Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill

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Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords
Wednesday 17th July 2019

(4 years, 11 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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I therefore hope that noble Lords will support the amendment if the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, decides to divide the House. I hope he will, and if he does we will follow him.
Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office and Scotland Office (Lord Duncan of Springbank) (Con)
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My Lords, we have begun a debate today on the extension of Executive formation opportunities in Northern Ireland. I take the opportunity to return our focus to Northern Ireland for a brief moment. I do so recognising that precious few of the noble Lords who have thus far spoken chose to focus on Northern Ireland today. There have recently become a remarkable number of experts on Northern Ireland, but it appears they are not here during this part of the discussion.

It is no surprise that this is a challenging time for Northern Ireland. It had been our hope that by the coming August we would have secured a resolution and brought the parties together in such a way that an Executive could have been formed. I believe we are moving in the right direction; I now genuinely believe that there are real prospects of doing so.

This Bill has a very simple purpose. As it began its journey, it was simple and in very few paragraphs. We need a little more time, and the ambition is to extend that to 21 October, with a possible extension thereafter into January to allow for that Executive to re-form.

The request for updates on the talks in Northern Ireland is important; I do not doubt that for a moment. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, rightly says that Northern Ireland has been at the centre of so much of Brexit, but I must draw a distinction between Northern Ireland at the centre of Brexit as the border question has played through and the talks themselves. They need to be recognised as being in two different categories, and it is important to do so.

A number of noble Lords—not least the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, who opened the debate—said that this is really not just about the reports. The debate that followed expressly shows that it is not just about those reports. He quoted Iris Murdoch. I am a big fan of Iris Murdoch. I was reading her book not long ago. Thinking about these reports coming in in small doses, there is a quote from The Sea, The Sea:

“One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats”.


Whether these reports will be continuous small treats remains to be seen. My fear is that those reports will not show a great deal because the discussions within that room are not particularly useful for wider debate at this time. But I dearly hope that we do not need this extension and that we will return to normal government in Northern Ireland. But I fear right now that it would be remiss of us as a Government if we did not seek to extend.

The amendments touch on much deeper issues than I am normally called on to talk about. It will not come as a surprise to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, that I have not received a call from Mr Johnson. Who knows? I might receive one next week. Who knows what is going on at this particular moment.

The important thing for me to stress today—and I do not think it is labouring the point—is that we need to be sure that when we speak of Northern Ireland we are clear in the message that we are sending to the people of that Province. The message that we send today with this particular suite of amendments is a simple one, which is that we can use Northern Ireland for different purposes when we choose to do so. I know that the rest of the debate will focus very significantly on the serious issues of Northern Ireland, but we have not started that part yet. This part is about a constitutional question and, as a number of noble Lords have said, it is about Brexit. So be it. I cannot change the motion in which we have moved in this particular direction. But a number of noble Lords have expressed their views on different sides. For me, the key thing is to keep us focused on the important aspect, which is the delivery of an Executive in Northern Ireland. That must be our principal aim. On that basis, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Goldsmith Portrait Lord Goldsmith
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We all hope that the Minister receives a call next week, whether from Mr Johnson or Mr Hunt. We want to see him back in that place. But does he not agree that for the people of Northern Ireland, whom I know—although maybe not as much as the Minister—because I was Attorney-General for Northern Ireland for six years, the consequences of a no-deal Brexit, which have been widely described as so damaging, would be just as bad for them as for the rest of the United Kingdom?

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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The aspect of a no-deal Brexit that has been discussed here is an important one and has been discussed on a number of occasions in your Lordships’ House and in the other place. It is important to Northern Ireland: I do not doubt that because I have seen it myself. I recognise and have said on more than one occasion how important it is and how different it would have been had an Executive been in place during this period, when those voices could have been part of a wider debate. There is not a single person who does not regret the fact that those voices have been silent for far too long when we could have had them contributing, not least on the question of the Irish border. But we are talking today about a simple and focused aspect, which is extending the window during which there shall be no elections in order to secure a newly formed Executive. That is the key to the discussions today and should be the focus. I am also very happy to get a call from Mr Hunt.

The important thing to stress now is that at this point, I do not believe that the amendment takes us in the right direction. On that basis, I ask the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Anderson of Ipswich Portrait Lord Anderson of Ipswich
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I am most grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken and in particular to the Minister for his courteous response, I do not think that we should prolong things by hearing any more from me. The issues are clear. I do not propose to press Amendment 2, but I want to test the opinion of the House on Amendment 3.

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16:39

Division 1

Ayes: 272


Labour: 118
Liberal Democrat: 73
Crossbench: 52
Conservative: 12
Independent: 11
Green Party: 1
Bishops: 1
Plaid Cymru: 1

Noes: 169


Conservative: 146
Crossbench: 17
Democratic Unionist Party: 3
Ulster Unionist Party: 1
Independent: 1

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Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, this is a historic moment. I am struck. Let me begin in an unusual way, with a quote from Sara Canning, the partner of Lyra McKee. She made a statement to Theresa May, saying that:

“I wanted her to know that Lyra and I had a right to be treated as equal citizens in our own country. Surely that’s not too much to ask?”


