Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill Debate

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Department: Scotland Office

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill

Baroness O'Loan Excerpts
Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Monday 15th July 2019

(4 years, 11 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 190-I(Rev)(a)(Manuscript) Amendment for Committee, supplementary to the revised marshalled list (PDF) - (15 Jul 2019)
Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble (Con)
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My Lords, I rise to support the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Cormack for the reasons that he gave in moving it. It is very wise to give more time for this. I notice that he is suggesting 13 January instead of 31 October, which gives a couple of extra months, but I rather like the idea of putting down 10 April and reminding people that it is the anniversary of the making of that agreement, which, when it was mooted, was agreed to by referenda with substantial majorities. The effect of that has not gone away. It is generally assumed in Northern Ireland that that agreement provides the basis for the local Administration.

Unfortunately, others are trying to undermine the agreement. Indeed, the worst of those trying to undermine the agreement—thankfully, at the moment it looks as though they will be unsuccessful—are the European Union, the Irish Government and our own Government. That is precisely what they are doing. I shall not go into great detail, although I can do so. I have been scribbling on this subject and something might emerge shortly, so I shall not start at this stage. We are not into a filibuster yet but, if the need comes, I am prepared to engage at some length on what I have just said. Putting in the date that reminds people of the agreement might, I hope, be an incentive to those who should be working to restore the Administration so that we have no further need of this legislation. We know that, because of the length of the hiatus in the institutions, the hope is not all that great, but it is worth reminding people of this and perhaps giving somebody’s conscience a prick ever so slightly on the subject.

Baroness O'Loan Portrait Baroness O’Loan (CB)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, who, as a Nobel Peace Prize winner, is one of the architects of the Good Friday agreement. I pay tribute to him for his tireless work for peace in Northern Ireland over so many years.

I am pleased to support the amendment to the Bill moved by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. The final, real purpose of the Bill is to prevent an election to enable more time for the talks to take place. All these dates will do is to make further accommodation. The amendment is not inconsistent with the main purpose of the Bill.

I spoke at Second Reading, and since then thousands have told me of their concern. I will speak more of that later. If the Bill could pass to give effect to its original purpose, it would be better to extend the period because, apart from anything else, at present Northern Ireland is on holiday. For example, I was trying to call the Minister through the Northern Ireland Office this morning, but all the numbers seemed not to work. I could not get anyone, and my suspicion is that this is a public holiday in Northern Ireland and that is why I was unable to get him. That tells you something about rushing a Bill that will make such a profound constitutional change through your Lordships’ House this week. The talks seem to have been very difficult, but they are being conducted by the Government. They have been facilitated and enabled by the Government, and the Minister has told us how committed they are to these talks and the future creation of a Northern Ireland Executive, which would allow the Assembly to go back and give us a functioning Government. They are vital to our future. They are, in the context of Brexit, critical to the peace process and to the peace, stability and economic prosperity of the United Kingdom. I am very pleased to support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack.

Baroness Harris of Richmond Portrait Baroness Harris of Richmond (LD)
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My Lords, I regret to tell the Committee that the Liberal Democrats cannot support these amendments. Northern Ireland has already been without an Assembly, a devolved Executive and effective decision-making for far too long. We are only reluctantly supporting 21 October, as I have said, and our hope is very much that the Bill will not be needed at all.

As we have heard, there have already been nine weeks of constructive talks. Now is not the time to take that pressure off Northern Ireland’s political parties—in fact, we must keep the pressure on. We want devolved government restored to Northern Ireland as quickly as possible, and these amendments are not the right way to go about things.

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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, the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, said that Parliament is losing patience. It is more serious than that. The people of Northern Ireland are losing patience with this process. In our Bill today, we seek to give a little more time—to extend the deadline that falls in August to October, with the potential for an extension onward to January. In so doing, we recognise the value of a deadline; it is required to ensure a consequence for those at the table if there is a failure. The first step, if there is indeed a failure, will necessarily be an election in Northern Ireland and thereafter, that step that none of us here would wish to take: towards direct rule.

My noble friend Lord Cormack puts forward his amendment in the correct spirit, as he always does in these matters. In many ways, I welcome what he is trying to do: he is exactly trying, as we have tried for some time, to give space for the parties in Northern Ireland to reach the necessary steps and conclusions to form an Executive. But there comes a point when you cannot keep kicking that can down the road. The parties in Northern Ireland must recognise that there can no longer be an absent Government, or a situation in which we here are called upon to do the bare minimum to keep ticking over the Government and governance of Northern Ireland.

I believe these deadlines give enough time for those parties to come together—and they are close together—and to reach the resolution they require. If they fail to do that, we will have to act. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has today travelled back to Northern Ireland to try to move these matters forward. There can be no let-up in the pressure or, indeed, the presence. I welcome the contributions of all noble Lords in this debate and previous debates to try to move these matters forward. Ultimately, this is a matter for Northern Ireland. While I understand the sentiment behind the amendment —to give that little bit more time and that safety valve, should it still be required—unfortunately, I do not on this occasion believe that that will deliver. Only a deadline will deliver, and I believe that deadline should be sooner rather than later. I recognise the landscape in which these deadlines fall; it is not where we wish to be.

