. Many of them are still forced to travel to Great Britain to access services, with 371 making the journey in 2020 despite the difficulties attached to travelling during that period. Figures released just today show that 161 made the journey in 2021. I know from my discussions with clinicians in Northern Ireland that the limited services on offer are stretched to breaking point. This is clearly an unacceptable state of affairs. Despite being given the time, space and encouragement by the Government to do so, the Executive have not ensured the provision of services required by Parliament in 2019.
In the spring of 2020, the Government introduced, and Parliament approved, a framework for the Department of Health in Northern Ireland to deliver services, yet services were not commissioned. In March 2021, the Government introduced, and Parliament approved, the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations. These provided the Northern Ireland Secretary with a power to direct that action be taken where it is required to implement the recommendations in paragraphs 85 and 86 of the CEDAW report. In July 2021, the Northern Ireland Secretary did indeed direct the Department of Health to commission and ensure the full provision of abortion services by no later than 31 March 2022, yet services were still not commissioned.
It is approaching nearly three years since the executive formation Act was passed. Section 9 continues to place the Government under a duty to implement the CEDAW recommendations and ensure that women and girls have access to services. We now have no alternative but to take all necessary actions to ensure that this happens.
In his Statement, therefore, on 24 March this year, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland committed to return to Parliament and make regulations after the Northern Ireland Assembly election which took place on 5 May, if no progress was made towards the delivery of services. He has now made the regulations that are before your Lordships today and they were agreed in the other place last week, in order to make sure that the will of Parliament is respected and his legal duties upheld.
In response to arguments made that these regulations ignore the devolution settlement and make constitutional changes via secondary legislation, I would remind noble Lords that the devolution settlement does not absolve us of our statutory duty to uphold the rights of women and girls in this context. I therefore hope that noble Lords will support these regulations without amendment to the approval Motion.
The Government have not taken these decisions lightly. We remain fully committed to protecting the Belfast agreement in all its dimensions and to the institutions it establishes, including devolved government. In this instance, however, as I have just said, the devolution settlement does not absolve the Government of the clear statutory duties placed upon them by Parliament. This Government’s actions up to this point reinforce that position and our desire to work with the devolved institutions. Indeed, it was only once it became clear that this deadline would not be met that on 24 March, my right honourable friend made a commitment to return to Parliament and make regulations on abortion should they be necessary. As a result, these regulations were laid before this House on 19 May.
Turning briefly to what they contain, they remove the need for the Northern Ireland Executive Committee to approve services before they can be commissioned and funded by the Department of Health in Northern Ireland. The regulations do this by providing that directions under the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2021, which require action to be taken to implement the recommendations of the CEDAW report, must be complied with irrespective of whether the matter has been discussed or agreed by the Northern Ireland Executive Committee. Further, they confer on the Secretary of State the power to do anything that a Northern Ireland Minister or department could do for the purpose of ensuring CEDAW compliance. For the purpose of determining what a Northern Ireland Minister or department could do, any need for Executive Committee approval will be disregarded.
The effect of this is to ensure that the Department of Health will have no further barriers to commission and fund services. Even at this stage, it is our clear preference that the Department of Health should drive forward the commissioning of abortion services without further delay and that, as a devolved matter, funding remains the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive. To that end, we continue to engage with the Minister of Health and his department, but this requires an absolute commitment by the department to provide services, or the Northern Ireland Secretary will use his powers in these regulations to commission services himself. To ensure that we have all the information required in those circumstances, a small team has been established in the Northern Ireland Office to work alongside the Department of Health to take this forward.
I recognise that this is a sensitive and personal issue for many people, and we have heard many differing views in this House on previous occasions, as well as from Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, in relation to abortion services. Yet this sovereign United Kingdom Parliament has also made its views crystal clear and placed a binding statutory duty on the Secretary of State to ensure access to properly commissioned services. In their absence, caused by a refusal on the part of the Executive to take this forward, women are currently forced to choose to travel or to resort to unsafe and unregulated measures.
A number of the clinicians I have met over recent months, who are struggling to provide these services without proper support, tell me of the very difficult situations into which women are being forced by a lack of safe, local, high-quality healthcare services. This is despite the fact that the law is in place to ensure that safe, properly regulated services are provided. We have a statutory duty in Section 9 of the executive formation Act to change this situation and ensure that CEDAW-compliant services are available. That is what these regulations will finally provide in Northern Ireland, and I commend them to the House.
Amendment to the Motion
My Lords, as the Minister said, there has been and continues to be very significant opposition to the imposition of the extreme abortion regime in Northern Ireland by this Government. It was done in July 2019, in circumstances that beggared belief. It left Northern Ireland with abortion law that goes further than that which applies elsewhere in the UK and that has been, and continues to be, rejected by the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland. Notwithstanding that opposition, the Northern Ireland Government have been acting in compliance with the 2019 Act and the 2020 regulations—I will deal with this in a minute.
The process by which we in Northern Ireland are governed is provided for in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. In its third report, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee of your Lordships’ House stated that these regulations
“allow the Northern Ireland Assembly Executive Committee to be bypassed”.
The Executive Committee is provided for in Section 20 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Section 20(3) and (4) provide:
“The Committee shall … have the function of discussing and agreeing upon … significant or controversial matters”
and those that cut across the responsibility of more than one Northern Ireland Minister. Accordingly, the Ministerial Code requires Northern Ireland Ministers to bring such matters to the attention of the Executive Committee. Abortion is a significant, controversial matter.
On each occasion when draft regulations have been presented to Parliament following the passing of the executive formation Act, they have extended abortion provision in Northern Ireland; it happened in 2020, in 2021 and now, in 2022. Despite the fact that a duly elected and appointed Northern Ireland Minister of Health is in office and working, we see an attempt to bypass him and give the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland powers that are not available to Northern Ireland Ministers or their government departments. All of this is inconsistent with the existing statutory provisions for government in Northern Ireland and with the international obligations of the British Government under the 1998 Good Friday/Belfast agreement.
Ignoring the expressed views of the people prior to the passing of the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020, Northern Ireland now has an abortion law that goes far beyond what was legally required by the formation Act 2019. Regulations provide that abortions can be carried out up to 12 weeks, permitting abortion of any baby, for any reason, including on the grounds of its sex. This provision is not consistent with the UN CEDAW report, on which the 2019 legislation was based. CEDAW has said that sex-selective abortion should not happen because it perpetuates negative stereotypes and prejudices towards women. I believe that it is not permitted in the rest of the UK.
Abortion can be carried out up to 24 weeks if one nurse or doctor certifies that
“the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk of injury to the physical or mental health of the … woman which is greater than if the pregnancy were terminated”,
taking into account her “actual or … foreseeable circumstances”, such as poverty. Again, this is much wider than in the rest of the UK.
Abortion can be carried out in Northern Ireland up to birth, if it is
“immediately necessary … to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health, of the pregnant woman”,
if two doctors or two nurses certify that the termination is necessary to prevent such injury and if there is a
“substantial risk that … the child … would suffer from such physical or mental impairment as to be seriously disabled.”
This would include babies with Down syndrome or cleft palates. Again, this is much wider than in the rest of the UK.
As the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, said in 2020, speaking of babies with disabilities, this
“promotes and perpetuates disability discrimination.”—[Official Report, 15/6/20; col. 1981.]
So in Northern Ireland we have babies’ lives being terminated because of their sex or their disabilities, among other reasons.
In 2021, the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations gave expansive powers to the Secretary of State, allowing him, for the purposes of implementing the recommendations in paragraphs 85 and 86 of the CEDAW report, to direct that action must be taken by Northern Ireland Ministers, departments, the Regional Health and Social Care Board and the Regional Agency for Public Health and Social Well-being. However, it is a discretion, not a duty. It says he “may” act. He does not have to act, and if he does not act, there will be no successful challenge.
Now we have the 2022 regulations. First, they disregard the statutory role of the Northern Ireland Assembly and ignore the devolution settlement. Secondly, they make substantial constitutional changes by way of secondary legislation. It is not the case that the Northern Ireland Assembly is in breach of its legal obligations to implement CEDAW. It is work in progress. Many changes have occurred. Abortion has been decriminalised in most situations, as required. Abortion is now available in Northern Ireland. The Minister has access to figures, which I could not find when I checked again this morning, and he has told us that there were 2,794 abortions in Northern Ireland in the last year and that in the previous year there were 1,345. These figures represent a 60% increase on the number of those who went to England and Wales for abortions in 2019.
The exclusion zones mentioned in the CEDAW report have now been provided for in law, in a Bill that was passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly and is currently, I believe, subject to legal challenge. As I have said previously, the Secretary of State is not in breach of his obligation. He has a discretion, not a duty, and this is work in progress.
I now address the first issue: that the regulations disregard the statutory role of the Northern Ireland Assembly and ignore the devolution settlement. The democratically elected Northern Ireland Assembly, acting in accordance with its constitutional processes, did not choose to legislate further or to commission directly abortion services that are otherwise provided. Abortion is available; 2,794 abortions in our small area is evidence of that. The Northern Ireland Assembly could have done so but it chose not to.
