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Abortion (Disability Equality) Bill [HL]

Volume 778: debated on Friday 27 January 2017


Relevant document: 14th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee

Clause 1 agreed.


Moved by

After Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—

“Impact of this Act

(1) The Secretary of State must, at a time the Secretary of State considers appropriate, undertake a review of the impact of this Act on disabled children, their families and carers, and the provision of support services.(2) The Secretary of State must make arrangements for a report of the review to be laid before each House of Parliament.”

My Lords, my amendment is very simple. It simply seeks a review of the impact of the Bill on disabled children and their families and carers, and it seeks to ensure that support services are appropriate. I think it is a very sensible amendment; we should be reviewing what we do and taking great care to ensure that disabled people have the support they need. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, for giving us the opportunity to discuss his Bill. I am aware of the complexities and sometimes the anguish that surrounds prospective parents making a decision about abortion. I am also aware that the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, has very sensibly consulted on the Bill. I shall not go into disability rights. I have huge respect for people with disabilities and their families, who often achieve brilliantly. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, for meeting me this morning to talk about my amendment.

This past week I was at Strasbourg, at the Council of Europe. We discussed new technologies to prevent abnormality in the foetus, often from genetic problems. One of those present supporting further research described the dilemma of parents. He and his wife discovered that she was carrying a child with Down’s syndrome. They decided to allow the pregnancy to continue. My position on abortion is very simple: the final decision is the woman’s choice. I realise that such women now often discuss such a crisis with their partner; sometimes not. That should remain their prerogative. Abortion is not, of course, always linked to disability. The Bill would remove Section 1(1)(d) of the Abortion Act 1967, which allows for an abortion when,

“two registered medical practitioners are of the opinion … that there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped”.

If the Bill were to become law, parents would no longer have the option to end a pregnancy after 24 weeks when faced with a serious antenatal diagnosis, including in those cases where there is no realistic possibility of a pregnancy resulting in the baby surviving after birth. I think that is a real problem.

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, a very learned body, has addressed the issue of foetal abnormality. Its report provides information to assist doctors and other health professionals in supporting women and their families when an abnormality is diagnosed. Since the last guidance was issued in 1996 there have, as we all know, been great advances in the detection of congenital abnormalities, resulting in early diagnosis and clearer indications for the offer of termination of pregnancy. The law relating to termination of pregnancy has not changed since 1990, although it has been tested in a number of specific cases. The 1967 Act, as amended, sets out the grounds and time limits for termination of pregnancy for foetal abnormality. Interestingly, there is no legal definition of “substantial risk”, or of “serious handicap”. An assessment of the seriousness of a foetal abnormality is considered on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all available clinical information.

Bodies have discussed this issue of foetal abnormality endlessly and it is now time to review what has been going on in relation to disabled people. Some may say that I am adopting a very clinical position. I am not. As I said earlier, I recognise that decisions on abortion may cause emotional stress, strain and anguish. My ethical stance, as I said, is that it is a woman’s right to choose. Therefore, I cannot accept many of the precepts of the Bill, much as I respect the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin. My amendment simply seeks rational and objective evidence of the impact on disabled children to allow us to discuss such impact in a more analytical and considered way. I beg to move.

My Lords, the idea of having a review of the effect of legislation strikes me as a very good proposition in general, and in particular in relation to this Bill. Obviously, as the noble Baroness has explained, the precise consequences of the Bill, which I congratulate my noble friend on bringing forward, are not very easy to see, because there are overlapping provisions in the Abortion Act which might deal with some aspects at least of the particular circumstances that the noble Baroness referred to. In my judgment, this is a useful amendment and a similar principle might well apply in other legislation as well.

My Lords, I agree with the noble and learned Lord and welcome the amendment from the noble Baroness. It strikes me that in this 50th anniversary year of the original legislation, which has led to some 8 million abortions, it would be a good thing if something like the amendment moved by the noble Baroness were attached to the original legislation. There is no sunset clause in it and it has never been reviewed, which I find staggering considering that 50 years have passed.

The amendment that the noble Baroness referred to, which was passed in 1990, extended the provisions of the 1967 legislation to enable the abortion of a baby with a disability, right up to and even during birth. As I pointed out at Second Reading in support of the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, this has led in some cases to abortion on grounds such as cleft palate, club foot and harelip. Indeed, 90% of all babies with Down’s syndrome, which the noble Baroness referred to, are now routinely aborted in this country. This is pretty close to eugenics and we need to consider much more deeply the issues that relate to the legislation governing the amendment that has been moved.

