Considered in Committee (Order, this day)
[Dame Eleanor Laing in the Chair]
I must inform the Committee that the Chairman of Ways and Means has selected amendment 2, tabled by the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy). He has not selected the new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), and he has not selected amendment 1, tabled by the hon. Member for Walthamstow. It will, however, be in order on this occasion to refer to the subject matter of new clause 1 and amendment 1, which have not been selected.
Issue of sum out of the Consolidated Fund for the year ending 31 March 2019 and appropriation of that sum
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Clauses 2 to 9 stand part.
Amendment 2, in schedule 2, page 13, line 7, after ‘offences’ insert—
‘except where such future prosecutions involve alleged offences under sections 58 and 59 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861’.
Schedules 1 to 4 be schedules to the Bill.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship in this Committee, Dame Eleanor. As these matters were debated at length on Second Reading, I do not propose to detain the Committee any further.
I rise to speak to amendment 2, which I tabled with my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield), for St Helens North (Conor McGinn), for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) and for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield). We recognise that this legislation has been brought to the House at short notice, but we want to put the Secretary of State on notice that the concerns raised in the amendments will endure in every piece of legislation until the issues are resolved, because they speak to one of the first concerns that any Member of Parliament should have: the human rights of the people whom we represent. Amendment 2 seeks to recognise that this Government cannot pick and choose their responsibilities. On the one hand, they take full responsibility for expenditure in Northern Ireland but, on the other hand, they ignore human rights abuses and the suffering that they are causing to UK citizens.
The Bill authorises departmental expenditure to allow the continued delivery of public services in Northern Ireland in the absence of an Executive and the consequent inability of the Northern Ireland Assembly to pass legislation to provide the same rules. That Assembly has not sat for over two years, which is why this House passed emergency legislation last November. Section 4 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 makes it clear that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is responsible for the guidelines relating to human rights in Northern Ireland. However, amendment 2 relates to the fact that she has failed to take any meaningful action to uphold that obligation and, indeed, has sought to deny it.
In a written ministerial statement on 30 January 2019, the Secretary of State said that
“the current absence of devolved Government in Northern Ireland should not dislodge the principle that it is for the devolved Administration to both legislate on, and ensure compliance with, human rights obligations in relation to such devolved matters.”—[Official Report, 30 January 2019; Vol. 653, c. 40WS.]
However, article 27 of the Vienna convention states:
“A party may not invoke the provisions of its internal law as justification for its failure to perform a treaty.”
In layman’s terms, that simply means that we cannot ignore our human rights responsibilities to the people of Northern Ireland and use devolution as a cover for doing so.
We have heard from across the House today that a unified approach is the proper answer in Northern Ireland, but that cannot be achieved at this stage. However, when we asked for transparency around finance, we were unable to get it. With human rights, that obligation rests on each of us as an individual, and particularly on the Secretary of State, and it is not restricted by borders. It is a responsibility wherever we see a human rights abuse.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, who is a co-sponsor of amendment 2. That speaks to a concern that is shared by many, which is the picking and choosing for political expediency of what human rights means and what action the Government will take. However, we are not the only people to have identified that. Amendment 2 relates to the prosecution of people under sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, and other august bodies have recognised the problems created by the Government’s approach to human rights.
On 23 February 2018, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women carried out an inquiry into abortion law in Northern Ireland under article 8 of the optional protocol to the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, to which the UK acceded in 2004—just as we are a party to the Vienna convention. The report stated that the
“delegation of government powers did not ‘negate the direct responsibility of the State party’s national or federal Government to fulfil its obligations to all women within its jurisdiction’. Thus, the United Kingdom cannot invoke its internal arrangements (the Belfast Agreement) to justify its failure to revise the laws of Northern Ireland that violate the Convention.”
The laws that violate that convention were written in this place, because the 1861 Act was written by the United Kingdom. It was written here, but it still has effect in Northern Ireland. It is the reason why, to this day, a woman who is raped in Northern Ireland and seeks a termination as a result would face a longer prison sentence than her attacker. That is the human rights abuse that we are talking about today, violated in this country and the responsibility of this Parliament.
Amendment 1 was not selected, but Madam Deputy Speaker said that it was in order to speak to it. We are concerned, not just about abortion and human rights abuses, but about human rights across the piece and the importance of equality to our values and to our country. Amendment 1 spoke to the same situation that arises as a result of our failure to give equal marriage to the people of Northern Ireland—a failure to treat people who are married as married under the law, not as civil partners but fully married, as anyone else would be. I am not married myself; I am sure that after today I might even get the odd proposal. [Interruption.] Well, a girl can live in hope. However, the proposal that I would really like to see the Secretary of State picking up on is represented in articles 8, 9, 12 and 14 of the European convention on human rights. Even the former Minister has noted that the prohibition on marriage in Northern Ireland is “simply not justifiable”. Just as with those laws on abortion, it is this Parliament legislating today that is perpetuating the prohibition on same-sex marriage for couples in Northern Ireland, even when those who are lawfully married in England and Wales visit or reside in Northern Ireland.