Your Lordships know that the history of Northern Ireland is tragic. After decades of war, the Good Friday/Belfast agreement of 1998 provided for the process of government within Northern Ireland. The arrangements that we have protect the rights of citizens by providing for the Assembly and the Executive, comprised of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, who are joint chairs, and eight other Ministers. Their job, as the Government’s website says, is to exercise executive authority on behalf of the Northern Ireland Assembly and to take decisions on significant matters and issues. Health is, as I have said, one of the matters that have been devolved to Northern Ireland. The Government’s website says:
“This means that local politicians, instead of MPs in Westminster, make key decisions on how Northern Ireland is governed.”
It is most regrettable that after our last election in May, there is as yet no sitting Assembly and no Executive. However, in the absence of the Assembly, Ministers in office before the election continue to hold office and have decision-making powers. There is a working Minister of Health, Mr Robin Swann MLA of the Ulster Unionist Party. He has massive responsibilities. Our health service has been described as “broken” by the director of the Royal College of Nursing and as “extremely broken” by a leading ED consultant and many others. We are short of some 7,000 medical and nursing staff.
There were 2,794 abortions last year. In April 2021, more than 300,000 people, almost 20% of our population, were waiting for a first consultant appointment. On 31 March 2022, 156,270 patients were waiting, having seen a consultant, for a diagnostic test and 50.7% of patients were waiting more than nine weeks for a diagnostic test to find out whether they have conditions which may be very serious or even life threatening. Some 29.6% of patients have been waiting more than 26 weeks for a diagnostic test. Only 43% of all cancer patients start treatment within 16 days of an urgent GP referral for suspected cancer.
We have amazing cataract waiting times. I declare an interest because I have cataracts and am awaiting surgery, but the waiting time is four to five years. However, you are not allowed to go on the waiting list until your eyesight is so bad that you cannot drive. You wait, with deteriorating sight, until you cannot drive, and then you wait another five years.
Just yesterday, Minister Swann published an action plan setting out a programme of reform for the delivery of stroke and orthopaedic services. Northern Ireland has 25,526 people waiting for orthopaedic treatment. I declare an interest as I am on the list. They can expect to wait four or five years for surgery that will give them mobility, without which their physical and mental health will in all probability decline further.
Abortion has been made available within the law. As Minister Swann has stated:
“My Department does not dispute that women in Northern Ireland are legally entitled to abortion services. The legal advice that was received by my Department states that the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020 do not require my Department to commission the relevant services. Registered medical professionals can now terminate pregnancies lawfully.”
There is, as the Minister said, nothing in the legislation thus far that requires the independent commissioning of abortion services. Rather, they are made available through normal procedures.
Abortion is a costly business and profitable for those who provide the services. UK health reports that it costs £500 for the abortion pills you can take up to nine weeks of gestation, rising to about £800 for an abortion up to 18 weeks and about £2,000 after that. The Minister and his department are working hard to try to resolve the massive problems faced by our health system across the board.
If passed, these regulations would fundamentally alter the principles of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, which created a sophisticated process for decision-making. As I state in this amendment, they
“make substantial constitutional changes via secondary legislation”.
They would allow the Secretary of State to bypass the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive Committee entirely. They are not in any way limited. However, the Northern Ireland Ministerial Code makes clear that the Northern Ireland Act ensures that significant and controversial issues are for the Executive to decide.
The regulations give broad, sweeping powers to the Secretary of State effectively to act as a Northern Ireland Minister without having been appointed as a Minister in accordance with the provisions of the Good Friday agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and without any accountability to the people of Northern Ireland. Effectively, they would allow the Secretary of State to take command away from the duly elected and appointed Minister of Health in the areas of abortion services and all the other areas mentioned in paragraphs 85 and 86 of the CEDAW report, from the Minister for Justice and, in education, the Minister of Education. The regulations would give the Secretary of State all the powers of those Ministers to allocate resources and do anything a Minister or department could do, and to provide financial assistance for the purposes of ensuring that the CEDAW recommendations, which we brought into domestic law, are implemented.
If these regulations were passed, the Secretary of State would be able to take these decisions in isolation, having no regard to the impact of his decisions on the allocation of resources for neurology patients, cancer patients, orthopaedic patients, patients with cataracts and other eye problems, and patients in all other areas of medicine. The Minister of Health is in office and working to try to manage the impact of Covid on our broken health service. Undoubtedly, brave decisions need to be made to secure greater efficiencies and allow more people to be treated more quickly; however, there is no need for the drastic, unaccountable powers over elements of government that would be given to the Secretary of State were these regulations to be approved.
The 2020 regulations, which allowed Westminster to introduce a completely new abortion framework to Northern Ireland after the Executive have returned in a devolved area of policy, overruled the devolution settlement. All subsequent attempts to expand this abortion regime are but a further bypassing of—indeed, an ignoring of—our constitutional arrangements, which are fundamentally vital to our peace. When both the 2020 and 2021 regulations were passed, the overwhelming majority of MPs representing Northern Ireland who take their seats in Westminster voted against them. In June 2020, in the Northern Ireland Assembly, 75 of the 90 MLAs from across the community voted to oppose the imposition of abortion legislation that discriminated against those with non-fatal disabilities, including Down syndrome, and an absolute majority specifically voted against the imposition of abortion regulations that would allow disability discrimination, yet this is what Westminster did in the 2021 regulations.
I have referred to the third report of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. Regulation 2 of these regulations enables the Secretary of State to act in a way inconsistent with the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Is it right for your Lordships to pass regulations that do this—that drive a coach and horses through the delicate, finely balanced, democratic processes established by statute and by an international agreement? Surely not. As noted in the other place, this raises troubling questions about the delineation of power between, for example, the Minister of Health and the Secretary of State. For example, from whom do civil servants take instruction? Specifically, when can the Secretary of State countermand a direction of the Minister? Were the Secretary of State to overrule a decision made by the Northern Ireland Health Minister, what are the funding implications of such an act for the Northern Ireland budget?
Under these regulations, the Secretary of State will not be accountable for the public funds committed to implement any decision he makes. The regulations thus create ambiguity at the heart of the machinery of government and could thus lead to a serious lack of clarity and conflict between the departments of health and other ministries and departments. As I have said and as the Minister acknowledged, abortion is now available in Northern Ireland. There were 2,794 abortions up to March 2022. The claim, therefore, that these regulations are needed and wanted is not sustainable. Under our constitutional arrangements, it is for the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive to decide how to give effect to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 and the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020.
Any fundamental constitutional changes, such as the bypassing of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and other relevant legislation, and the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, should be made only in primary legislation, where they can be scrutinised and debated fully, not via a regulation such as this. Your Lordships’ House should not approve these regulations. I beg to move.
My Lords, I give my whole-hearted support to the amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, and thank her for tabling it. This is a free-vote issue, of course, and the proceedings here today are of huge interest to the people in Northern Ireland. There are not many controversial issues in Northern Ireland that can be defined as neither orange nor green and cannot be interpreted by anyone as sectarian. This is one such issue. On a lot of Northern Ireland political issues, I am sure I probably would not agree with the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, but this issue unites people across faiths and communities with different identities in Northern Ireland.
Up until 2019, as the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, has said, Northern Ireland had the right to decide its own laws on abortion. Then, some politicians here in Westminster decided that they could overrule the hard-won devolution settlement, and their campaigning was pretty tireless. But for me, this goes to the heart of whether devolution is to be meaningful. The Belfast/Good Friday agreement is meant to be the basis of all political decisions in Northern Ireland, and these regulations—and indeed the whole way the abortion debate has been handled by the Secretary of State—are, I believe, driving a coach and horses through that agreement.
I hope that Members of your Lordships’ House will actually take away the word “abortion” and not talk about abortion itself and their own personal views on the rights and wrongs of abortion, because this is much more fundamental. This is a fundamental constitutional change being proposed by regulation. The Secretary of State presented the regulations in the other place as changing the Northern Ireland Act in a limited and specific way, but that is simply not the case. These regulations set a precedent. They go right against the constitutional guarantee and give the Secretary of State power to make any decisions he sees fit, ignoring the will of the people of Northern Ireland.
Back in 2018, the Secretary of State said:
“it would not be appropriate for Westminster to seek to impose its will, or to be the arbiter of an issue that has long been devolved to the people of Northern Ireland.”—[Official Report, Commons, 5/6/18; col. 220.]
What happened? Why has he changed his mind? He has done a complete U-turn, and perhaps the reason is that he was being held prisoner by so many women actively campaigning on this issue. Now he wants to be the Minister of Health in Northern Ireland, or perhaps the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Health.
I genuinely think that the way this whole issue has been handled is shameful, and even more shameful when there are so many other crucial issues in Northern Ireland that the Government have chosen not to push forward. When it suits Her Majesty’s Government, they want devolution and they believe in devolution. When it does not suit them, they take away devolution, and that is what this is about today. Forget the issue of abortion: this is about the constitutional sabotage of devolution and the 1998 Act.
My Lords, I speak in favour of the regulations before us this afternoon. As others have said, abortion is always a complex and highly emotive issue that is ultimately a matter of conscience for noble Lords. But in the debate this afternoon I think it is important to try to hold on to the facts and acknowledge why we are once again having to debate these issues. As the Minister set out in his opening remarks, we are debating these regulations because the Northern Ireland Department of Health has failed to make progress on implementing the 2020 regulations.