I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Hayward for tabling Amendment 11, and doing so in a manner which addresses the technical deficiencies in the initial amendment from the other place.

I have heard comments on a number of issues tonight. I do not make a habit of quoting scripture, but I will tonight; I think it is important to do so. I quote 1 Corinthians, chapter 13, verse 7:

“Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance”.


The majority by which the other place made its decision was quite significant—a majority that my party can now only dream of. It is a reminder that, had the Executive re-formed in the past, this matter would have been taken forward in Northern Ireland. That is the important part to stress, but we cannot overlook what has arrived from the other place.

I will touch on a number of the issues raised, because it is important to do them justice, but I will do this slightly the wrong way around. The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, raised the issue of religious protection and religious freedom. He is right to do so, because there needs to be an understanding among all faith-based groups in Northern Ireland that they will not be compelled to act against their faith, their religion or even their opinion.

However, I come back to how we seek to move this forward. The question centred around the words “may” and “must”. I need to drill down into that to make sure this is fully understood. The words “may” and “must” are not about the protections or the fundamental realisation of them. Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights guarantees the right to freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. That is not in doubt, not debated and not disputed, and will not be in any way eroded by anything we do here today—full stop. It is important to remember that all the legislation will comply with that and ensure we move that forward. Absolutely at the heart of this must be a belief in Northern Ireland that faith-based groups will not experience some sort of prejudice because they express their faith in fashions which do not recognise the situation today.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, said only the other day, she would not wish to get married somewhere where she did not experience that love. Marriage is not a confrontation with other religions or an attempt to undermine them. Marriage is not an attempt to do any of those things at heart. It is, at heart, about love; that is the important thing we need to stress.

I thank my noble friend Lord Hayward for moving forward in this fashion. I commend his speech to the House; he has done most of the heavy lifting that I would have had to do. He has done justice to the task of addressing a number of technical deficiencies. It will be important to recognise how these will play out in Northern Ireland. This is an issue where we need to be as careful as we can be.

I need to stress that I do not have any concerns with Amendment 11 as now drafted. The dates in there will be a challenge—I put that front and centre—but we will meet those deadlines, by hook or by crook. I apologise to the officials who we will look to for this, but I am making that commitment. The reason the timelines are as they are is to recognise that this is not straightforward. When we looked at some of the aspects of same-sex marriage and civil partnership elsewhere in these islands, we recognised that they carried challenges to other pieces of legislation, which needed to be addressed. That is why we need a timeframe of nine months post Royal Assent. The amendment necessitates that we move faster than that. However, this is the truth of it, as we recognise some of the stumbles and challenges which have been experienced elsewhere in this kingdom and learn from them. It is important to draw on the experiences in Scotland, England and Wales, which should help us. Addressing the point made by the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, I say that it is important to stress that we are looking at an opt-in process. One would not be compelled to act against one’s faith or strongly held beliefs.

I am aware that this provision will not be welcomed in every quarter of Northern Ireland, just as it was not welcomed in every quarter of Scotland, England or Wales, but, as other noble Lords have said, time has moved on. It is time to move this one on. A message is being sent to Northern Ireland. I wish this had been done in Stormont; it would have been stronger had it been done there. I would much rather not be standing here doing it, but it needs to be done. We are acting on a very clear instruction from the other place, having recognised that the instruction required certain adjustments, for which we are very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hayward. On this basis, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, will recognise that we are not seeking to undermine in any way the religious freedom or the conscience of anyone in Northern Ireland who holds a faith dear. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, will not press his amendments, and that we can move forward with Amendment 11 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Hayward.

Lord Morrow Portrait Lord Morrow
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My Lords, I have listened very carefully to what has been said around the House this evening. I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. It was remiss of me at the beginning not to thank the staff of the Bill office for their assistance. They have been very busy of late—I suspect they are busy all the time, and this is just a normal day for them—but they were very gracious and helpful.

Some noble Lords, including the Minister, have quoted other people. I had intended to say more, but I am not going to. I am not going to say his name, because he does not come from the same side of the political spectrum as me, but I want to quote one of our well-known politicians, known to everybody in this House:

“In Northern Ireland, we have a tendency to look at who is saying something rather than what is being said”.


I trust and pray that, tonight, your Lordships’ House will not be guilty of the same. It is my intention to test the opinion of the House on this matter.