Is not the real test of a politician their conduct—not when something is easy to do, but when it is hard? This may be a hard decision, but it is the honourable, right and historically correct decision to make.
Yet again I find myself in complete agreement with my hon. Friend, because that Vienna convention must mean something. The fact that we have signed those treaties gives rights to all our citizens—not rights to some of them when we need to do a deal with some other citizens to stay in power, but rights that should transcend party politics, rights that should mean something, rights that we should all be proud to uphold. Because we do not do so, our fellow UK citizens in Northern Ireland are treated as second-class citizens. Women are not allowed to access basic rights of control over their own bodies, and people are not allowed to love who they love and see that celebrated without fear or favour and equally.
It is because the Secretary of State has done nothing about those issues, and tries to deny her fundamental responsibility for upholding those rights on behalf of all UK citizens, especially in Northern Ireland, that we are in this position today, and that is where amendment 2 has come from. It is about the mess that has been created—about the fact that UK taxpayers’ money is being used to perpetuate those human rights abuses by funding prosecutions and defending claims that are having to be brought by Northern Irish citizens to uphold their rights—because this Government will not act. This is a very live issue.
May I ask the hon. Lady to take a few moments and reflect on the very significant Supreme Court decision in June 2018, in a case brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, and the very critical comments that the judges made about the lack of appropriate legislation in Northern Ireland? I think I am right in saying that the situation in relation to the abortion legislation in Northern Ireland in the cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality was described as “deeply unsatisfactory”. When Supreme Court judges describe such things as “deeply unsatisfactory”, this country will have to legislate at some stage to comply with that.
I thank the hon. Lady. I am only disappointed because I was sort of hoping for a proposal; but I completely agree with the point that she makes. Indeed, she prefigures something that I shall come on to. We are spending money because of our failure to tackle those human rights issues—money that could be going into public services in Northern Ireland, but instead will be spent upholding the situation that she describes. I want to come on to that, and what that practically means for the Secretary of State.
We know that cases are currently going through the courts as a direct result of this situation. In 2013, the mother of a 15-year-old was prosecuted under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 for procuring abortion pills for her under-age daughter. The mother was prosecuted following the appointment with her daughter and a GP. That decision is now being judicially reviewed, so there is a live case, which the UK Government will spend money to defend as a result of the provisions of the Bill before us.
Today, we know that the UK Government have been formally notified that A and B, a mother and daughter from Northern Ireland, are taking their battle to the European Court of Human Rights. They are challenging the refusal to allow women from Northern Ireland access to abortion services free of charge in England and have issued legal proceedings against the English Health Secretary. Six years ago, they were forced to raise £900 to travel from Northern Ireland to Manchester in order for B to be treated at a private clinic. I absolutely share the sentiments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) about the importance of value for money within our politics. On the public purse, the crucial thing in this case is that an offer was made to settle with the Government. There was an offer not to proceed with this kind of spending, but the Government have refused. They have ignored the requests to settle this case, even though the law has subsequently changed. That means that public money that could be going on public services in Northern Ireland will be spent contesting that case.
We also know that under this legislation public money has been spent on raids: raids on people to find the pills; and raids on women who are trying to help other women in Northern Ireland. We know that 28 women a week are coming across to have an abortion in this country, so we know this is a very live issue, because they are only the ones who can afford to travel, who can travel because they have the travel documents, and who are not in an abusive relationship and can leave to come to England and Wales without being in trouble. We know that in 2017, on International Women’s Day, of all days, the PSNI carried out a number of searches and seizures connected to the illegal purchase of abortion pills online. So as women were celebrating International Women’s Day, our sisters were being arrested because of this legislation written in 1861. Abortion should not be treated as a criminal matter; it should be treated as a medical matter. Yet because of that legislation, public money was being spent on chasing those women. We have no guarantee that that will not happen again on International Women’s Day this year.
Amendment 1 has not been selected, but we know that there is the same live situation, where public money is being put into court cases, on equal marriage. We know there is a case before the High Court at the moment regarding petitioner X and his husband, who wed in London in 2014. They are attempting to secure a declaration that their marriage remains fully constituted throughout the UK, including in Northern Ireland. That case was appealed at the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal in March 2018 and a judgment is still awaited, so money is still being spent on these cases.
In a case led by Gráinne Close and Shannon Sickles, and Chris and Henry Flanagan-Kane, a claim is being brought against Northern Ireland’s prohibition on same-sex marriage. In August 2017, a High Court judge dismissed the case, after identifying no breach under European law, but that is now being appealed and the case is being heard at the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal. They are currently awaiting a judgment as well.
My point is that this is not a theoretical issue about public money being spent as a result of the Secretary of State’s failure to uphold the basic human rights of the men and women of Northern Ireland. It is a direct, live issue. We heard on Second Reading concerns about the funding that was available for public services in Northern Ireland and about whether appropriate scrutiny was being undertaken. These amendments are trying to deal with that inconsistency where the Government wish somehow to make decisions about spending in Northern Ireland and set out precise sums, but not to uphold the other end of their bargain, which is to do right by the people of Northern Ireland and uphold their human rights.