The 2020 regulations sought to bring Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the United Kingdom on reproductive rights for women and to ensure that the whole of the United Kingdom met its international requirements through CEDAW. I am very pleased that the Minister acknowledges the importance of adhering to our international legal obligations. In essence, we are debating two issues: the United Kingdom’s adherence to international treaty obligations, and the provision of equality of access for women in Northern Ireland to the same levels of reproductive healthcare as women can access in the rest of the United Kingdom.
For those colleagues who are concerned about the potential impact of these regulations on the devolution settlement in Northern Ireland, as a very firm believer in devolution, I believe that these are an exceptional set of circumstances that should not create a wider precedent. It would of course have been hugely preferable for the Northern Ireland Executive to have fulfilled their responsibilities directly following the adoption of the regulations in April last year. In that respect, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan. However, once again, Northern Ireland finds itself without a functioning Executive, so it is currently not possible to make progress in this regard.
The international treaty obligations in CEDAW were signed by the United Kingdom as a whole, so the Government in Westminster have a duty to ensure that the whole of the United Kingdom implements them in full. This debate is really about implementing a law that has now been in place for over two years. It should not be about reopening or unpicking what should be a settled matter. A woman’s right to choose in Northern Ireland remains in a precarious position. The reality is that women continue to be forced to travel to England for abortion services; some women, in certain parts of Northern Ireland, continue to purchase unsafe abortion pills.
Whatever one’s personal view on abortion, surely this is an unacceptable position. There is an urgent need to see consistency of services and rights to reproductive health across Northern Ireland. For this to be possible, it is important that the commissioning process be concluded as soon as possible, to ensure that services are fully accessible to all who need them. Can the Minister reassure us that the necessary funding will be made available, and give an indicative timetable for this to be concluded?
In summary, these regulations are about ensuring that every part of the United Kingdom adheres to our international treaty obligations, so that every woman in Northern Ireland will finally be entitled to the same level of reproductive healthcare as women in the rest of the United Kingdom. I therefore urge noble Lords to support these regulations and to reject the amendment to the Motion from the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan.
My Lords, I am conscious that it is not commonplace for Prelates to comment on matters that extend to Northern Ireland only. However, what made me reluctant to speak on this matter is the same driving force that has brought me to speak—the fact that this was, and should be again, a devolved matter. My desire and aim today is not to speak around the rights and wrongs of the matter but to state my discomfort that this debate is happening in this place at all.
I believe the mandate for decision-making on this matter lies in Northern Ireland, with the newly elected Executive. I would much rather see increased efforts towards their establishment than our making decisions on their behalf. Much was said in this place, and in print and online media, about the fact that the regulations we seek to amend today came through this House and the other place when there was no sitting Executive in Northern Ireland. I was one of those frustrated at the timing, and I feel that it happened when there was no sitting Executive precisely because they would never pass such legislation. It was imposed, and these regulations continue to impose on Northern Irish people in what I believe is an unacceptable way.
The point could not be made more clearly than in the first proposed amendment in the regulations before us:
“The fact that a matter has not been brought to the attention of, or discussed and agreed by, the Executive Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly is to be disregarded”.
I am no stranger to legal language, but this does not make good reading. On top of this, we are also asked to support amendments which place financial demands on the devolved health service to fund decisions thrust upon it.
For these reasons, I am happy to see the amendment expressing regret from the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan. I fully support it, because no word can better describe how I feel about these regulations coming to this place than “regret”. I am happy for those in Northern Ireland to disregard my comments if they are considered unhelpful or unsolicited, but for this House to put into statute that the views of the Northern Ireland Executive should be disregarded in this way seems to me wholly wrong.
My Lords, it is my firm belief that arguments about devolution are being used to disguise the fact that we are actually talking about human rights. The European Court of Human Rights has held repeatedly that access to abortion law is a human right. We do not always like it—only a week ago, some people were up in arms because the European Court of Human Rights put a spoke in the attempt to send people to Rwanda—but we have accepted it. Whether one likes it or not, there is a human right to abortion which women have been denied for a very long time in Northern Ireland. One would be more sympathetic had Northern Ireland not apparently made a mess of its health system—and of course, one recalls that not so long ago, illegitimate newborn babies were put in baby homes and taken away from their mothers. I cannot accept this excess care for the embryo when the actual live baby is then taken away from its mother.
Northern Ireland is clinging to us through the Northern Ireland protocol. It is only right that it should not have its cake and eat it. Northern Ireland must accept abortion; it is a human right. I strongly support the Motion before us, and I hope that we will not amend it.
My Lords, I commend the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, on bringing this amendment to the Motion before your Lordships’ House today. In the event that she presses it, I assure her that my colleagues and I will support her.
I have set out my views on the 2020 abortion regulations and 2021 regulations before your Lordships’ House on earlier occasions. My opposition to the 2020 regulations is well known. The Secretary of State himself said in the other place last week that they
“go beyond what is in Great Britain”.—[Official Report, Commons, Delegated Legislation Committee, 16/6/22; col. 3.]
In April 2021, I said:
“The union has worked hitherto because Parliament has recognised that it cannot be used to impose a uniformity that undermines the key distinctiveness of the component parts.”
I said then that I thought that the 2020 and 2021 regulations
“do not provide grounds for overruling devolution or, more fundamentally, the understandings that make it possible to argue for the relationship that exists between the UK’s four component parts.”—[Official Report, 28/4/21; cols. 2269-70.]
I feel that even more strongly today.
It is extremely regrettable that we find ourselves talking about implementing the 2020 regulations, which were opposed by 79% of those who responded to the Government’s consultation in 2019 and which were not made with any involvement of the devolved Assembly and, as a result, any accountability to the people of Northern Ireland—citizens who have not been granted the right to decide their own abortion law through the representative process. My firm belief that this should be a matter dealt with by the Executive and the Assembly remains true.
Today we are discussing the 2022 regulations, which are already in place and give zero accountability to the people of Northern Ireland and fundamentally alter the Belfast agreement. Whether you agree with the 2020 regulations or not, the methods being used by the Government should make us all stop, pause and ask, “Is this the way we want our democracy operating?” For instance, would this be acceptable in a Scottish or Welsh context? I suspect not.
There is recognition by all three devolved Administrations that there are some matters that need to be dealt with centrally in a united manner; for instance, defence spending. The Northern Ireland Act 1998 recognised that there are times when it is appropriate for the Minister to direct the Executive, but these are narrowly defined in Section 26 as situations of national security or public safety, or where an action is needed under international law. We know that the Northern Ireland Office believes that the 2021 regulations do not fit any of these Section 26 criteria. It said that very explicitly last year in the Explanatory Memorandum, and it was for that reason that the Secretary of State gave himself new powers of direction.
The 1998 Act also acknowledged that matters that are significant to the Northern Ireland community are for the Northern Ireland Executive to decide. The law and policy on abortion fit this criteria, so, rightly, decisions in this area are for the Executive and not for the Minister of Health to make alone. Last year, the Minister took powers to make directions; this year, he has gone further in two respects: first, by saying he can make directions without any reference to the Executive, and secondly, by acting as if he were the Minister for Health and/or the Department of Health. The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee said that these regulations give “extensive powers” to the Secretary of State, powers that have no accountability to the Northern Ireland electorate. This is a fundamental constitutional change proposed by regulation powers that the Minister confirmed last week he intends to exercise “relatively soon”.
These regulations set a precedent that we need to consider very carefully. They override the constitutional agreement that certain matters should be for the Executive and override the narrow criteria when the Secretary of State can act.
There are political questions to ask about why the Secretary of State is deciding to act now on this issue, when there was no action from the Government to make important decisions for Northern Ireland when the Assembly was suspended for three years. There are very practical questions to be asked and answered. The Secretary of State has made it clear that he intends to take these powers relatively soon, but when he does so how will his powers work alongside those of the Northern Ireland Minister of Health? Who will officials be responsible to and how will they take instructions from Westminster? What if there are conflicting instructions? How will the decisions the Minister says he is going to take affect the budget in the Northern Ireland Executive, and particularly other services that come under the Department of Health? What consequential budget decisions will need to be made by the Minister of Health because of the decisions made by the Secretary of State? How long will the powers last? Will these decisions be ongoing? Will the Minister of Health be constantly looking over his or her shoulder, wondering what decisions the Secretary of State may make in future years that could impact spending on policy?
In the other place, the Minister argued that questions about the budget were irrelevant because there had been a generous 2021 spending review settlement with more funds allocated to Northern Ireland than at any time since devolution. Really? I wish to draw your Lordships’ attention to the fact that over the period 2019-20 to 2024-25, the settlement will have been a real-terms increase of only 0.8%. I quote these figures from the 2021 spending review document. Since then, inflation has significantly increased, so it is right that the Northern Ireland Executive are cautious about spending, especially when that increase is compared to the 2.3% real-terms increase for Scotland and a 2.8% increase for Wales. Given this low increase, the Secretary of State may indeed find himself needing to use Regulation 5 to give grants or loans, and it is not clear how the Northern Ireland Executive will be able to fund any repayments. Nor is it clear how there will be transparency, or whether these decisions are good for the rest of the block grant or represent good value for money—a key Treasury principle. These are not theatrical questions. The Department of Health will be facing them very soon.
In summary, these regulations are counter to the devolution settlement. They set a precedent that should be a concern to the other devolved Administrations and will allow actions by the Secretary of State without any democratic accountability. Finally, this decision by government to push ahead with this issue further destabilises the devolution settlement.