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I realise that this is a very contentious subject; anybody who has followed our debates so far will know that. But it is reasonable for noble Lords to be aware that those of us who have brought forward this amendment have done so following extensive consultation with people in Northern Ireland who have, for many years, tried to ensure that women there have access to services that mean that their human rights are no less than those of women in other parts of the United Kingdom. I realise that this subject may be slightly more complicated than that which we have just left, but I hope that the Minister and other noble Lords will join with me in seeking to expedite this, because women in Northern Ireland are in very grave need of change.
Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, forgive me for rising at this particular juncture, which I would not normally do; I will return to the wider debate once it has completed. I think it is important that I respond to the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, and her important questions and provide some information to the House that may inform the debate as we progress.

The noble Baroness asked several questions that I wish to give some clear answers to. The first was on the consultation—that it should focus on provision, not on law, enabling women to access rights, rather than restricting them. A period of consultation is the right thing to do and would ensure people in Northern Ireland and all relevant organisations can provide input and views. However, I want to be clear: consultation would not be on the question of whether this should be done, but only on how CEDAW’s recommendations can be implemented in Northern Ireland. As to the question of human rights compliance in the regulations, let me absolutely clear: in setting up the new regulatory regime and relevant non-legislative matters, we will comply fully with our human rights obligations.

To answer the question of how we would meet our requirements if we publicly consult on measures that would restrict access to abortion, any consultation will not be about restricting abortion. It will be about how, in practical terms, to establish a new regulatory regime that fully delivers on the CEDAW recommendations. I confirm that the Northern Ireland Office is clear that human rights commitments mean that women will never be forced to disclose rape and that a consultation will not lead to this. That is a very important question. The CEDAW recommendations set out that abortion must be provided in cases of rape and incest, but not how this should be done. This will need to be considered carefully, given the sensitive and distressing nature of these circumstances. In doing so, the health and well-being of women will be first, foremost and paramount in these considerations.

Reference to the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967 and the obligations on the medical professions is an important consideration. That is why in developing proposals to meet the CEDAW recommendations, we will give the most careful consideration to issues such as rape and sexual assault; and why it is important that we make these proposals in discussion with medical and other organisations, which understand and support women who have endured these horrors.

On the question of why consultation itself has to be carried out under Section 75, the equality duty under that section requires designated public authorities in Northern Ireland, including the Northern Ireland Office, to,

“have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity”,

in relation to the nine equality categories, and to the desirability of promoting good relations,

“between persons of different religious beliefs, political opinion”,

and racial groups when carrying out their functions in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland equality scheme notes that consultation is usually undertaken over a 12-week period but that in exceptional circumstances, it can be reduced to a period of eight weeks or less. In any case, our equality scheme requires us to consult on the equality impact assessment at the appropriate stage, so consultation in one form or another will be required.

We also undertake to ensure that consultations will seek the views of those directly affected by the policy reform: the Equality Commission, representative groups of Section 75 categories, other public authorities, voluntary and community groups and other groups with a legitimate interest in the matter. It is our strong preference that, given the significant reform Clause 9 seeks to achieve—creating a decriminalised and, instead, a medical-model regime for the provision of abortion services in Northern Ireland—we undertake a consultation period of between eight and 12 weeks. We appreciate that there is existing evidence supporting the type of case for reform; that includes legal judgments, domestic inquiries and international reports. But these do not set out a clear path forward that can be directly translated into regulatory and other measures. That is why consultation is required.

Generally, there is a strong argument for consultation in terms of making good public law and a reduced risk of future legal challenge, which I cannot emphasise enough. I am sure that my colleagues on all sides would agree that we must ensure that the reform is correct, for the health, safety and well-being of the women affected, and that it is appropriate to provide clarity regarding the safeguards in place for the medical profession. That brings up the conscience concept.

I can confirm that the Government will work expeditiously between now and 21 October 2019 to ensure that we take all possible steps to be ready to implement changes if the Executive are not restored thereafter—let me get that right: restored before. The whole thing could hinge there, so let me reread that sentence to avoid any dubiety. I can confirm that the Government will work expeditiously between now and 21 October 2019 to ensure that we take all possible, necessary steps to be ready to implement changes if the Executive have not been restored by that time.

If it is accepted that a consultation has to be carried out under Section 75, can I confirm that the substantive point will be how women will obtain access to abortion and not whether they should be able to do so? I want to be absolutely clear: consultation would not be on the question of whether this should be done but only on how the recommendations of CEDAW can be implemented in Northern Ireland. How will this be reflected in a drafting process and consultation? The consultation will make it explicit that we are consulting on how to deliver CEDAW recommendations most effectively, not on whether we should be taking forward this reform. We will want to engage with the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission to ensure that our consultation is drafted in the most effective way, to ensure targeted engagement on how we propose to proceed. I hope that this information is helpful to the House.

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Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon
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I listened carefully to the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, and there is some distance between us; we do not agree. As I pointed out, this is a matter of conscience and we should all respect other people’s views. We have to do what we believe in our own conscience to be right.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, I have a large number of pieces of paper. If you will forgive me, I will just assemble them into an order I can make sense of.