When we look at the cases travelling through the courts and those we can anticipate are going to come forward, we see that there will be only one inevitable conclusion when the judgment comes out. What we have seen over the past few months is pure delay, which has cost money and drawn away from services in Northern Ireland. We know where this is going to end up and it would be better for us to make the change now, in control, and with credit being given where it is due, so that we can move forward and invest properly in Northern Ireland.
Again, I do not disagree. I believe that these are issues for the people of Northern Ireland, but I recognise that this situation arises in the first place because of antiquated legislation written in the United Kingdom, so it is right that this place takes responsibility for the antiquated legislation that is causing these human rights problems in Northern Ireland.
The trouble for me with all this is that I know that the Secretary of State agrees, because as she said to the Women and Equalities Committee last week, she agrees that the situation with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is untenable. She agrees that it is an error that the commission is not able to bring cases directly. Right now, because of her Government’s failure to act on these issues, we are in the position that it would take a rape victim coming to court and having to explain their situation to address the laws that we have.
The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) is absolutely right when she points to that Supreme Court ruling, which is what should really matter today, because that is where that public-purse money is going. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission took the Government—our own Government—to court. How can we lecture on human rights around the world when our own Government are being taken to court? The Supreme Court ruled that the situation in Northern Ireland was “incompatible” with human rights; that it treated women—UK taxpayers—as “vehicles”; and that it was “untenable” and in need of “radical reconsideration”.
The Court stated:
“Those responsible for ensuring the compatibility of Northern Ireland law with the Convention rights will no doubt recognise and take account of these conclusions, at as early a time as possible, by considering whether and how to amend the law, in the light of the ongoing suffering being caused by it”.
That was June 2018, months and months ago—months of continued suffering for the people of Northern Ireland, and yes, in relation to today’s debate, months of continued expenditure from the public purse to keep these laws in place for women like Sarah Ewart, who went for a 19-week scan and was told that the baby she was carrying had a fatal defect, that the brain and skull had not developed properly and that it would inevitably die, either before it was born or moments after.
The horror about these laws is shown by the horror for Sarah Ewart and her family in the treatment that they then experienced, having had that devastating diagnosis. Mrs Ewart said that she was refused advice on how to seek a termination. When she asked about having an abortion at a hospital in Belfast, doctors informed her that it was not an option in Northern Ireland. When she inquired as to where she might be able to go to seek a termination elsewhere, they said they were not even able to give her any information to help her. They said their hands were tied: “We can’t tell you anything. We would be prosecuted if we give you that information.”
Some days later, having consulted as many people as she could and certain that hers was one of the rare and exceptional cases in which an abortion could be performed in Northern Ireland, Mrs Ewart met a second consultant. That woman banged her files on the desk and said:
“I’m not going to prison for anyone.”
That is the chilling effect of this situation on the human rights of the woman of Northern Ireland in 2019.
The High Court has told us that the situation is untenable. We know that the same egregious distress is caused by the situation around equal marriage. So when I see the Secretary of State saying that it is a devolved matter and trying to deny basic Vienna convention rights, I also see the mess we are in today with this legislation, whereby money will be wasted. There are rights that she should be upholding and acting to protect, but instead we will put money into prosecuting people—into raids and court cases. It is denying people their basic rights—rights that other courts will have to uphold. What a waste. What a waste of time, effort, money and, above all, dignity for the people of Northern Ireland.
These amendments and this debate are about the dignity of the people of Northern Ireland and about treating them as equal citizens of the United Kingdom. They are about not shirking our responsibility to those men and women to uphold their rights, not matter how uncomfortable that may be and no matter how difficult some in this Chamber may find it. The sight of Government-funded lawyers defending the denial of somebody’s right to love who they love must stop. The sight of public prosecutions of women trying to help other women have control over their own bodies—other Sarah Ewarts—has to stop.
The Secretary of State may tell me that the Bill is not the right vehicle to address these issues, or that they are all matters for devolution. What she has to tell me is how much longer the people of Northern Ireland will have to wait before their human rights are seen as equally important to the rights of the coalition. I put her on notice: she may not support our amendment, but we will not stop fighting for equality across the whole United Kingdom. I wager that history is on our side, not hers.
I say this with all due respect: I enjoyed the passionate speech of the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy). I may not have agreed with every word, but frankly I agreed with the vast majority, even though I am a passionate believer in devolution.
I have sat in the Chamber for nearly five hours today, apart from the odd trip to powder my nose. I have intervened on a few Members, but I have made no speeches—I turned up five minutes into Second Reading, too late to speak. That is my fault and no one else’s, but I will try to make up for it now.