My Lords, the moral dilemma of abortion is a fraught and complex one in which I do not intend to get too involved. In this country, it raises great passions; in the United States of America, it brings about conflict and leads to shootings, which I think we all regret. But it is the termination of life.
Personally, I believe that abortion is often necessary; it may be necessary for a great many reasons. However, I hope we would all regret that last year in the United Kingdom there were more than 200,000 abortions—I think that is right—which means that abortion has just become an extension of contraception, with all the dangers to mothers’ lives, apart from anything else, that go with it.
Although I may regret that, this debate is nothing to do with the morality of abortion. As we have just heard from several speakers, this is to do with the devolution of power to Northern Ireland. Some eight years ago, I worked in the Northern Ireland Office for a year. Devolution is very important. We know there are issues with it, but either we have devolved health to Northern Ireland or we have not. It seems to me that this is a matter of great principle. Notwithstanding any crusades in the House of Commons by one or two people, such as Stella Creasy, this is a matter that must be decided by the people of Northern Ireland. We should not be going there.
My Lords, I fully support the amendment to the Motion introduced by my noble friend Lady O’Loan. I strongly endorse the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn, and the noble Lords, Lord Robathan and Lord Morrow.
I say gently to my noble friend—for she is my noble friend—Lady Deech that, among the 30 articles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there is no right to abortion. Article 3, on the other hand, guarantees the right to life itself. All the other rights are worthless without that paramount right to life.
It is fitting that this debate is taking place around an amendment that regrets this Motion because there is so much to regret in what Parliament is being asked to agree. We should register our profound regret for every life that will be lost because of this decision, at suborning the devolution settlement, and for measures that set aside ethical proprieties and are deeply flawed and frankly questionable, not least on the grounds of workability. These regulations are about more than just how abortion services are commissioned in Northern Ireland. They raise serious questions about devolution and highlight key constitutional challenges that go beyond abortion and should be of grave concern to your Lordships’ House, as we have heard. That is where I want to begin.
Today, the key question for your Lordships is this: should the constitution of this country be set aside on the basis of regulations alone, particularly when the regulations in question are vague and fail to set out how and when the power that they confer will be exercised?
I care about this deeply for a number of reasons. I led a delegation to see John Major when he was Prime Minister and urged him to make abortion a devolved matter—an argument that he accepted, as did Tony Blair. That delegation included leading figures from each of the constitutional parties then in the House of Commons, drawn from across the political divide. Indeed, for many years, I have been a parliamentary spokesman on Northern Ireland; I have come to respect and admire the people of Northern Ireland. I passionately believe that their voices deserve to be listened to, and that power-sharing through devolution holds the key to its future.
Each constituent part of the United Kingdom is permitted by virtue of devolution to take decisions that best meet the needs and political outlook of that part of this nation. The people of Northern Ireland have consistently elected to their Assembly people who take a different view concerning abortion than that expressed in other parts of the UK. Although attitudes and voting patterns in Northern Ireland may well change, the new Assembly has been elected only recently and this question is yet to be put to it. The clear constitutional imperative remains: devolved issues should be decided only by the devolved Administrations, who have been given the power to set policy and law for their area. It is arrogant in the extreme to overturn that principle, especially on an issue that is, for millions of people, not a marginal question but, as I have said, about the very right to life itself.
Regulation 2 permits the Secretary of State simply to bypass the Northern Ireland Executive and the Assembly. The Explanatory Memorandum states that
“a direction given under those Regulations must be complied with irrespective of whether any matter has been brought to the attention of, or discussed and agreed by, the Executive Committee of the Assembly.”
Even if a way forwards is agreed by the Northern Ireland Executive, or indeed the recently elected Assembly, the Secretary of State can simply make any direction he sees fit, even if it is in direct contravention of the decision made by the Executive or Assembly. Even if a majority of elected representatives in Northern Ireland disagree, they will be duty-bound to follow the decision of the Secretary of State. That cannot be right, and as a parliamentarian committed to the principle of devolution, I contest, as I have done in previous debates, this high-handed decision. Surely it would not be tolerated if it was in Scotland or Wales, and it should not be tolerated in Northern Ireland either. To set aside devolution and all it entails by statute would be bad enough, but to do so through regulation, regardless of whether it is technically legally permissible, is troubling indeed.
Constitutional questions aside, let me turn to the question of workability and efficacy. I urge the House to scrutinise these regulations with care to see how vague and perhaps unworkable they are. By virtue of Regulation 3, the Department of Health in Northern Ireland could sit outside Executive control for decisions on abortion. This is clearly a concern for accountability and control, as we have heard, of that department itself. Whatever decisions are directed by the Secretary of State must be funded and commissioned. Both decisions must be implemented by the Department of Health, and that is regardless of whether the decision has been brought to the attention of the Executive and, more importantly, the Department of Finance. How can a Government function if the commitment to spend large sums of money no longer requires the input of the Finance Minister or their department? Clearly, the regulations create an accountability and transparency deficit. More than that, Regulation 4 allows the Secretary of State to function as the Minister of Health, and that creates a clear democratic deficit.
It also gives rise to serious questions as to how a department with two masters is to function. Where does the power of the Minister end and that of the Secretary of State start? From whom do civil servants take their instructions? How does the Secretary of State take the power to act as the Minister, and how is that power brought to an end? This seems to me an area where considerable further consideration is required. Regulation 5 allows the Secretary of State to make any financial arrangements that are needed to implement decisions. This allows for loans and grants, but will also require the commitment to enter into contracts and significant ongoing expenditure. If the Minister of Finance is not involved in these decisions, as Regulations 2 and 3 envisage, who is accountable for the decisions made? If loans are taken out that cannot be repaid, who answers for that maladministration? If contracts do not represent good value for money, who attends the Public Accounts Committee to defend that decision?
The statement of funding for a devolved Administration is clear: if the UK Government make decisions that financially bind a devolved Administration, the United Kingdom department that makes those decisions pays. These regulations go against the Government’s own policy. They not only bind the Northern Ireland Executive to funding decisions made without consent but refuse to pay or be accountable for those decisions they have made. Put simply, abortion is an issue for the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive to agree and implement. Irrespective of one’s views about the substantive issue of how the Executive and Assembly deal with it, taking the decision out of the hands of the people of Northern Ireland and giving it to the Secretary of State is dangerously cavalier and intrusive governance. It should remain for the people of Northern Ireland to determine the issue for themselves.
This brings me to my final point, about the substantive and sensitive nature of the issue itself. Opinion polling undertaken in 2019, after Westminster made changes to the law, showed that a majority of people in Northern Ireland opposed those changes and how extensive they were. A LucidTalk poll conducted at that time found that 52% of the public opposed the far-reaching legislation on abortion, and only 39% supported it. The people of Northern Ireland do not support laws that go much further, as my noble friend explained, than those in the rest of the United Kingdom. To be clear, the effect of these regulations would be to allow the Secretary of State to implement something that is not supported in Northern Ireland and is even worse than the law in the rest of the United Kingdom; a law which—the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, was right— leads to about 200,000 abortions in this country every year.
Put another way, since the law was introduced in 1967 there have been 10 million abortions in the UK, which is 600 every day, one every three minutes, including 91,000 repeat abortions last year alone. On abortion right up to birth, as my noble friend reminded us, in the case of a child with a disability, including cleft lip and palate, 90% of babies with Down syndrome— 859 babies—were aborted last year alone, an increase of 24% on 2020. That is eugenics.
It is worth noting that 100,000 people born in Northern Ireland during the years that our laws did not apply there would not have been born if this law had been in place. It is absurd to suggest that those who assert that both lives matter, that of the mother and the child, should be overruled because Westminster knows best. This is not, as some have suggested, a settled matter. Historians considering this defining question in the future will puzzle over the intolerance which no-platforms or closes down alternative points of view.
I am old-fashioned enough to believe in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person. I am old-fashioned enough to believe that autonomy and choice do not trump that right. I am with the scientists when they tell me, without equivocation, that life begins at conception. We are equal from day one and should be protected, loved and cherished. For me, it is about that supreme right and our duties to protect the vulnerable. The noble Lord, Lord Caine, introducing the debate, talked about unsafe abortions. One thing is clear: every abortion is unsafe for an unborn child.
My views on abortion are well known. Beyond that substantive question, and regardless of whatever position we hold personally, we must be respectful of one another’s views, whatever those views may be. It is clear that these regulations create a democratic deficit. Quite simply, the people of Northern Ireland have not been allowed to determine these issues for themselves, as they have the right to do. Without democratic legitimacy, and with a failure to ensure reasonable accountability and scrutiny for decisions which will result in significant financial commitments, this will breed even more contempt and mistrust in our institutions. There is so much to regret in these regulations, and, like my noble friend Lady O’Loan, I cannot support them. I will vote with her if she decides to divide your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, it is impossible to have a pick-and-mix constitution. I approach this entirely from a constitutional point of view. My views on abortion are similar to those expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in his very thoughtful and thorough speech, but I do not want to follow him along that road.
As a democrat and a constitutionalist, I accept that abortion is entirely legal within England. I accept that it is entirely legal within Wales and Scotland. I accept, although I deeply regret it, some of the legislative moves on the gender issue that are being made in Scotland. All those years ago in Parliament I opposed devolution for Scotland, but that is over and done with. We are where we are. Therefore, we accept that the United Kingdom is united with the United Kingdom Government on the great issues—foreign policy, defence, et cetera. However, if we accept that we have devolution, it cannot be pick-and-mix devolution. Therefore, it is wrong for us to dictate to the people of Northern Ireland, whose views, so far as we can assess them, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, a moment or two ago, indicate that they do not want this. We may think that is benighted. Many of your Lordships may think that it is wrong and would be entirely justified in taking that view.