I sometimes think that instead of the tramlines on which we often find ourselves, with deeply held views—I respect the position that the noble Baroness takes; it is different from my own but I respect it—we need to go far more deeply into these questions. I am grateful, therefore, to the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, for giving us the opportunity to have this debate in your Lordships’ House.

My Lords, I welcome and support the amendment. At Second Reading I made two points. First, the Bill removes discrimination from our legislation, as set out in Section l(l)(d) of the Abortion Act 1967. Secondly, the Bill’s crucial objective is to address what takes place in the consulting room. A significant number of parents say that they feel very real pressure to have an abortion when what they want is support. The noble Baroness’s amendment addresses that issue. I thank her and congratulate her on her amendment.

In 2015, 929 abortions [see Official Report, 30/1/17; col. 967.] were undertaken in England and Wales after 24 weeks under ground E. There may well be a need for additional support for parents should any of these children be carried to term in the future, rather than terminated within the 24-week timeframe, so this is a welcome addition to a very important Bill. But welcome though it is, it should not be argued that this causes a financial exposure for the Government. The Government are already required to provide for all these families, regardless of the choice they make. Having worked with the Treasury over a number of years, I know the danger is that it could view this as a financial exposure, which is not appropriate for a Private Member’s Bill. My point is that we already have responsibility for these families in caring for them and supporting them in any way and with any choice they make. I welcome the amendment, with that caveat.

My Lords, I was unable to be present at Second Reading but my noble friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol spoke on this matter, welcoming the Bill, and I add my support. I also welcome the amendment because I believe that, as others have already said, such a review would be very helpful.

One reason has just been demonstrated, although the noble Baroness would not have known this at the time; that is, the figure she quoted for the number of abortions that took place in this category after 24 weeks is different from the one that I have been supplied with. That said, the number is not hugely different. The point is that a relatively small number of abortions take place in category E after 24 weeks. If I understand it correctly, the noble Baroness’s amendment would apply not just after the 24-week period but to the Act as a whole. That review would be very welcome because we do not know exactly what is going on.

The Bill is primarily about the rights of the disabled. It is really important that we move to recognising that if we believe viability is at 24 weeks, it is 24 weeks for all foetuses and none should be excluded from that. That is why I support the Bill as a whole.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Massey for moving this amendment. It has been welcomed across the House, which is a good sign that we can have a really good debate on this. It is a sensible amendment as it asks the Secretary of State to,

“undertake a review of the impact of this Act on disabled children, their families and carers, and the provision of support services”,


“a report of the review to be laid before each House”.

As other noble Lords have said, Acts of Parliament are seldom, if ever, reviewed, so no one knows whether or not they are working. This amendment will ensure that Parliament can at least understand how the Act is working.

My noble friend Lady Hayter said at Second Reading:

“Despite the contribution that disabled people make to national life and their human right to equality of treatment, there are, sadly, still huge hurdles in the way of many of them being able to pursue a full, and indeed fulfilled, life”.

She went on to comment on the lack of adequate resources to meet the additional needs of people with disabilities and made this very important point:

“Of course, all this is not helped by the Government’s welfare reforms”.—[Official Report, 21/10/16; col. 2558.]

There are approximately 12 million people living with disabilities, impairment or limiting long-term illnesses in the UK today. Of these, 5.7 million are of working age, 5.2 million are over 65 and 0.8 million are children. It is recognised that raising a child with disabilities costs up to three times as much as raising a child without disabilities. Twenty-one per cent of children in families with at least one disabled member are in poverty, a significantly higher proportion than the 16% of children in families with no disabled member.

The Government revealed in the Autumn Statement that they had set aside £360 million over six years to ensure that families with a disabled child will receive child disability tax credits in future. However, the payments will be backdated only to April, meaning that individual families may have lost out on entitlements totalling up to £20,000 over the past five years. This is a big loss. The recent UN committee investigation into the rights of disabled people in the UK said that a range of measures introduced since 2010, including the bedroom tax and cuts to disability benefits and social care budgets, had disproportionately and adversely affected disabled children. These are big cuts for people suffering from disabilities. Cuts to the employment support allowance work-related activity group will take more than £1,500 a year away from 500,000 disabled people—this from a fund that was designed to help people stay in or find work. These cuts will reduce support for disabled people by £650 million a year.

An analysis from the TUC found that the Government are years behind schedule on their manifesto commitments to halve the disability employment gap. At their rate of progress, it will take until 2030. The research forecast that by 2020 just over half of disabled people will be in work, which is 11% less than the Government promised. There is no doubt that disabled people are suffering, and will suffer, from the cuts made by government so there is much more to do in this field.