I have several points to make about the Bill, but there is one in particular that the hon. Lady might agree with. The first page of the Bill includes a compatibility statement:
“Secretary Karen Bradley has made the following statement under section 19(1)(a) of the Human Rights Act 1998:
In my view the provisions of the Northern Ireland Budget (Anticipation and Adjustments) (No. 2) Bill are compatible with the Convention rights.”
I am not convinced that the provisions are compatible with convention rights, nor am I convinced that the Bill will do what we were sent here to do. Representation through taxation, the principle that Parliament stands for in this democracy of ours, was set out 900 years ago: we are supposed to look at how the taxpayer’s money is being spent. In passing a Bill because there is no devolved Assembly in Stormont, frankly we are offering a sop to Sinn Féin, which will not participate either in this Chamber or in the Stormont Assembly—that is why it has collapsed.
We cannot say that on the one hand we are willing to pass the Bill, but that on the other hand this is a devolved matter; I think that that is the hon. Lady’s point. This type of Bill will keep coming back—she certainly will. If we believe in devolution, in the Union of this country and in the rights of the people of Northern Ireland to be represented not only here but in their Assembly in Stormont, at some stage we will have to bite the bullet and say that enough is enough. If a political party is not willing to participate, we—the Parliament of the Union of this great nation of ours—will have to step up to the plate and do something about it.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Will the right hon. Gentleman give me two seconds? I am in a flow.
I have raised the issue with shadow Front Benchers and my own—I was a Northern Ireland Minister for a considerable period—because we have to address it. Perhaps I will come back to that point after the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention.
The right hon. Gentleman puts forward the proposition that the only longer-term alternative to the current stalemate is direct rule. One understands that, but it has been argued today that the provisions of the Good Friday agreement and the concept of devolution are not sacrosanct and that they can be overridden. That is an interesting comment, but surely there is another solution. Of the five parties in a position to form a Government in Northern Ireland, four are prepared, on a cross-community basis, to form a Government without precondition. Might this Parliament stepping up to the mark finally lead us to recognise the need for democracy to move on in Northern Ireland, instead of a single faction being allowed to veto the people of Northern Ireland having their own Government?
I cannot disagree with a single word that my right hon. Friend has said. This cannot continue; we cannot sit in a situation where there is no way of looking properly at how civil servants are spending taxpayers’ money. That is not the principle of this democracy, and it is not the principle on which I was elected to this House. We must have a methodology. If this House voted to go forward with four parties instead of the five, somewhere along the line Sinn Féin would suddenly wake up and smell the coffee. But at the moment we are not challenging Sinn Féin. We are accepting that they have this veto. We are accepting that this House, in this great Union of ours, is not going to challenge the convention whereby Sinn Féin can say, “No, there is no devolved Assembly in Northern Ireland.”
The aspect that fascinated me even more when I was a Minister was that, even when we had the Administration up and running, any party could veto decisions anyhow. We have to make sure that democracy thrives in the same way that we try to teach the rest of world. At the moment, we are shirking that responsibility, if we are being really honest. The shadow Secretary of State was kind in offering that he would turn up to an Adjournment debate to explain Labour party policy, but I do not think that is quite where we are. I am more than happy to have an Adjournment debate, but I think that I would be outnumbered in that I want us to progress.
Do I want direct rule? No. But it may be one of the only threats, which is why I keep saying “when”, not “if”. Unless we set a date, we are going to be back here in September and next spring. At that time, the fantastic, brave work that happened to give us the Good Friday agreement will be lost and Northern Ireland will go backwards. We saw the bombs in Londonderry the other day. The New IRA—as they like to call themselves—are there, although there is nothing new about them; they are old-fashioned terrorists. The people of Northern Ireland want something tangible to hold on to. It cannot be right that their health service and education system are in decline, and we have heard about many other problems today, although it was a very short list from my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I have heard much longer lists from him on many an occasion, and quite rightly so.
Let me tell the Secretary of State that I voted against these measures on Third Reading the last time they came before the House. I hope that the Whip is also listening, because this is important. I voted against the Bill—only the second time that I have ever voted against my Government—because there was no provision to protect the veterans who served this country so brilliantly in the police, in the other emergency services and particularly in the armed forces, which I am so proud to have served with. There is now again the threat of our veterans—some of them much older than I am—being dragged through a judicial process when these matters have already been addressed on many occasions. Double jeopardy seems completely unfair in these circumstances.
Terrorists who murdered people are walking free now because of agreements that came through with the Good Friday agreement, yet there is absolutely nothing at all from my Government for veterans in this legislation or in any other measure. There is lots of talk from the Government that they are trying to address this or that, but these veterans served this country of ours. If they have done something fundamentally wrong, I think that we might actually have had them in court and sorted it out over the last 40 years.
As the shadow Secretary of State said, some victims are dying off now and they need to get their compensation, quite rightly. I do not think the British taxpayer would ever understand if we gave victim’s compensation to a terrorist—not just an alleged terrorist but a convicted terrorist—when our own veterans are being dragged through the courts, paid for by the taxpayer. Am I missing something here?