But we have devolution. It is very important indeed that Northern Ireland gets its act together. We would not be debating this today had there not been three years without a proper Assembly and Executive in Northern Ireland, and we are now in another period where we do not have a functioning Executive. As one who loves Northern Ireland and got to know it fairly well when I was chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in another place, I deeply regret this. I would say to my many friends in Northern Ireland that they should, please, get their act together—but we in this United Kingdom Parliament should not take back powers that we have devolved. That is what we would be doing; indeed, it is what we have done already.
Let us not forget that Northern Ireland has a much longer history of devolution than any other part of the United Kingdom, going back 100 years. We have decided that Northern Ireland should have autonomy in certain areas; for example, it should be responsible for its education and its health. I greatly admire my noble friend the Minister; he has done a great deal for Northern Ireland and relations within the United Kingdom, and he is a man with whom I do not disagree lightly. However, in all conscience—fundamentally this is both a constitutional issue and an issue of conscience—I cannot accept what the Government are asking us to do today.
I suspect a significant number of your Lordships will take a different view—that, of course, again, I respect —but I come back to where I started. If you have devolution, and devolve certain things to the constituent parts of the United Kingdom, you cannot mix and match. You have to be consistent with your principles. I believe that the only way of being consistent with our principles in this is not to support what my noble friend advanced but to support the line taken by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, in her amendment.
My Lords, I did not think I would sit and listen to more than about 10 minutes of this debate, as I expected to hear a very familiar argument about the morality and legality of abortion, on which my views were long ago established. I have always been in favour of legalising abortion. Indeed, I am quite liberal and tend to go the liberal end of a woman’s right to choose. However, I have found myself listening to a very challenging debate that is not on that subject at all; it is on the question of what should be within the scope of the powers that we have devolved to the constituent parts of the United Kingdom.
The speeches have been extremely eloquent, if I may say so humbly and without being patronising; there have been some very moving speeches. However, I am not sure that they altogether satisfy the case for opposing these regulations. We are debating what the exact scope should be of what we have devolved to the different nations of the United Kingdom.
There is absolutely no doubt, and it is quite right that it was done, that we devolved the day-to-day administration and delivery of the National Health Service to the four constituent Governments. They enjoy considerable autonomy in that and, if I may say so, some have been more successful than others in tackling what are always, in any case, immense and challenging problems that something like the National Health Service is always going to face. The question here, however, is: when we devolved responsibility for the management and delivery of the National Health Service, did we devolve the extent—the range—of services that were going to be available to those who, for the time being, lived in that particular nation?
The present position is that if an English family moves to Northern Ireland for work or other reasons—there are English, Welsh and Scottish families in Northern Ireland—they find that abortion is not available in the part of the United Kingdom to which they have now moved, when it is available in the rest of the country. Presumably nobody thought the problem would arise at the time, although it was fairly predictable and I not sure that it is a very logical situation.
I am struck by the parallel with the debate going on in the United States of America at the moment, with the imminent decision that everybody expects from the Supreme Court. There seems every probability that America will move even more firmly in the direction of the availability of abortion depending on which state you live in and which political party is the governing party, for the time being, of the state to which you have moved. If the politics of state in which you happen to live is currently very restrictive, large numbers of women will move to have abortions in those states that still permit it. We regard this, from outside, as one of many grave threats at the moment to the political stability of the United States of America, but we have it. We have four devolved nations, three of which have abortion on fairly liberal grounds. One does not, and women in large numbers therefore leave Northern Ireland if they are in need of an abortion and move to get the operation they require in a part of the United Kingdom where it is available.
I really do not think that is desirable. I do not think anybody anticipated it when the devolution settlement was made. It is a very important ethical and constitutional question, but I think there are certain things that are intrinsic to the fact that I am a citizen of the United Kingdom. One thing that one should be absolutely guaranteed, if one is thinking of moving about in the United Kingdom—it is not relevant to me, but it is relevant to people who get themselves into sad circumstances—is that the availability of abortion should not depend on the politics of the particular part of the United Kingdom in which one lives. I think the British Government—the UK Government—are entitled to intervene to make sure that the scope and availability of the services that people need are universal across the United Kingdom.
I suspect that no one foresaw it and it is a very difficult problem to solve now, but although there are huge practical problems to be faced, I hope we are facing up to the question of what we will do about the financial consequences of making the Northern Ireland Government pay for a new service in the health service that they do not actually want. It will be difficult in practice, but in principle, as a matter of constitution, thinking of the kind of United Kingdom that I trust we all want, it is proper for the Government to take this step and I have risen only to try to rebalance the debate. There is a serious issue, but I trust that the Government will get the majority they seek.
I commend the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, on her amendment. I can assure her that if it is pushed to a vote, I will be very happy to support it. I would like, however, to correct the noble and learned Lord, Lord Clarke, who has shown a somewhat inaccurate knowledge of what is happening in Northern Ireland. He said that there is one region within the United Kingdom where there is no abortion law. In actual fact, the very opposite is the truth: we have the most liberal abortion law of any region of the United Kingdom. If the noble and learned Lord wants to speak on the issue, it is best that he reads up on the reality of the situation, because his speech a few moments ago showed a total lack of knowledge of the reality on the ground in Northern Ireland in respect of abortion.
The availability of the service is much more restricted in Northern Ireland. If I said that the issue was the legality in Northern Ireland, that was a slip. There is no doubt that access to abortion is much more restricted in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the United Kingdom—that is the whole point of this debate.
But what he said was somewhat different—however, I want to move forward. I acknowledge that this is a very sensitive matter and different sides have deeply held views on it throughout the Northern Ireland community. The Secretary of State acknowledged that to the Seventh Delegated Legislation Committee in the other place last Thursday, but he then deliberately and defiantly—given the views held by many hundreds of thousands of people in Northern Ireland—sought to push through his regulation.
The Secretary of State also acknowledged that these regulations “go beyond” what is in Northern Ireland, in spite of the Government never having asked the people of Northern Ireland to give their express democratic opinion on this matter through the ballot box. Over the years, Northern Ireland has taken an approach to the protection of the unborn that is different from any other region of the United Kingdom—but that was regarded to be part of the beauty of devolution. This difference reflected the views of the people of Northern Ireland, which is what democracy is supposed to do: reflect the views of the people whom politicians serve.
The Secretary of State reminded the committee that “emphatic votes” on this ethical issue in 2019, 2020 and 2021 showed the will of the House of Commons to “implement abortion services” in Northern Ireland. That is factually correct, but this matter was devolved to Stormont—yet, in 2019, a group of MPs, none of whom were or are accountable to the people of Northern Ireland, decided to cast aside the devolution settlement and take it into their own hands. Sadly, their decision was aided and abetted by Members of your Lordships’ House. This happened in spite of the fact that we are daily told that the Belfast agreement must be upheld at all costs—yet, at the whim of the Secretary of State, to placate Sinn Féin and its fellow travellers, the fundamental principles of this international agreement have been altered. The protection of the unborn, which was cherished by the people of Northern Ireland, has been swept aside.
Earlier I noted that the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, said that this is being done because of “exceptional” circumstances. That is interesting, because in Grand Committee tomorrow we will debate another devolved issue, in the Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill, so where does this all stop? Is there any real reason for a devolved Government? Is this House really saying, “If you don’t do what we want, we will take the power from you. We will override your decision and make it for you”? So much for those who profess to believe in the Belfast agreement and devolution.
I accept that we long for the devolved Administration to be set up in Northern Ireland, but we all know the reason why that is not happening at the moment. It is because of the forcing of the protocol upon the people of Northern Ireland, yet the heart of the Belfast agreement is that there has to be an acceptance and a willingness from all within the community of Northern Ireland, both the unionists and the nationalists, but the will of the unionist population has been totally swept aside. Therefore, we are ensuring that the will of the people—
It would appear that a majority of the people of Northern Ireland do not wish to see the protocol swept away—amended yes, but swept away most certainly not—and that is not a devolved issue. The noble Lord reprimanded my noble and learned friend Lord Clarke, and I must gently reprimand him to get his facts right.
The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has missed the point of the Belfast agreement. There must be a majority of unionists and a majority of nationalists. I am pointing out to the noble Lord—and I am not going to be deflected from the real issue that is before us we are talking about abortion—but I have to say to him, that as far as the protocol is concerned, and I emphasise it again, not one unionist representative returned to the Northern Ireland Assembly is there to support, or give support, or give credence to the Northern Ireland protocol.
Indeed, the damage to the Belfast agreement is clearly seen because Regulation 2 spells it out for us:
“the Executive Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly is to be disregarded when determining what a relevant person could do for the purposes of paragraph (1).”
I trust that everyone understands that under this regulation the opinion of the Northern Ireland Executive is to be totally ignored, totally disregarded. Such is the arrogance of those who bring forth these regulations. Indeed, the present difficulties in establishing a new Executive in Northern Ireland are due to many law-abiding people in Northern Ireland feeling that their concerns have been disregarded, undermined and ignored.