That is why the Labour Party is calling for a complete overhaul of the current system. We are undertaking an intensive consultation exercise, with disabled people at the heart of shaping our approach, through our disability equality roadshow. It is why I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Massey for bringing this important amendment before us, which allows us to highlight the difficulties that people with disabilities have to face now and in the future. Can the Minister take note of the needs of disabled people, which are much greater than those of non-disabled people, to find ways of giving a lot more assistance than they receive at present?

My Lords, I congratulate noble Lords on the quality of debate on this amendment and recognise the broad welcome that it has received from all the speakers. I also join noble Lords in paying tribute to my noble friend Lord Shinkwin for bringing forward the Bill and raising the issue of disability rights and their effect on abortion, and in commending the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, on the clarity and conviction with which she made her case today.

Like all issues of conscience, the issue of abortion is one that divides opinions in ways that transcend the usual political boundaries because of the very personal reasons that parliamentarians have for their beliefs. It is for that reason that Governments remain neutral on such issues. The role of government in issues of conscience is to implement the law as decided by Parliament. On that basis, were this amendment to be carried and the Bill passed, the Government would of course carry out the proposed review in order to monitor the impact of the legislation, and we would indeed report to Parliament in due course.

The amendment proposed fits well with the overall determination of successive Governments to improve the lives of disabled people and their families. That has been a cornerstone of the approach of this Government and the previous Conservative-led Government. The Children and Families Act 2014 introduced a new statutory framework for local authorities and clinical commissioning groups to work together to secure services for children and young people who have special educational needs and disabilities. The support available to families includes early intervention programmes that aim to help the child develop, as well as providing support to the family from health visitors, midwives and others.

I also recognise that this amendment would improve the evidence base available for policymakers. There is of course a general desire in this Government to have more evidence-based policy-making, which the amendment would clearly aid. But, in the end, this is an issue of conscience, so noble Lords are free to decide their views according to their ethical or religious beliefs.

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in support of my Bill, and I thank sincerely and in good faith the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, for her amendment, which I not only accept but welcome as a logical extension to a logical Bill. It is a Bill that brings the law as it currently applies to disability before birth into line with how your Lordships’ House has already ensured that the law applies to disability after birth.

The amendment is about the impact of my Bill. But it is a simple, wonderful truth that I owe your Lordships’ House so much because of the impact of legislation that it has already passed. Without your Lordships’ House, a commitment to disability equality would never have been enshrined in law. Noble Lords will know that noble giants such as Jack Ashley and Alf Morris, with both of whom I had the privilege of working and whose spirits I invoke today, led the fight to outlaw disability discrimination. All my Bill does is to carry on their noble work, because it would allow us to outlaw disability discrimination where it begins—at source before birth. It is simply unfinished business. The amendment would help because it would measure the Bill’s impact on disabled children, their families and carers, and on the provision of support services.

When I think about the incredible role that strong women—women such as my own mother—play in the lives of their disabled children, anything that supports families and carers after birth and, crucially, on diagnosis before birth is welcome. Moreover, it stands to reason that such support services, be they provided by the state, charities, parents’ organisations or disabled people’s organisations, should be included in an impact review so that people can learn and disseminate best practice and, where necessary, ensure that improvements are made.

An impact review is important—but so too is how such a review is conducted. It is vital that, in keeping with the disability equality spirit of my Bill, any review of its impact should not only involve disabled people but, in my humble opinion, should be led by them. What a powerful statement it would make about the importance of disability equality, which your Lordships’ House has done so much to champion over so many years, if the chair of the review was a wheelchair user or, indeed, anyone suitably qualified who has a disability, and if the majority of the review panel was also disabled. Why not? It would be logical.

I readily admit that maths was never my favourite subject at school—but even I can see from the trends in abortion on grounds of disability that the writing is on the wall for people like me. People with congenital disabilities are facing extinction. If we were animals, perhaps we might qualify for protection as an endangered species. But we are only human beings with disabilities, so we do not.

In accepting this helpful amendment, I close with one thought. Our Paralympians represented their country in Rio with pride. What was the essential qualification for them competing at Rio? It was their disability. The country which applauded their success is the same country whose law regards that essential qualification for going to Rio—disability—as a reason they should die. How is that fair, right or logical? It is none of those things, which is why today I reflect on the remarkable impact that laws passed by your Lordships’ House have had on my life as a disabled person. It is why I ask myself: how could I not have faith in our common humanity? How could I not have faith in the truth that there is more that unites than divides us? And how could I not believe that your Lordships’ House will be true to itself and continue its noble fight for disability equality by passing this Bill?

Amendment 1 agreed.

Clause 2 agreed.

House resumed.

Bill reported with an amendment.