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Equality and Human Rights

Volume 640: debated on Wednesday 9 May 2018

2. What steps she is taking to support equality and human rights in Northern Ireland; and if she will make a statement. (905143)

“Cruel, inhumane and degrading”—not my words, but those of the United Nations on our treatment of women in Northern Ireland. Given the absence of an Assembly, why does the Secretary of State choose to recognise the importance of a free vote in this place on same-sex marriage while refusing to extend the same protection to Northern Irish women’s fundamental right not to be forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy?

The hon. Lady knows that abortion is a very sensitive issue, and there are strongly held views on both sides of the debate. It is also a devolved matter, as she has said. She refers to the fact that I am on record as saying that a vote on same-sex marriage, among Government Members, is a matter of conscience, and that is also true for abortion. But it would not be right for the UK Government to undermine the devolution settlement by trying to force on the people of Northern Ireland something that we in Westminster think is right; the people of Northern Ireland have to make that decision.

On equality, does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a real danger that the Stormont House agreement institutions might act against the interests of servicemen and former members of the security services, and give an unfair advantage to former paramilitaries? In particular, does she share my concern that, without checks and balances, those institutions might create a form of historical revisionism that casts members of the security services in an unfairly poor light?

My hon. Friend, who of course was instrumental in the Stormont House talks that led to the agreement on those institutions, will know that the current status quo involves a disproportionate emphasis on the actions of the military and law-enforcement bodies during the troubles, and really very little emphasis on the actions of paramilitary terrorists, who were responsible for 90% of the killings. That is why I want a consultation on the institutions so that they are set up in a way that addresses the concerns that my hon. Friend raises and deals with the issues of the past.

With regard to equality, there appears to be one law for Members of the Legislative Assembly and another for everyone else. What excuses will the Secretary of State offer today for continuing to allow MLAs to receive their full salary when they have not been doing their full job for over a year?

I am offering no excuses; I intend to act on this issue. As the hon. Lady will know, I legislated on MLA pay at the beginning of the year to stop the £500 increase. I have been considering what to do with the Trevor Reaney recommendations and other representations, and I will make announcements in due course.

I would like to ask a question about the human rights of our brave servicemen who served in Northern Ireland for so many years, without whom there would be no peace in Northern Ireland today. May I make an early submission to the consultation? May I tell the Secretary of State, in all candour, that many of us on the Government Benches would not be prepared to traipse blithely through the Lobby to support setting up any institution that would scapegoat our military veterans in order to pander to Sinn Féin?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right—I agree with him. There is no way that I, as Secretary of State, am prepared to do anything that makes the situation more difficult for our veterans. We owe them thanks for the relative peace that we see today in Northern Ireland. They served with incredible dignity and duty, and I respect that, which is why I want to ensure that we deal with the situation. The status quo is not good enough. The only people getting knocks on the door from the police to tell them that they face inquests are the military. We need to change that, which is why we need to issue a consultation.

When veterans living in England, Wales or Scotland apply for a post with Border Force, their former service in the armed forces is taken into account, but that is not so for veterans in Northern Ireland. That is based on advice given to the Home Office by the so-called Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, which claims that equality laws in Northern Ireland do not undermine the military covenant. Well, it has been caught out well on that one.

I am well aware of the matter and have taken it up with the Home Office. I hope to be able to report back shortly.