This statutory instrument simply adds to such alienation and does grave damage to the restoration of devolution. The Northern Ireland Act 1998 makes it clear that on matters that are significant and cross-cutting, the Executive must take the decision and it cannot be left to an individual Minister to decide. I know that the powers granted to the Northern Ireland Executive are not limitless and that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland does have power to intervene and directly administer. However, that power is also limited and is there to ensure that decisions taken are compatible with international law, having regard to the protection of public order or the vital issue of national security.
These regulations change the very substance of the Belfast agreement and the Northern Ireland Act. These regulations permit the Secretary of State to have absolute power without scrutiny or accountability. When the Minister replies perhaps he can tell us where the power of the Minister of Health stops and the power of the Secretary of State begins. If the Secretary of State commands a civil servant in the Department of Health to do something and the Minister of Health gives a contrary command, whose decision does the civil servant obey? Does this not put civil servants in direct conflict with their Minister?
Regulation 4 states:
“The Secretary of State may do anything that a Northern Ireland Minister or Northern Ireland department could do for the purpose of ensuring”
that CEDAW recommendations are implemented. However, when the Secretary of State makes his decision, does he do so without any specific reference to the cost incurred? We all know how stretched the health budget is, especially with growing demands coming out of Covid, and the appalling waiting lists for hospital appointments and operations the noble Baroness mentioned. Can the Minister tell us how the Secretary of State is held to account for the public funds spent on the implementation of his decisions? Surely this flies in the face of democratic accountability. The Secretary of State, like every other government Minister, must be held accountable for his decision.
In this debate much has been made of the right of the mother carrying the child, but we must not underestimate the stress many mothers feel during their pregnancy nor dismiss their genuine concerns and fears. However, there are competing rights in this issue, and I want in the closing moments of my address to speak about the rights of the unborn child, many thousands of whose voices will never be heard because these regulations ensure that they will never have the opportunity to speak. Some may find that amusing, so let it be. Some will claim that Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights conveys a right to abortion, but that is false. The court explicitly stated:
“The woman’s right to respect for her private life must be weighed against other competing rights and freedoms invoked including those of the unborn child”.
In recent days, a number of bishops wrote to the Prime Minister on the vexed issue of Rwanda and the government policy concerning the treatment of illegal immigrants. In their letters the bishops wrote about the shame of such a policy and how
“our Christian heritage should inspire us to treat asylum seekers with compassion, fairness and justice”.
I do not wish to comment on that issue today. However, our Christian heritage should inspire us to respect the most helpless and vulnerable in society: the precious little child in a mother’s womb. The shame is on our country that without compassion, fairness or justice, we do not give such little babies the right to life. Even those with non-fatal disabilities, including Down syndrome, cleft lip and club foot, can be aborted through to birth. This is in spite of the fact that the other place voted on and approved the Down Syndrome Act 2022. Can the Minister tell us whether these regulations are at variance with the Act in terms of rights and the abortion of a child with Down syndrome? The bishop’s letter goes on to remind us that many of these illegal immigrants
“are desperate people fleeing unspeakable horrors.”
These little babies of whom I speak, even up to childbirth, because of non-fatal abnormalities, can be aborted, but they cannot flee although they struggle and cry against the unspeakable horrors that they are made to go through.
We are not allowed to see this happening, of course, for all this will happen behind closed doors. In fact, under the government legislation for abortion in Northern Ireland, there is no requirement for a doctor to be present or to be involved in the abortion, but now midwives and nurses can provide terminations. In England and Wales, abortions can take place only in hospitals or places approved by the Secretary of State, but not in Northern Ireland.
I have no doubt that, if the public were permitted to see the reality of what happens, there would be a public outcry. These regulations care not about the infants’ cries, nor will we ever hear their plea: “Why must I die like this?” To me, every life is precious. We must not bear the shame of letting these regulations pass. I trust that we can have the courage to reject this statutory instrument.
My Lords, this has been a very wide-ranging debate, and I think it is important that we focus on the decisions that we are being asked to make today. I begin by commending the Minister for the clear, factual exposition of how we came to be in the position that we are in today. We are here debating these regulations because of a catalogue of failure of elected politicians in Northern Ireland and of officials to do something very basic: to ensure that any woman who needs or wishes to have an abortion can access it in Northern Ireland—for the avoidance of doubt, to coerce anybody to have an abortion in any part of the United Kingdom is against the law—and there has been a failure to do that.
I recommend that people read in Hansard the clear and factual way in which the Minister put forward the history of where we are and contrast that with some of the allegations made by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan. In her wide-ranging speech she made some very serious allegations. She said that in Northern Ireland there is abortion to term. She did not give any evidence that that has happened. She said that there is abortion on the grounds of sex. She knows that any healthcare worker who did so would be in contravention of their professional ethics. Again, she did not give us any examples. Noble Lords can contrast the evidence behind the two cases that have been made.
On what the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said about picking and choosing, we do not, as a united kingdom, pick and choose the parts of international agreements that we uphold. It is important that having signed up to an international agreement to protect women and girls we throughout the United Kingdom stick to that.
The noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, characterised providers of abortion services as people seeking to profit from other people’s misery. That is a world away from the work being done by organisations on a charitable basis to make sure that the current, wholly inadequate provision is, so far as they can possibly make it, accessible to all women in Northern Ireland. They know, because they meet them on a daily basis, that women who do not have money cannot get themselves to Great Britain, as 161 did last year, to get the care that they need; and 40 of those women were of under ten weeks’ gestation. It is quite clear that the provision of service is utterly inadequate. That is why it is important that the commissioning of services happens—the commissioning that we have been told the Northern Ireland Health Minister wishes to wash his hands of.
I say to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn—who I do not think has been involved in our discussions before—that I would take greater notice of the great constitutional outrage were it not for the fact that people such as the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, have opposed every attempt to ensure that women anywhere have access to safe abortion. The views of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, are extremely well known. I can now almost write his speeches for him. I know that they will always include a reference to some poll that somebody has paid somebody to do to come up with the answer that he hopes they will find.
The important thing that nobody has said in all this is that the political failure in Northern Ireland has been particularly hard on women and girls, perhaps because of the non-sectarian consensus that the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, alluded to. It is right that today we take this measure, which the Government have drafted in as narrow a way as they can, to make sure that the women and young people who have always been weighed down by the politics of the past in Northern Ireland have some hope for the future.
I hope that we will reject the amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, and that we will put this measure on the statute book as it deserves to be.
My Lords, a lot has been said in this debate already and I do not intend to prolong proceedings unnecessarily, but I want to add a few comments about this set of regulations, because the most important aspect of it is the constitutional implications. This is a highly sensitive and emotive issue, and we have seen that on display in your Lordships’ House this afternoon. People have very strong feelings on both sides—I certainly know which side I am on. I believe that both lives matter.
That being said, I think that the issues that have come to the fore in relation to the breach of the devolution settlement of Northern Ireland—the precedent that that sets, the breach of the Belfast agreement—raise very serious issues. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, was absolutely right. On whatever side you come down on any particular issue, if it is a matter that has been devolved, then the devolution settlement should be respected.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Clarke, referenced that it was perhaps not foreseen that this type of situation could arise, but I have to say that these matters were foreseen at the time of the Belfast agreement in 1998 and indeed at the time of the restoration of devolution in 2007, because on those occasions the issue of abortion was deliberately referenced and discussed and made a devolved matter. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to leading a delegation to a previous Prime Minister in which there was a cross-party, cross-community consensus that it should be a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly. Therefore, it was entirely foreseen and foreseeable that Northern Ireland could legitimately have a different position from the rest of the United Kingdom. The argument that this needs to be a position which is the same across all four countries of the United Kingdom does not stand up to scrutiny or to the history of this matter and the very delicate balance of the Belfast agreement.
There is an alarming tendency—without discussing the merits of particular issues—to be very selective about the Belfast agreement as amended by the St Andrews agreement in 2007 whereby it now appears to be the view that majoritarianism is a good idea in Northern Ireland, but somehow for 99 years majority rule in Northern Ireland was unacceptable. We have not had majority rule in Northern Ireland since 1972 with the collapse of the old Stormont Parliament. For half of Northern Ireland’s existence, it has not been there.
Since 1998, we have been governed under the provisions of the Northern Ireland Act, which reflects the outcome of the Belfast agreement. That was an agreement primarily between the parties in Northern Ireland and not—again, as is increasingly misrepresented and misportrayed —an agreement between the Irish Government and the British Government. Yes, there is an element of that, and it is part of the agreement, but the most substantive part of that agreement is between the parties in Northern Ireland.
There now seems to be a view that representation in the Assembly is to be considered in the manner of who has the most votes. If that had been the case for the last 25 years, we would have had a very different set of legislation in Northern Ireland. We would have had to have had cross-community support, requiring a majority of unionists and a majority of nationalists, and an overall majority is required to pass legislation. There is only one area for which the Northern Ireland Assembly has responsibility that does operate under majority rule, and guess what? It was changed by this Government, again as part of the selective approach to the Belfast agreement, in order to deprive unionists of the opportunity to say no to the protocol. I am afraid that that is at the root of some of the problems we have in Northern Ireland today.