As it was at earlier stages, this has been an emotive and thought-provoking discussion. I spoke earlier to, I hope, help the debate to be informed. On choreography, I always welcome people giving me the questions beforehand, because it helps me work out the answers. It really is as simple as that; it is not collusion in any sense. It may well have been that I gave the noble Baroness answers she did not like, but the point was that I knew at the outset what the questions would be.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, began his contribution by asking why the length of consultation could not be the same for abortion as for same-sex marriage. There is a relatively simple explanation for that. On same-sex marriage, we have established precedent in England and Wales, and in Scotland, that can be built on in a straightforward manner. What we seek to do in Northern Ireland is quite different; there is no roll-across regime we can borrow from. As a consequence, the new elements of that will require a fuller consultation. We cannot equate the two consultations, because they seek to consult on quite distinct and different elements.

I welcome the thought-provoking contribution today from the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. She raised the issue of conscience. I know that a number of Peers have been concerned about the conscience element. As I did during previous discussions, I stress again that the conscience element must be at the heart of this. We cannot compel any practitioner to act beyond their own conscience. We must make sure that that is understood in the guidance that will be issued thereafter to all those involved in this process; that is absolutely critical.

The noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, raised a number of issues. If she will allow me, I will do my best to do justice to them. The first, which I think I touched on the last time we discussed this, was the Sewel convention. The important thing to recognise is that under normal circumstances we shall use the Sewel convention, but I do not think there is any doubt that we are not in normal circumstances. The Sewel convention in this instance will not apply.

The question that I suspect my noble friend Lord Elton, the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, and others will raise is that of what happens during that limbo period when we move away from where we are now but before we have brought into play the functioning abortion regime. It is important to stress that, although we are looking at the 1861 Act and the elements we shall remove from it, during this limbo period the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945 will still apply. Section 25 will still apply; this makes it a criminal offence to destroy any life of a child capable of being born. That will apply during that limbo period, until we have got to the stage where we have the newly functioning regime.

Baroness O'Loan Portrait Baroness O’Loan
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To what period does that apply? My understanding was that the legislation said “twenty-eight weeks”. I just want to clarify that.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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There seems to be some discussion on this, but I have the answer to that as well. There is some debate on the exact number of weeks at which a foetus will be viable, but it is around 22 to 24 weeks. The important thing to stress here is that we are not repealing that Act, and there will be no period during which there will be any sense of an opportunity or free-for-all for that aspect to be in play. It is important to recognise that. We cannot have that misunderstood as we move through.

Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown Portrait Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown
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The Minister was talking about 22 to 28 weeks; then he said “the foetus”. A child born at 22 weeks who lives—that is happening; as a minister I have seen and visited many little ones born at that time—is not a foetus but a child.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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In response to the noble Lord, I am a scientist. On occasion I will use scientific words, and on this occasion I just did. That was snippy. I am sorry; that was not my intention. Forgive me for that, but frustrations can come out in debates such as this.

As we look at these matters, it is important to try as best we can to be as sensitive as we can. I fully understand the point raised by the noble Lord. There will be a range of views across this House on these matters. It is right that we understand and respect those. As we move this matter forward, we seek to give effect to the legislation as it progressed from the other place. The important part that I need to stress—it is important for me to do so and be understood—is that the date within the Barker et al amendment, as currently drafted, would cause the Government some difficulty, because we would be unable to deliver the very consultation we have discussed within that timeframe.

Baroness Browning Portrait Baroness Browning
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I am sorry; I must be missing something here. Can my noble friend just explain to me why it is that if this amendment proceeds the timescale for the foetus is not the same as in the legislation in the 1967 Act? Foetal viability—whether it survives—is gauged only after the foetus is born and becomes a child. What does 22 to 28 weeks refer to? I have not been able to find it in any of the words on any of the papers available tonight.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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It is important to recognise here that we are not discussing the 1967 Act at all, I am afraid. That will not be moved across in any way. Right now, we are looking at a new regime that will be constructed in Northern Ireland. In answer to the earlier question from the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, about why the consultation period is longer, were we moving across the 1967 regime we would, in truth, be able to do this a little more swiftly. We would be doing so on the basis of established precedent and rules that exist within the current scheme. However, we are not doing that. The instruction we received from the other place was quite clear.

There is this question about why there are no government amendments to move forward on this matter. The simple answer to that is that, at present, we have received an instruction from the other place—

Lord Elton Portrait Lord Elton
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No, it is not an instruction.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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Let me answer my noble friend Lord Elton. If we are not able to move it forward, it will not be just an instruction—he is quite right—but the law. That is different, because it will be the law that will move forward, and we as a Government will struggle with that deliver what we need, which is a safe and secure system that places women at its heart. We will not be able to do so in the time limit we have set out, and that is the reason we have a problem. My noble friend Lord Elton, is absolutely right: we are not talking about an instruction. This is a law that will come into force, which we will have some difficulty trying to maintain and will potentially allow itself to be opened up to further judicial interrogation and review. Ultimately, this will do a disservice to honourable Member in the other place who has tried to move this forward in the manner in which he has.