This budget is a substantial one. It is basically the same budget as last year, as we have heard—and why? Because no one is there to make decisions. I was sent to this place to make decisions not only for my constituency but for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I lost colleagues in Northern Ireland. I cannot sit back and say we are just going to carry on while there is a devolved Assembly out there that for two years has just been sitting there gathering dust, and then say that we are going to push this budget through but not take on the responsibility, or a version of responsibility, for direct rule. The Minister of State and that Secretary of State have a massively important role. It is a balancing act—a balancing act that is leaning too far towards Sinn Féin, in my opinion, and that is why we do not have an Assembly in Northern Ireland.
It is a pleasure, Mrs Laing, to see Renfrewshire represented in the Chair.
I rise to speak very briefly at this stage, although perhaps not quite as briefly as the Secretary of State. Despite some disagreement from the Northern Ireland branch of my fan club on the Benches behind me, I stated clearly on Second Reading the SNP’s view, at least, of the commensurate funding that Scotland would be able to receive as a result of the additional Northern Ireland budget allocation.
It should be noted that the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly have just simultaneously debated, voted on and passed a motion calling on the Prime Minister to rule out no deal and to extend article 50. That is the first time that this has happened in the history of devolution. But I digress—I just wanted to put that on the record.
I made my point, notwithstanding the comments by the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), on the clear and distinct issues present in Northern Ireland, which I wholly accept. But no Scottish MP worth their salt, or Scottish Secretary for that matter, would accept this situation without at least trying to ensure that Scotland received proportionate funding, and it is not cheap to attempt to do so. I outlined my reasoning at length on Second Reading, so I will curtail my remarks at this stage. Suffice it to say that the extra funds announced for this budget, which would amount to £400 million if Barnettised, could amount to 4,100 police officers, 4,500 nurses and 4,400 junior doctors. At this time when the Scottish Government are doubling childcare funding, an extra 5,000-plus nursery teachers could be paid for by Barnett consequentials from all the £140 million, or an entire borders railway with the £106 million change. Or, taken in the round, the extra £3.4 billion flowing from the DUP’s confidence and supply agreement, in addition to the new moneys, could be transformational. It could fund another three Aberdeen bypasses or nearly three additional Queensferry crossings, should we ever need such things.
I am just wondering why so many people would want to bypass Aberdeen that it needs three roads round it.
I pass no comment on Aberdeen, but this road has been a long time coming. The Scottish Government have just ordered it; thankfully there was an opportunity to say that. Sadly, even though the £3.4 billion could cover the cost of almost three Queensferry crossings, it would not even cover the cost of two Chris Graylings.
Clearly, we are unable to pursue this issue any further during the passage of this Bill, but the Scottish Secretary, the Chancellor and the Northern Ireland Secretary can rest assured that pursue it we will.
This has been an interesting debate so far. I will not name the hon. Members, but some unfortunate references have been made to civil servants in the Northern Ireland Office. I deplore those remarks. I deplore remarks about people who have no capacity in this House to answer for themselves. I deplore the remarks for another reason. Whatever people think about the institution of the Northern Ireland Office, ultimately it is politicians—I make no criticism of politicians when I say this—who make the decisions. Civil servants are there to advise and implement. I want to put that on the record, because it is important that the House knows, and in particular that those who work for us know, that those criticisms are not a uniform view of their behaviour.
I know that things can be said, and there is a range of views, but I think that I can certainly speak for everybody on the DUP Benches when I say that over the last number of years, our civil servants in Northern Ireland and across have been working incredibly hard in very difficult circumstances. I can say that because I see it on a week-to-week basis—I wish it was a day-to-day basis, but I am stuck over here most of the time—because my husband is a senior civil servant. I think I speak for us all when I say that we recognise the incredible, hard work that they have done under difficult circumstances, and we applaud them for that.
I strongly thank the hon. Lady for her helpful remarks, which correct the record.
I thought that giving a direct answer to the question posed by the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) was the direct answer. I am not quite sure what more I can do to amplify no, when no means no. Nevertheless, I am always happy to continue to debate these issues. This debate, by its nature, is not necessarily the most appropriate time, but we will continue the conversation anywhere, any time, within reason.
Importantly, I want to refer to the very imaginative amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy). The right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead said that he agreed with nearly every word she uttered; I agree with every word. It is important to say that, because there are issues of practical humanity involved. I have met Sarah Ewart and other women from Northern Ireland who have sought the safe, legal abortion that women in the rest of the United Kingdom hopefully take for granted, whatever criticisms we make of our health service. That is really important, because the devastation caused to people’s lives by their inability to access things that are taken for granted elsewhere ought to be brought to a conclusion.
People have different views. I am well aware that people in this Chamber have different views on the issues of equal marriage and abortion, but these are basic issues of human rights. It is right and proper that my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow has raised these issues tonight, because they need airing.