There needs to be a recognition that on this issue of abortion—it was recognised in 1998, and again in the extensive negotiations that led to the restoration of the Assembly in 2007—that this should be a matter for the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case; there has been legislation put forward. We have been told by some noble Lords that this is a matter of international law and obligations, and that this therefore overrides matters such as devolution, but that is not the ground on which the Minister has relied today. He has relied entirely on the ground that he has a statutory obligation. That is a dangerous ground, because, of course, it could be used at any time in the future to say, “Well, there’s a majority in Parliament that has passed an Act to override this particular aspect of devolution, and therefore we’re obliged now to carry forward all sorts of statutory instruments, delegated legislation and secondary legislation.” I think that is a very dangerous precedent indeed.
I have just a few points of detail. I would like the Minister to address the issue of this “team of experts” that have now been brought into the Northern Ireland Office, apparently to give advice to the Secretary of State on the commissioning of abortion services and what they will be. He referred to a “team”; the Secretary of State in the other place the other day referred to a “team of experts”. Could he tell us who these “experts” are? Are they paid out of public funds? To whom are they accountable? How can we interrogate them—I am sure in the gentlest way—as to what their policies and proposals may be? How much scrutiny will we be allowed to have before things are set in place definitively and finally?
Can the Minister explain the important issue of funding in more detail? The committee in the other place the other day did go through some of these issues, but I have to say, from reading Hansard, that the answers were rather general, if I may put it that way. Could the Minister tell us how the Secretary of State will come to a decision on funding if he does not have access to all the other competing priorities of a department in relation to funding—or, indeed, across a number of departments, because, as we have heard from other noble Lords, this affects also the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Education?
I have been a Minister of Finance and know how these things operate in Northern Ireland. To exclude the Minister of Finance, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, is almost incredible. To suggest that the Minister of Finance in the Northern Ireland Executive would have no input whatever—on a matter which is devolved, at the end of the day—beggars belief. I do not think the Government have really thought this one through.
From my recollection of the legislation—it certainly has not changed as a result of any negotiations, as far as I am aware—a Minister in a Northern Ireland department has full executive authority over that department. That is one of the reasons why, if I may digress a bit, issues have arisen in relation to the operation of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive—because Ministers can run their departments as fiefdoms, in effect. They have full executive authority.
What of the Minister? The Minister of Health is not a member of my party; in introducing these regulations today, on a number of occasions the noble Lord talked about the Executive not having moved on the issue, but my understanding—he can correct me if I am wrong—is that no proposal has been brought to the Executive in Northern Ireland. This is not a matter of the Executive not having acted. This is a matter for the Department of Health, because the Minister has full executive authority in that matter.
I would be grateful if the Minister could answer those more detailed questions, given the importance of these issues and their constitutional implications. I share the very great concern that we are making this significant alteration to the operation of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive by way of delegated legislation and statutory instrument. Never mind that this entire issue on abortion was introduced by the back door through a restoration of executive functions Bill without any proper, normal legislative process and consultation with people in Northern Ireland, which has led—as has been said by other noble Lords—to the most extreme form of abortion being imposed in Northern Ireland, despite the fact that there is no evidence that the Assembly would vote on a cross-community basis for such legislation.
We should think very carefully about waving this legislation through today. If the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, presses her amendment to a vote, I will certainly support her.
My Lords, it is on days such as today, as the Minister may agree, that there is a feeling of déjà vu. I think he is the third Minister I have faced at the Dispatch Box on this issue, and the debate has been very similar to previous ones. I thank him for his very measured tone and the detail in his speech introducing this matter. I will not repeat the legislative background; noble Lords who have spoken both for and against will have heard what he said.
I suspect that there is a great deal of regret from the Minister in bringing this forward, because it is quite clear from the beginning of this debate—I looked up my previous speeches over three or four years—that Ministers were doing everything they could to encourage and support Northern Ireland to provide the services itself. There has certainly been no indication at all from the Government, as far as I am aware, that they wanted to be in this position. They wanted Northern Ireland to ensure that there was provision of services in the way the law requires.
I also thank the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which has not been mentioned so far, which looked at the detail in its very helpful report. I hope the Minister’s department and other departments will take note of the comments made about the inadequacy of the Explanatory Memorandum. I have raised this kind of issue previously in the House. However, I commend the responses; once it was prompted by the committee, the department provided better, fuller and more detailed answers to the points raised. I hope it will become the norm that Explanatory Memoranda will provide more detail than we saw in this one, as the information was provided only later when the committee asked for it.
As we have heard, this is an issue where feelings run deep, as is any issue regarding abortion. It is significant that a number of the speeches made about the constitutional position of devolution came from Members who have already expressed a deep-rooted opposition to the principle of abortion taking place. In some ways, I commend the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, because there was an honesty in his speech, which, as he saw it, was about the rights of the unborn child, not the constitutional issues. For him, this is a matter of principle; he thinks that abortion should not take place and was quite honest about it. He did not deal with the wider issue, which the Minister dealt with in his speech and will no doubt deal with again at the end.
We heard noble Lords refer to the debate on Roe v Wade taking place in America; the noble and learned Lord, Lord Clarke, made a wise intervention on this point. There is always a danger that you end up in a ridiculous situation whereby, because of the actions of politics, women living in one state move to another or travel elsewhere to access services they were previously able to access in their home state.
That is what is happening in Northern Ireland. The noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, said that abortion is available in Northern Ireland. Nobody is suggesting that no abortions have taken place. The Minister never made that point. The point is that, as previously agreed by your Lordships’ House, the provision of services is inconsistent, sporadic and not available to everybody who requires them. The noble Baroness shakes her head, but if that were not the case we would not need to be here today. As I said, time and again, the Government have provided opportunities for the Department of Health to bring forward proposals for the provisions required, as we have debated previously, but that has not happened.
I welcome the fact that the Government are still engaging with the Department of Health to ensure that there is still opportunity for services to be provided. However, I am conscious that, from what he and the Secretary of State in the other place have said, there is no intention to delay this matter further. I think the Government recognise this; as the Secretary of State said, “I fully suspect that we will have to provide these services.” Can the Minister say anything about the timescale? That would be helpful because this debate has been rather long and drawn out; there is an appetite for change.
A lot has been made of opinion polls and the views of people in Northern Ireland. I think the Minister will rely on them in his response, but I would point out that the 2019 internet poll, referred to several times, showed the majority of people not supporting the question about the imposition of changed abortion legislation by the Westminster Government. However, a 2020 poll showed that only 16% of people in Northern Ireland thought that no change to current abortion legislation was needed. A lot can depend on how the question is asked, but the idea that there is no appetite for change is wrong. Indeed, in the other place, Stephen Farry spoke about a vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly—he thought it was at the beginning of March—when a Private Member’s Bill that sought to adjust some of the existing legal provisions around access to abortion was defeated by a majority of MLAs. There is movement in Northern Ireland now and there are different views; we should take account of all of them.
We will support the regulations because it is the right thing to do. I welcome that the Minister has recognised the deep-seated views on this issue. However, in addition to my question on timescales, I have a second question about the extraneous services around abortion services. They are not a stand-alone provision. The provision of sexual health services and the whole wider landscape of reproductive sexual health is really important. I want to be assured by the Minister that, alongside the provision of abortion services, advice on contraception and sexual health will be provided. These things come as a package; they are not something to be seen in a vacuum. I hope the Minister can say something about that and about education on these issues, because that will be extremely important going forward. As I say, we should not see these services in a vacuum.
I thank the Minister for the way in which he presented his case. The noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, will decide whether she wishes to put her amendment to a vote. If she does so, we will not support her; we will support the Minister.
My Lords, I thank everybody who has participated in the debate on these regulations, and I am grateful to the number of noble Lords who expressed support for what the Government are bringing forward. We have heard a wide range of strongly held personal views, and varied contributions on all aspects of the regulations. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, referred to a sense of déjà vu; I think it was the late Viscount Whitelaw, when he was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who referred after one meeting to “déjà vu all over again”. I take on board the comments of the noble Baroness regarding the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, and I can assure her that my officials have returned to the committee with a number of additional pieces of information, which I am assured have been included in the Third Report, so I do take that very seriously indeed.
I shall take the opportunity to address a number of the points raised by noble Lords in quite a lengthy debate, although I fear that if I respond to every single point raised, the Chief Whip might come to the House tomorrow to cancel the Summer Recess, but I will do my best.
A number of noble Lords, not least the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, whom I know has very deeply held views on these subjects, have made heartfelt contributions on the provision of abortion services and the framework established in 2020, and the framework regulations introduced then. I appreciate and understand the views that have been expressed but, as the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, pointed out, Parliament has already decided on a number of occasions that abortion services must be provided in Northern Ireland, and by large majorities. Noble Lords referred to the 2020 framework regulations. I would just remind noble Lords that those regulations were passed in your Lordships’ House by 332 votes to 29, which is some indication of the will of the House on those issues. The focus of the Government, and of these regulations, is to ensure that Parliament’s decision, expressed on a number of occasions, to give women and girls access to abortion services in Northern Ireland, is properly and fully implemented. Although abortion is an extremely emotive subject, as the noble Baronesses, Lady Deech, Lady Suttie, Lady Smith and Lady Barker, made very clear, we must not lose sight of the fact that it is women and girls in Northern Ireland who are at the heart of these issues, and it is unacceptable that there are women and girls in any part of our United Kingdom who cannot access basic healthcare and whose access to services has been delayed for far too long. I agree with my noble and learned friend Lord Clarke of Nottingham, whose very wise speech I strongly commend.