Lord True Portrait Lord True
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This is a minor point, in some ways, but it is fundamental. Nothing can be law unless both Houses agree to it, so while this is not agreed by both Houses and assented to by the monarch, it is a law in the making. I am concerned about the process here, as I referred to in an earlier debate. It is not desirable. In the light of that, in a fast-track process we must have clarity. This has been asked by various Members in this House: what is the guarantee that there will not be a case in Northern Ireland where a child—or foetus, if the Minister likes—is aborted after more than 24 weeks in the period after the passage of this law? What is the guarantee? What is the safeguard in law? What is the case law on the subject? Perhaps my noble friend the Minister will able to advise the House before Third Reading.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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The challenge that my noble friend sets me is a difficult one. I cannot give a guarantee in that regard because I am not in a position to control the situation in Northern Ireland nor the medical profession. It is beyond my ability to do so. What I have said is that before we have been able to bring in the necessary elements of the new regime, there will be a period during which we will be bound by the established earlier Act from the 1940s which will give the confidence that we are not seeking to undermine in any sense the practice that has gone on there. But we have to recognise that during that limbo period, health practitioners, doctors and others will not be in receipt of guidance from us because we will not be in a position to draft that guidance by that point and that will be the reality that we will face. It is not one, unfortunately, that I can answer or offer or afford any guarantees on.

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Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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I remind the noble Lord that we may speak only once at this stage.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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I heard the noble Lord, if that helps, so I understand the point that was about to be made. I welcome that and appreciate it, as indeed I appreciate the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Empey. There is no doubt that, as the consultation process unfolds, these elements will be drawn on. We cannot simply ignore them.

It is important to ensure that the regime that we bring in to Northern Ireland is human rights-compliant—that is absolutely at the heart of this—and that within those human rights remain elements of conscience and freedom of expression which we also spoke of earlier when we spoke about same-sex marriage. The amendment would also see the repeal of Sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, together with putting in place a moratorium against current and future investigations and prosecutions, which will decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland, allowing terminations to take place where they fall within the framework of other existing protections and laws.

As this change will come in before the details of the new medical regulatory regime are finalised and that scheme is introduced, to mitigate the risk of abortions being carried out in circumstances that would fall outside the prospective regulatory scheme, we will ensure that appropriate measures are put in place, such as guidance issued by relevant Northern Ireland bodies, to provide legal clarity for the people affected and for the medical profession. Therefore, in answer to my noble friend Lord True’s point, our ambition is for this process to be recognised—and it will be a significant change—but to allow each step to take place in a carefully considered legal manner.

In putting in place the new regulations, it is only right that a period of consultation is taken forward, not on the question of whether this should be done but focusing on how it will be done and to seek views on the proposals for how best the recommendations of CEDAW can be implemented in Northern Ireland. That is our purpose. We appreciate that there is existing evidence supporting this type of case for reform, which we have spoken about before, such as legal judgments, domestic inquiries and international reports. We recognise those and have heard that case.

We will need to think very carefully about how we implement the CEDAW recommendations generally, including how we meet the recommendation to provide an exception in cases of rape and incest, which will require very careful consideration of the sensitive and distressing nature of these circumstances.

We will also consider all the necessary other amendments which may be required as part of the introduction of the new abortion regime. We will carefully consider the impact of Section 5 of the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967, including whether any amendments are required as part of the changes made elsewhere in legislation. The Government will work expeditiously between now and 21 October 2019 to ensure that all possible necessary steps are taken, but I return to the fact that I am still struggling with the ultimate deadline in the amendment. It is also important to stress at this point that our ambition is to try to realise this in a safe and secure manner for the women of Northern Ireland. That is the guiding point of this.

I was asked a question about abortions at 24 weeks. We can guarantee that no abortions will be carried out over 24 weeks. In this limbo period, it would be an offence under the 1945 Act as these would indeed be deemed to be viable, and would be children. I say that in response to the noble Lord, Lord McCrea. After the new regime, we would not introduce legislation that allowed later abortions than are taken in England or Wales. We would seek harmony.

Baroness O'Loan Portrait Baroness O'Loan
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I am sorry. I need clarity on this. It is very important. The Minister just said that, under the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945 it would be a limit of 24 weeks. Is that what was said?

Baroness O'Loan Portrait Baroness O'Loan
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But the Criminal Justice Act would need amendment to get to 24 weeks.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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Not as I understand it, no. It would not. If I am incorrect, I will happily correct the record.

Baroness Hayman Portrait Baroness Hayman (CB)
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I will attempt to be helpful. I think the focus on the 28 weeks comes from the Infant Life (Preservation) Act, which gave the number of weeks as that when we had the debates on the Act from the noble Lord, Lord Steel. As I understand from the Minister, the 1945 Act—which I am not familiar with—talks about viability and his solution to that problem was guidance that viability would have occurred by 24 weeks.