I will not repeat everything that my hon. Friend said, but any woman who loses a wanted baby is already part of an individual tragedy and a familial tragedy, and many people in this House will know that from their personal experience. For a woman who conceives in hope but finds that the baby she conceives is born, sadly, to die is an immense tragedy. For that to then be compounded by an inability to seek the help and basic guidance that I hope members of my family and people living in the rest of the United Kingdom take for granted is not a tragedy; it is a disgrace. My hon. Friend is absolutely right.
There is an irony in this, as the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) pointed out. Our Supreme Court’s decision was interesting. It was not a judgment, because the Court was not capable of making a judgment, but its analysis and recommendation was absolutely unambiguous on where the law stands. Nobody can doubt what the Supreme Court said. However, the odd thing is that the Supreme Court’s judgment was a narrow one. It said in that case that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission had no competence to take the case forward. Because it was taken on behalf of a real human being, it now falls back on that individual to refight the case through the lower courts, with all the time that will take and all the personal trauma it will cause. In the meantime, many other women will, of course, be denied access to safe and legal abortions that would be available anywhere else.
In that context, we have to recognise something fundamental in the Supreme Court’s judgment, and it comes down to two things. It is interesting that the Secretary of State has rightly indicated—I congratulate her on this—that she will now reform the law to give the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission the locus to take cases through the court process in the way that it has not been allowed to do in the past. I hope we can see early resolution of that, which we look forward to, and she is right to do it.
The judgment also sharpens the focus on something else very specific. The Supreme Court judgment was a judgment not about the Stormont process, but about the compatibility of the United Kingdom with our obligations under the European convention on human rights. Since the United Kingdom is in breach of its obligations, the necessary process to exculpate us from that particular critique is a UK one. We can hide behind devolution, but that is not appropriate. If we prefer, we can hide instead behind the narrowness of the fact that the Court could not make this a judgment. However, one way or the other, we know what the judgment would be, and we know that this is for the UK. If the Secretary of State wants to refer this to her colleagues in the Government, I think we would all be very happy with that in order to see progress made by a different Department, if that is the right way forward.
I will make the Secretary of State an offer, because this is really important. I know that the Government are in an interesting relationship with the DUP at the moment, and I know that most of the DUP Members will not agree with any attempt to reform the laws with respect to safe and legal abortion in Northern Ireland. For our part, Labour guarantees that we would support any move towards providing safe and legal abortion for women in Northern Ireland. That gives the Government the guarantee on any step forward. In any case, this would almost certainly be done on the basis of a free vote, because that has been the tradition in the House on these issues. However, the official position of the Labour party would be to support the Government in taking those steps. This is a challenge to the Secretary of State—I understand that—but it is a challenge on which we will support her if she is prepared to take it on. Let me say that the same would apply to the question of equal marriage.
I appreciate the point the shadow Secretary of State is making, and we respect the difference that exists on those views. Will he confirm that the views he has expressed are diametrically opposed to those of his sister party in Northern Ireland and to many members of the Social Democratic and Labour party?
I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that this does not obviate the absolute necessity for this House to recognise that, whatever people’s views, we have to look at our obligations under the European convention on human rights. We have to take that on board: human rights are the human rights of a person in North Antrim just as much as they are of someone in my constituency of Rochdale in the north end of Greater Manchester.
Let me also say that, ultimately, I would of course sooner that this was done in Stormont. Of course we would sooner see Stormont Members take it forward. In the meantime, however, it is not Stormont or Northern Ireland that is in breach of its treaty obligations, but the United Kingdom. Because it is the United Kingdom, the obligation is on this UK Parliament to be the one that now resolves the issue.
I will not go on at any greater length, but I hope I have made the Labour party position very clear. We would support any action in this Chamber to resolve the two issues of equal marriage and of the safe and equal abortion for women in Northern Ireland. I hope that the Secretary of State, emboldened by that commitment, will recognise that justice can now be served only by moving forward to prevent the experiences of the Sarah Ewarts of this world, to prevent a mother facing potential criminalisation because she wants to help her daughter, to help women who try to obtain the morning-after pill and are under investigation by the PSNI and to move our world forward and put those in Northern Ireland in the same position as I would expect for my own constituents.
This has been an interesting debate with some passionately held views clearly expressed.
Let me touch briefly on the comments made by the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), who talked about the moneys allocated in the written ministerial statement. Clearly, we are not voting on those today; we are voting on the vote on account. Let us be very clear what the Bill is. He needs to recognise the unique pressure that Northern Ireland faces, particularly because of the lack of Ministers for more than two years. These matters need to be resolved, but they need to be resolved in Stormont by a devolved Executive dealing with these budgetary pressures. I am sure that he will understand why the written ministerial statement included the additional money—it was because of the unique pressures faced by Northern Ireland.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) was thoughtful, as always, and passionate about the matters he cares so desperately about. I know of his support for our veterans and retired police officers who served in Northern Ireland during the troubles, and he has campaigned for them long and hard for many years. I assure him that I want the situation to change. I want things to be different, because none of us wants the current situation to continue. That is why we have consulted on how we can best take forward legislation in this place, as agreed in the Stormont House agreement, which he will know so well having served in Northern Ireland just before that took place. Of course, the Stormont House agreement happened when my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, was a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office.