Parliament has decided that women and girls in Northern Ireland should be able to make individual, informed decisions, with proper patient care and the provision of information and support from medical professionals, based on their own health and wider circumstances, similar to women and girls living everywhere else in the United Kingdom. I think that is very much the right decision.
I should like to reiterate that, as was made clear by a number of noble Lords, so many women in Northern Ireland are placed in a difficult situation by the lack of regulated commissioned abortion services. I referred in my opening speech to the very large numbers who still have to travel to Great Britain to access care, or have to access unregulated services in Northern Ireland. With the greatest respect to the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, the position cannot simply be dismissed as work in progress; it cannot continue in this way, as the noble Baronesses, Lady Barker and Lady Smith of Basildon, made absolutely clear.
A major theme of a number of noble Lords this afternoon has been the constitutional position and the importance of respecting the devolution settlement in Northern Ireland. I agree entirely with that, although I cannot avoid sharing the suspicion of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, that some—not all, I hasten to add—seek to use the constitutional argument as a screen for the fact that they oppose abortion in all circumstances. It is interesting listening to people invoking the Belfast agreement, some of whom have never supported it at all and others who have recently pronounced it dead. I assure noble Lords that I, for one, am a strong supporter of the Belfast agreement and have been since 10 April 1998 when that historic agreement was made. I have repeatedly said in this House and elsewhere that I regard it as the bedrock of all the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland over the past 24 years. I do not wish to see anything that puts the agreement and its success in jeopardy.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn suggested, I think, that we are only making these regulations now because the Assembly is not sitting, and we can. I think I explained in my opening remarks the circumstances in which these regulations originated. The Assembly was not sitting, we had an amendment to the Executive formation Bill and since then, we have been working alongside the Executive, the Department of Health and the Minister of Health for a number of years, but we have simply made no progress. Therefore, it is not a question of doing this because we think we can do it at this stage; we have really run out of road on this issue.
A number of noble Lords referred to the pick-and-mix nature of devolution. I certainly do not wish to pick and mix when it comes to the devolution settlement— I think my noble friend Lord Cormack used that phrase. The fact is that Government and the Secretary of State remain under a statutory duty to provide access to abortion services. It is wrong to suggest that he is not under a statutory duty—indeed, he is found to be in breach of his statutory duties in court. He is in no way absolved from the duties imposed upon him by the executive formation Act 2019 by the restoration of devolved government in 2020, as I said in my opening remarks. Lord Justice Colton, in his decision in the judicial review brought by the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said the following:
“The clear will of Parliament was that if there was no Executive Committee established by 21 October 2019 then the relevant duties and powers come into existence without extinguishment consequent on events thereafter.”
It is clear that the Secretary of State remains under the obligation and duties that Parliament imposed upon him nearly three years ago.
Notwithstanding this, we have been repeatedly clear about our desire—as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, reminded us—to continue to work with the Executive, the Department of Health and the Assembly to ensure that these regulations are implemented effectively and in a way that works for Northern Ireland, consistent with the obligations on the Secretary of State that I have outlined.
The noble Lord, Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown, asked about the accountability of the Secretary of State. Of course, as a Minister of the Crown, the Secretary of State will continue to be accountable to this sovereign Parliament of the United Kingdom, as will I in your Lordships’ House.
The noble Lord, Lord Dodds of Duncairn—I normally refer to him as my noble friend, because he is—asked about the team of experts that has been set up in the Northern Ireland Office. They are civil servants from the Department of Health and Social Care who are experts in these matters and have been seconded to the Northern Ireland Office for these purposes.
Returning to the Northern Ireland Executive, more than two years after the framework regulations were put in place, it became abundantly clear that the Department of Health was not progressing this issue and that even if it did, it would be blocked once it reached the Executive Committee. Our clear preference is that the Executive should drive forward these services. To that end, the Secretary of State has formally requested confirmation from the Northern Ireland Minister of Health that they will do so. Therefore, even at this late stage and with these regulations, there is still an opportunity for the Minister and the Department of Health to take forward the commissioning of services without the intervention of the Secretary of State. We are not, however, prepared to allow the provision of services to be delayed indefinitely.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, asked about a timeframe, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie. I cannot give an exact timeframe, as I am sure they will appreciate, but we are not prepared to let this run for much longer. The Secretary of State would not be taking on these powers if he was not prepared to intervene fairly quickly, but at this late stage there is still an opportunity for the Department of Health to take this forward. We hope that will be the case but if not, the Government are prepared to act very quickly.
A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, asked about funding. The regulations enable the Secretary of State to make provisions about funding, but I reiterate what has been said and in doing so disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Morrow. The funding settlement in last autumn’s spending review was the most generous in the history of devolution in Northern Ireland—indeed, across the whole United Kingdom. It would be a devolved matter, and it would be for the Northern Ireland Executive and the Department of Health to provide funding.
Parliament made a clear decision in 2019, passed by large majorities, to place a duty on the Government to provide access to CEDAW-compliant abortion services in Northern Ireland. In 2020, the Government delivered a set of regulations to enable that to happen. I reiterate that the regulations were passed by a very large majority in your Lordships’ House. That was over two years ago. At every stage we have sought to ensure that services were delivered through the proper devolved channels, but we have been unsuccessful in so doing. The powers these regulations grant provide a mechanism to unblock the political obstacles which have been placed in the way of their delivery, in order that the Government can satisfy obligations placed upon them in 2019 and uphold the will of this sovereign United Kingdom Parliament. I therefore urge noble Lords to reject the amendment in the name of the noble—
I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way. On a point of factual accuracy, he and others have referred to 2,793 abortions in Northern Ireland, but the latest figure given by the Minister of Health in Northern Ireland is, as of 13 June, 3,459. Can the Minister undertake that, once he has set up this team of experts, it will give up-to-date advice to the NIO on the factual position? There is quite a big difference between the figure cited today on the record and the actual figure as given by the Minister of Health in Northern Ireland, who is the Minister responsible.
Of course—I am very happy to give my noble friend that assurance.
In conclusion, I urge noble Lords to reject the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, should she seek to test the opinion of the House, and I urge your Lordships to support these regulations.
My Lords, I thank all those who have spoken in the debate today, particularly those who have spoken with me on my amendment to the Motion. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, I should like to provide a clear exposition of some of the facts raised today. I cannot answer all the points made without keeping your Lordships for too long.
The regulations are loosely and badly drafted. They give rise to a large number of questions, which the Minister has not answered. The devolved Government have acted in accordance with the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act and the 2020 regulations. People do not have to buy unsafe abortion pills; they get them from their doctor now. Abortion is now available. The noble Lord, Lord Dodds, said that there have been over 3,500 abortions. If there had been no specific commissioning of health services, these women could not have obtained abortions in Northern Ireland without paying for them. However, the fact that they were able to obtain their abortions under the health service means that they have been commissioned by the health services. Northern Ireland abortion services are provided and paid for by Northern Ireland.
Women do not now have to leave Northern Ireland to get abortions. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, spoke about the need to combine abortion services with services such as sexual health, education, contraceptive advice and so on, and that is actually what happens in Northern Ireland. These services are provided holistically by the Department of Health. There is abortion, there is access to abortion and there is abortion to term in Northern Ireland in the circumstances I described in my earlier comments. There is no requirement to provide a reason for an abortion after 12 weeks.
Evidence shows that, as CEDAW itself has said, there are abortions of girls, because in some cultures they are not wanted. Abortion on the grounds of sex selection is not unlawful in Northern Ireland. In response to a question I previously put to the Northern Ireland Minister in the Lords, I was told that abortion on the grounds of sex selection is illegal in England and Wales. Nevertheless, we know that it happens. The Northern Ireland Minister for Health has provided the resources to facilitate these abortions. I said previously that there were profits to be made from the private supply of abortion services. The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, challenged me on this, yet I can tell your Lordships that in 2015 the chief executive officer of Marie Stopes International—a charity—earned £420,000.
The noble Lord, Lord Dodds, set out very lucidly the complexities of government that will result from these regulations, which will affect several departments, not just the Department of Health. They will also affect the budgetary arrangements for the whole of Northern Ireland, because although the Secretary of State is empowered to provide funding, he does not have to do so. If the regulations pass, there will be a Westminster Secretary of State who has power to do what he likes, regardless of how the Ministers of Health, Justice and Education are acting.
Most importantly, these regulations deprive existing Northern Ireland Ministers of the right to exercise their functions under the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and the Good Friday agreement. They disregard the statutory role of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive. They ignore the devolution settlement. We are not debating whether there should be abortion services. That issue, as many noble Lords have said, has been decided. We are discussing whether, in contravention of the 1998 Act and the Good Friday agreement, the Secretary of State should have the option to do as he would without any accountability to the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Northern Ireland Executive or the people of Northern Ireland.
Mention was made of the concern of some Members of this House for the unborn child, and it has been suggested that the constitutional issue is being used in this debate. I have given much of my professional life to the promotion of peace, justice and constitutional process in Northern Ireland. My family has suffered. I have known significant risk, as have so many others who were engaged in those processes. Things have been very difficult for those of us who sought to work towards constitutional life in Northern Ireland. The constitutional arrangements in Northern Ireland are very dear to my heart and the hearts of many others in your Lordships’ House and elsewhere. I have moved this amendment. I wish now to test the opinion of the House.