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Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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I thank the noble Baroness. That is very useful indeed. I ask my officials in the Box to remember that.

In drawing these remarks to a close, I am also conscious of the remarks about the affirmative procedure. I would be minded to accept that if things came forward in a fashion that would allow me to do so. As we are potentially at an impasse, I turn my attention directly to the noble Baroness, Lady Barker. We can discuss the date of the amendment before Third Reading in the hope that we can find that common ground. Returning to the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, I say that we may also be able to consider that as part of a common approach on the affirmative procedure.

I appreciate that this has not been an easy debate. I am fully aware—as a number of noble Lords have said—that this matter appears not to come under the title of the Bill. However, I return to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that these procedures have been deemed to be in scope. Indeed, I will go further and say that criticism of the other place in this regard is deemed to be out of order in this House.

Baroness Smith of Newnham Portrait Baroness Smith of Newnham
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When I spoke before, the noble Lord indicated that he would respond on the issue of consultation.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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The noble Baroness wants a piece of paper that has now become buried in the strata on my desktop. It is important that we now recognise the reality of the time we have. The holiday period primarily limits our ability to begin any serious consultation. We will have to design it carefully. We anticipate being able to initiate such a consultation in the early autumn. In an ideal world, we could see it being 12 weeks but we may be able to pull it forward to eight. We have to recognise thereafter that simply doing a consultation is not enough: we have to consider its elements. We are not able to deliver the outcome of that by the October date.

Oh, I have the piece of paper with the questions that the noble Baroness asked—forgive me. I think I will be able to answer the affirmative vote question, which we can take forward at Third Reading, if that is possible. The question of freedom of conscience rests within our human rights commitments, to which we remain committed. The guidance must be very clear that no doctor, health practitioner, nurse or anyone else will be compelled to act beyond their conscience or beyond their tolerance in that regard. She asked about events. I have no idea what is going to happen, but we must plan in a smooth and careful manner. I am not looking forward to any serious election issues; I hope that does not happen.

That touches on the answers to the questions, I think. On that basis, I look across the divide to the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, in the hope that she is willing to consider it.

Baroness Barker Portrait Baroness Barker
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My Lords, I thank all noble Lords—particularly the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan—for their contributions. It is extremely important that we have discussed these matters in the fashion that we have. At this late hour, I do not intend to say anything in great detail. I thank the Minister for the very thorough way in which he has addressed questions from all sides of the House. He has managed to put to rest a number of fears.

There are just three matters on which I need to respond. The first concerns Amendment 19A in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. In the light of comments—not least those of my noble friend Lord Steel—I hope that she will understand why it would be inadvisable to go ahead with her amendment, and I hope that she will not press it.

The second and key point, made by a number of noble Lords, was whether there would be an interregnum in which there would be no regulation whatever on abortion in the Province. The answer to that is quite clear: there will not be. Notwithstanding what the Minister has said about what the Government intend, there are the professional ethics of bodies such as the RCOG, the RCGP and the Royal College of Midwives. Those bodies have backed this amendment but they have professional standards to which they must adhere. There is also general guidance in general medical law which would be unaffected by any of this.

Thirdly, I say to the noble Lords who pointed out the anomalies between different Acts of Parliament in relation to 24 or 28 weeks that that makes the case for updating the law, and this is an occasion on which we could do so. I take the Minister’s point about his problem with the deadline in my amendment, and I hope that we might be able to discuss that between this stage and the next.

This is an important matter and we have had an important debate. I therefore wish to test the opinion of the House.

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20:43

Division 2

Ayes: 182


Liberal Democrat: 58
Labour: 54
Conservative: 42
Crossbench: 20
Independent: 5
Green Party: 1
Plaid Cymru: 1

Noes: 37


Conservative: 21
Crossbench: 7
Labour: 3
Democratic Unionist Party: 3
Ulster Unionist Party: 1
Independent: 1
Liberal Democrat: 1

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Lord Shinkwin Portrait Lord Shinkwin (Con)
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My Lords, I will speak in support of Amendments 16 and 16A. We have already heard how understandably upset the people and the politicians of Northern Ireland are at not having been consulted about our imposing massive changes on them on such hugely sensitive issues. But what we have not heard are the views of disabled people in Northern Ireland. For the simple fact is that, if the Bill becomes law, human beings in Northern Ireland with conditions like mine will suffer the death penalty for the crime of being diagnosed with a disability before birth.

I asked my noble friend the Minister several questions in Committee on Monday; he answered not one of them, so I will have another try. First, can he tell me what consultation has been carried out of people with Down’s syndrome or their families in Northern Ireland? The Prime Minister prides herself on the Government’s professed commitment to equality, so perhaps my noble friend the Minister could tell the House what effort the Government have made to establish how people with Down’s syndrome and their families in Northern Ireland feel about the prospect of human beings with Down’s syndrome being aborted and denied their equal right to exist? I would be very happy to give way if my noble friend would care to answer.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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Absolutely. This remains, at present, a fully devolved matter, and that consultation would be undertaken by the devolved entity. At the present time there is no devolved entity, and that consultation has not been undertaken by those MLAs or by the restored Executive; it is not there. We have been able to move this matter forward only since the instruction of the other place only a short time ago.