We want to take that work forward, and I would very much like to work with my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead on the responses to the consultation. We have had more than 17,000, and we are still working our way through some traumatic, difficult and individual responses. I would like to work with him personally to get his expertise and wisdom fed into the process so that we can ensure that those brave service personnel and retired police officers who made sure that peace was possible are treated with the dignity they so rightly deserve.
I turn now to amendment 2, tabled by the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), who told me that she has put me on notice. I do not think it is the first time she has done so, and I am sure that it will not be the last. I know how hard she campaigns on this issue and how much she cares about it. We have debates on it and I will not rehearse the conversations we have had. She knows my personal position, but she also, I know, understands the constitutional situation and that what we all want to see is a restored Government in Stormont that can then take forward the measures that she has talked about and those brought to the Supreme Court when the Executive were taken to court.
The shadow Secretary of State talked about the UK Government. Clearly, legally the UK Government are always the defendant in such cases. We are the member state that is signed up to the treaties. However, it was the position of the laws of Northern Ireland as set out by the Executive and the Assembly that was challenged following the 2016 vote when a push to change the law on fatal foetal abnormality, rape and incest was defeated in the Assembly, with the majority of the then Assembly Members voting against that change.
The shadow Secretary of State also talked about the legal standing of the Human Rights Commission, and I have said on the record on a number of occasions that what came out from the Supreme Court judgment was an anomaly in the law that nobody knew was there. In 1998, when the Northern Ireland Act was passed and the Commission was established, everyone believed it had the same legal standing as commissions in other parts of the United Kingdom that were established at around the same time as devolution happened around the UK. Clearly, that is not the case and steps therefore need to be taken to address that point. I agree that we do not want women who are victims of the situation having to come to court and make the case themselves.
Just on that brief point, which I raised with the Secretary of State last week: in the interests of clarity, transparency and the scrutiny that the Chair of the Select Committee has asked for, will the Secretary of State provide details, after this evening, to confirm the point about an error in the grounding legislation for the Human Rights Commission? She knows that in Northern Ireland, unlike in England and Wales, we have a separated Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and Human Rights Commission, and that the Equality Commission does have standing. Will she provide detail and clarity to confirm the position she has taken, which is that it is an error in the law?
I will of course be very happy to provide the hon. Gentleman with more information on that point. Everybody believed that the Human Rights Commission had legal standing. The HRC took the case believing it had legal standing, but it was only during the Supreme Court judgment that that point was clarified. I am very happy to share the information on that point with him.
Returning to the point raised by the hon. Member for Walthamstow about the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 and the amendment to section 4 that she pressed to a vote and that this House accepted late last year, clearly the Act cannot change the law in Northern Ireland. The guidance I have issued on what I expect the Northern Ireland Office to do is very clear, but it cannot in itself change the law. I do not have the power to do that through that Act of Parliament. However, I do keep under review the obligations we have on the matter.
I want to be very clear and to state very clearly that the UK Government remain committed to their obligations under international law, including the European convention on human rights. It is important to recognise that it is for the devolved Administrations across the whole UK to ensure that their domestic laws and actions are compliant. The observance and implementation of international obligations, and obligations under the European convention on human rights, so far as they are otherwise within the competence of the Assembly, are matters for the Northern Ireland Assembly.
If I can make one final important point, I support the principle of the amendment on same-sex marriage, which was not selected today, and I have been clear on the record that I want changes to the legislation relating to abortion in Northern Ireland. However, those are matters for a restored Executive. We want a restored Executive to progress legislation on that issue as one of the first things they do.
Given that this is the second year that this place is bringing forward a Northern Ireland budget Bill—there is another Northern Ireland Bill tomorrow—and given that the debates we have had with the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and on the veterans issues raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning), does the Secretary of State not think that passing all the stages of a Bill in one day does a disservice to the people of Northern Ireland? We need proper scrutiny of the Bill through the normal process that any other Bill would have.
What we are doing today is effectively the estimates process. The moneys we are voting on today have all been voted for and properly scrutinised in this House. We are confirming the departmental spending in 2018-19, so for this current financial year. That spending was done on a proper statutory basis, with the moneys having been properly voted through this place and properly scrutinised in this place in terms of the block grant given to the Northern Ireland Office. What would happen normally is that the Northern Ireland Assembly would hold an estimates day, which would probably be about the same length of time. At the end of it, it would vote on the estimates. We are therefore effectively doing the same thing, but we have to do it through primary legislation because we are unable to do it in any other way in the absence of the Assembly sitting.
I know that that is not satisfactory and I know it does not feel right to those of us who are used to the full scrutiny of Bills, but I gently say that we are probably giving the Bill about the same amount of time it would have had in the Assembly if it was sitting. This is a very technical Bill. It is about making sure we agree that the spending that has already happened has been done on the proper legislative statutory footing and that we agree that more spending can take place next year without going into any further details about the allocations, merely that we accept that 70% of prior year spending can be spent by the Department without the need for further legislation. I hope that clarifies the point further.
The Secretary of State is touching on an important point. Of course, the retrospective nature of the Bill and the estimates comparison are significant. With other departmental budgets that come through the House, there are different mechanisms of scrutiny, which do not apply here. The Secretary of State has heard the profound argument from both sides of the House that if this happens in the future—like her, I hope it does not—we should begin to think about a better way of separating the Second Reading process and the detailed scrutiny.
I absolutely understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I gently say that this is a very technical Bill that is putting spending that has already happened on a statutory basis. It is about money that has been scrutinised in this House, which we have voted to be allocated to Northern Ireland in previous debates. We are talking about putting the decisions that civil servants took and the money that we have agreed that they can spend on a proper statutory basis. I absolutely understand the frustrations about a lack of scrutiny—I want more scrutiny. However, the right, constitutional way to do that—the way this House has agreed we should do that—is to have an Assembly and Executive sitting in Stormont doing the appropriate scrutiny.
I return to the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Walthamstow. I know how strongly she feels about this issue, and I know that she wants to see change, but this is not the Bill to do it in. This is a technical Bill. She wants success in what she is trying to achieve, and I therefore urge her to withdraw the amendment.
The Secretary of State, by refusing to recognise her responsibility to uphold the human rights of the people of Northern Ireland, is creating a situation by which public money will potentially be spent on cases like the one that Sarah Ewart was involved in. What is her message to Sarah Ewart and all the other women she is letting down by refusing to stand up for their human rights?
I do not accept what the hon. Lady said. We have appropriate and proper separation of the judiciary and Parliament. The prosecuting services in Northern Ireland, the police and others must decide what investigations they undertake, based on the law as it stands. Her concerns are with the law, and I understand that. I very gently say to her that I and the UK Government are committed to all our obligations under international law, including the European convention on human rights. It is for the politicians whom the people of Northern Ireland elected to do the right thing by those people. I understand how strongly the hon. Lady feels about this issue, but this is not the right vehicle for what she wants to do. I urge her to withdraw the amendment.
I recognise that this is a spending Bill and is not the right place for this, but I want to put the Secretary of State on notice that until she recognises her responsibly for human rights, this House will take every single opportunity to speak up for the Sarah Ewarts of Northern Ireland. She clearly will not, but we will.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 2 to 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedules 1 to 4 agreed to.
The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.
Bill reported, without amendment.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I will keep my remarks to a minimum, as we have had a long day and considerable debate on the matters raised. We have heard some very passionate and heartfelt contributions from right hon. and hon. Members. I thank them all for their contributions. I also thank the Minister and the Whips for their work, the Opposition and SNP spokespeople and all the officials who helped to put the Bill together.
This is not something any of us wished to do again. We want to see a devolved Government in Stormont because many of the matters raised today should rightly be dealt with by politicians elected by the people of Northern Ireland—that is what we want to see—and I very much hope that I will not be back doing a budget Bill again for Northern Ireland. That said, I am grateful that the House has supported the Bill so far and I hope that it will now support its Third Reading.
On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I place on the record our appreciation of the Secretary of State, her officials and the Minister for their co-operation in discussing the detail of the Bill and our appreciation for the additional funding, which is greatly needed to address issues in Northern Ireland.
I echo the comments of the Secretary of State. DUP Members sincerely hope that this evening will be the last time the House will need to deal on this temporary basis with the budget for Northern Ireland. We truly hope that by this time next year we will have a functioning devolved Government and Assembly that can do the job, provide the scrutiny and bring forward proposals for public expenditure in Northern Ireland. We agree that this is not a desirable way to do things—it is not our wish that it should happen this way—but we appreciate the time the House has devoted to it. I wish we had more time for scrutiny, but we understand why we are where we are. The DUP is committed to working towards the restoration of devolved government. The sooner it happens the better.
Some of the principles in this debate do not divide the House. Some are clearly matters of enormous importance. What has come through time and again is that the process of examining the competence of the budgetary process is not written into the procedures of the House, and I urge the Secretary of State to think about how we can make accountability and transparency more efficient, even in this coming year, because there will be further stages of the budgetary process for 2019-20. That is my first point.
Secondly, while I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) for not pressing her amendment, I think that she raised an enormously important issue. Let me say gently to the Secretary of State—I hope she will take this on board—that at present the remedy for the United Kingdom’s failure to honour its obligations lies with the United Kingdom Government, and it is the United Kingdom Government who must search for that remedy.
My final point concerns something on which the whole House is agreed. The people who are being let down by the lack of a Stormont Assembly are not the people of Rochdale or the people of the Secretary of State’s Staffordshire Moorlands constituency, but, ultimately, the people of Northern Ireland. With that in mind, I urge the Secretary of State to ensure that a real effort and a real emphasis are directed towards all-party talks to bring that situation to a conclusion.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.