Lord Shinkwin Portrait Lord Shinkwin
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I thank my noble friend for his answer. In that case, I hope very much that he will accept Amendments 16 and 16A, since he has just emphasised his commitment to consultation.

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Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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I would not normally stand up at this point, but it is important to note that the consultation envisaged in the early amendments, which have already passed, would have that full consultation because disabled people in Northern Ireland are a protected group.

Lord Shinkwin Portrait Lord Shinkwin
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I wonder whether my noble friend could possibly help me with this question. Could he tell me why—

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Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon
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Amendment 16 actually proposes inserting a new clause, but that is slightly irrelevant. We have had a debate on Amendment 12 and are now looking at the requirement to consult MLAs. There is something slightly uncomfortable about this. I am certainly not opposed to consultation. I think that the best consultation that we could have on this issue would be more than consultation. I would want to see the Assembly up and running and making these decisions itself—a point that the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, made. It is not just a question of taking consultation on one issue in isolation; what is really important is the process of governance, where issues are weighed against each other, talked through and looked at in detail along with other information. I fully—100%—support local decision-making and the local responsibility that goes with it, but that is not what we are talking about here.

In some ways, we are almost talking about imposing a double lock on the Government. The amendment that they want to consult on—the new law, as it will be—requires the Secretary of State to bring forward regulations in the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive. Therefore, only in the absence of an Executive would the Government be able to bring forward regulations. However, it would seem somewhat strange to then say, “We haven’t got an Executive. The Government must take the decisions, but we’ll go and consult them anyway”. That seems almost like a double lock, preventing the Government taking any action at all while the Assembly is not sitting.

If that principle were imposed across the board, it would be very difficult for there to be any governance on any issue in Northern Ireland. It would be inappropriate to put the Government in that position when the Assembly has not sat for well over two years. Therefore, despite what I think are good intentions behind the amendment, I cannot give it any support.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, in many respects this has been a longer extension of the earlier debate. I almost wish that someone had asked me a question at the beginning so that I could have stood up then. In fact, the MLAs will be consulted as part of the ongoing consultation envisaged with the stakeholders. However, the difference is that they will not get a lock on that, which would mean that only a majority could help us move forward. Therefore, the views of the MLAs will be taken and heard but they will not be a determining factor in arresting progress on this amendment. It is important to be aware of that as we make progress. It is also important, as I said when we discussed this issue a longer time ago, that the scope we are discussing is the scope we have received from the other place. The criticism of proceedings in the House of Commons, and those issues, are deemed out of order in the Companion. We have to accept that what has arrived here is something that we can act on and take forward, which we must do.

It is important to stress, throughout each of our discussions on this wider question, that the Government are not seeking to take forward an abortion amendment. We have received from the other place a clear statement, by a clear majority, on a conscience issue and a free vote. For good or ill, in response to my noble friend Lord Shinkwin, the Prime Minister, in this instance, would be able to exercise her conscience in the same way as anybody else in that House. This is not the UK Government’s policy, nor is it the policy of my party, but responsibility rests with this Government to ensure that what we are able to do in moving this matter forward is safe, sound and secure. That responsibility rests with us, and that is what we have sought to do in engaging with all noble Lords throughout this process—to ensure that we are able to deliver on that.

The discussion has ranged more widely than the question of consulting with the MLAs. I do not wish to extend the debate significantly in this direction, given that one of noble Lords’ concerns has been the scope from the other place, but I will touch on a few elements. By any definition, we have to accept that the situation in Northern Ireland is dysfunctional. The devolution structures that have been put together are not working. One can argue that the structures are at fault, or that the problem rests elsewhere, but the problem we face now is that the outcome is the same no matter which you decide is responsible. The situation that we face is serious, and I do not think there is a single Member in the House tonight who would not wish to see these matters taken forward by an Assembly and an Executive in Northern Ireland. For reasons that are all too apparent, however, certain parties in Northern Ireland are not able to deliver against that instruction. That is a great shame, as we probably all agree. We all recognise that noble Lords sitting here at this late hour should not be taking these matters forward in this fashion, but we are doing so because of a failure and a fault in the system in Northern Ireland

As the people of Northern Ireland look at what we are doing here, I have a sneaking suspicion that they are sick and tired of all politicians, of all rank and measure. They are tired and weary now because they seem to be in a situation where politicians are all over them when it comes to an election, then—lo and behold —seem to disappear when it comes to the heavy lifting. They now see all politicians of all parties, of all ilk and all places, in exactly the same way. That is a terrible situation to be in, and we need to restore the confidence and trust of the people of Northern Ireland in the elected system. We need to get the Executive up and working, and get this moving forward, but that is not what we are able to do through this amendment.

The noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, has made a passionate speech this evening, and she has received a number of emails in response to a particular letter. I am sure we all have a large number of those in our inboxes now, but the number of emails needs to be judged against the population of Northern Ireland. The population is 1.871 million, and we need to recognise that the passion of those who have responded should be applauded, but it is not a means by which we can determine the view or the will of the people of Northern Ireland; nor should we consider it so. It is an important measure, but it is not in itself an adequate measure.

The amendment before us now broadly says that the MLAs must be consulted and their response to the consultation will determine what happens next. We cannot accept the amendment, but I stress that the MLAs will be consulted, and I can go further by ensuring that MLAs receive an update on each of the aspects that noble Lords will be updated on as a consequence of the earlier amendments from the other place. If your Lordships are so minded, we can ensure that MLAs receive exactly the same information that comes from the reports we have commissioned, or are about to commission, to ensure that they are fully abreast and aware of all of these aspects. We will do all we can to engage directly with the MLAs to ensure that they are fully aware of each step. I have no problem with committing to do that now, but I cannot have a lock placed on progress on this matter. That would place the Government in the invidious position of having been, both from the other place and through our own vote this evening, in a clear position, but then having to say that they must await the views of MLAs. We cannot have that, I am afraid; it would not be appropriate. I therefore ask that the amendment be withdrawn.

Baroness O'Loan Portrait Baroness O’Loan
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My Lords, I have listened with care to everyone who has spoken. I thank noble Lords who have spoken in support of my amendments. I will address a couple of issues before I give noble Lords my decision. There is a democratic deficit. The Minister is right: people are tired of politics. That is why I did not expect a response to the letter which the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, and I drafted, yet the responses continue to come in.

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22:17

Division 3

Ayes: 39


Conservative: 24
Crossbench: 7
Democratic Unionist Party: 3
Labour: 2
Ulster Unionist Party: 1
Independent: 1
Liberal Democrat: 1

Noes: 138


Liberal Democrat: 50
Labour: 38
Conservative: 35
Crossbench: 12
Independent: 2

Amendment 16 withdrawn.
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Lord Empey Portrait Lord Empey
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My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Hain, on his persistence. I come back to the point that a number of victims appeared in the local press in Northern Ireland today and one theme went right across. Yes, they would welcome recognition through a pension—we often forget that a lot of these people have been unable to earn a proper living and provide for their retirement because of their disabilities, physical and mental—however, they would all be horrified if the people down the road who caused those injuries were to get a benefit out of this process.

I am not a lawyer but I understand that one of the critical things when people take the Government to court over a piece of legislation is what the intention of Parliament was when the debate was being held. The Minister can clarify that, of course, because his statements will be part of the evidence in any case. I also ask him to give some thought to the use of terminology in the criminal injuries compensation legislation in this part of the United Kingdom. I believe that the word “blameless” appears in that legislation, so it is the eligibility, together with the fact that mental health is to be taken into account, as well as physical injuries. That is much more difficult, because the service availability to provide that kind of backup and assessment is in short supply, as we heard repeatedly earlier today. We do not want people with genuinely severe mental health problems to feel that they are second-class citizens in all this, so that has to be taken into account. The key thing is to ensure that it is blameless; that people cannot then find some loophole to climb in and get money, which would be rewarding them for their evil deeds.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, I am very happy to speak on this and I will get right to the point. I am very happy to confirm for the record that the intent and purpose of,

“through no fault of their own”,

is the principal criterion by which we will ensure that victims secure their pension. We will also ensure that all eligibility criteria procedures abide by the “no fault of their own” principle. I hope that these words will stand alongside any interpretation of the Bill as it passes from our House to the other place. I recognise the “blameless” comment as well: we need to recognise that concept that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, put into the discussion. This is to ensure that those who have suffered through no fault of their own, not by their own hand, and who are survivors of a difficult and troubled time, are able to secure a pension now. That pension will be backdated to December 2014, so I hope that for some there will be a serious lump sum. I hope that that money can do some good.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hain, for bringing this before us, for pushing it and for keeping us on track all the way through. I think noble Lords who have been part of those discussions will agree that it is through his leadership that we are where we are today. I would not normally do this, but it is also important that I praise one of my officials, Chris Atkinson. He has been instrumental in helping move this matter forward: without him, we would not be where we are today, and I put on record, from all of us who have been involved, how critical he was to securing success. On that basis, I am very happy to accept the amendment.

Lord Hain Portrait Lord Hain
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In thanking the Minister, I also thank his official, Chris Atkinson. I also place on record what is, I am sure, the view of the whole House that the WAVE Trauma Centre, which has campaigned for this for 10 years, deserves to be acknowledged for what has been magnificent persistence: I think we should pay tribute to it.