Baroness O'Loan Portrait Baroness O'Loan
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Is the Minister aware of what has happened with deadlines in the past in Northern Ireland, and that they quite simply do not work? Is he aware that the former chair of the talks, George Mitchell, said that there must be talking until they are ready to reach an agreement? That was the advice he gave to me when I was heading off as a peace envoy. We cannot set deadlines and expect peace to be made and talks and the Assembly to continue. Is the Minister aware of that?

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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I am fully aware of that, but I am also aware of how long there has been no government in Northern Ireland, and that that cannot continue. It cannot continue because there are things that need to be done: not the issues being dealt with inside those rooms, but issues such as health, education, schools and agriculture—the list recited by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, during our last discussion on the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, said the same thing. We cannot allow this to continue. What we need now is good governance in Northern Ireland. This is an opportunity for those parties, within the extension foreseen in the Bill, to deliver on that. If they cannot do so in that time there will be consequences, and we must address those sooner rather than later.

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Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, I expect that in years to come constitutional scholars will study this debate and explore many of the arguments. I suppose that it is my purpose to return us to what I hope is the principal purpose of the Bill to which this particular amendment has been appended. This Bill aims to ensure that we can restore an Executive in Northern Ireland in good time. This is a noble aim, with which I think we all agree.

We ought to start by recognising that Members in the other place have already debated and voted on these issues. Of course, the Government agree that Parliament must be kept apprised of progress towards restoring an Executive in Northern Ireland. The Government has already responded to the concerns here by agreeing to bring forward to 4 September the date by which a report will be made.

In many respects, the key issue here—which a number of noble Lords raised, for perfectly understandable reasons—is the need to keep focused on what we are trying to achieve through the reports we are discussing today. That is to ensure that Parliament is kept abreast of the ongoing aspects of the talks in Northern Ireland. However, I have stood here on many occasions and said that it would be inappropriate for me or my right honourable friend in the other place to give a running commentary. That is for one simple reason: we must give a clear and safe space in which those negotiations and talks can unfold. It is perhaps not enough for us to simply say, “Nothing to see here, move on”. We need to recognise that.

The votes were close in the other place, so some noble Lords might argue that we should give Members there an opportunity to think again. However, it is important to point out that the closest vote of all was on the addition of fortnightly reporting requirements, which the Government lost—although noble Lords are not proposing that the other place should be asked to think again on that one.

These amendments tabled by noble Lords are broadly very similar to those already rejected by the other place. They would require the initial progress report, as well as fortnightly ones thereafter, to be considered by Parliament and be subject to an approval Motion. However—again—in many respects, each element of this has nothing to do with the situation in Northern Ireland, which has necessitated the Bill in the first place.

As we speak to one another and the people of Northern Ireland, it is important that we recognise that this Bill serves a principal and singular purpose, which is to ensure that we give an Executive the appropriate space to reform.

Baroness O'Loan Portrait Baroness O’Loan
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I thank the Minister for giving way. If the Bill serves a principal and single purpose, why are the other clauses being admitted to it and why are the Government supporting them? It seems to me that this contradicts the position that the Minister has just articulated.

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Lord Adonis Portrait Lord Adonis
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My Lords, the statement just made by the noble Lord would be deeply contested within Northern Ireland. One has only to look at the literature and the debate there. I respect the noble Lord’s point of view, but it is deeply contested.

As the noble Lord said, the decision was taken to locate the second university instead in Coleraine, a small town. The decision of the Lockwood committee was to close the Magee campus, but the then Northern Ireland Government thought that it would be a step too far. There was a modest increase in the number of places at the Magee campus, but no major new departments were located there—on the contrary, there was a reduction in their number. This has been a long-running issue since.

When I went to Derry, the business community and young people said to me that the single decision which would do more than anything to boost the economic and social life of that city would be the location of a dedicated university, for which there is masses of space, alongside an expansion of the number of places in the city by the University of Ulster.

These decisions are simply not being taken, but it is worse than that: the decision on the table to locate in Derry medical places at the University of Ulster has now been entirely stalled by the absence of an Executive and an Assembly. There are no medical places in Northern Ireland outside Queen’s University Belfast. The great city of Derry has no capacity to train doctors or medical staff to degree level, because there is no provision at the Magee campus of the University of Ulster.

The story becomes worse than that when one delves into the situation. A decision has been taken to expand the University of Ulster, which has campuses across Northern Ireland, but the greater part of the expansion is taking place not in Derry but in Belfast, with a hugely expensive relocation of the Jordanstown campus to the city centre—it is costing more than £200 million.

I raise these issues which are not being debated and discussed in Northern Ireland because there is no Assembly and no Executive. They are of huge concern.

Baroness O'Loan Portrait Baroness O'Loan
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My Lords, I declare an interest: I taught in the University of Ulster. I hesitate to interrupt, but one reason for the Jordanstown campus being relocated to Belfast is that the building infrastructure is not capable of being sustained and is not safe.

Lord Adonis Portrait Lord Adonis
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There may be very good reasons for such decisions being taken, my Lords, but that does affect the fact that there is no increase in the number of places in Derry. The focus of the University of Ulster is not in Derry. Its headquarters are in Coleraine. The big expansion in which it is engaged is in Belfast. Belfast is the only place in Northern Ireland that has an adequate number of higher education places. This issue is being systematically unaddressed.

As I have said, in the normal course of events, this matter should be addressed by the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly; it is not. It is tragic for Northern Ireland that it is not. Each year where it fails to be addressed means that more young people have opportunities denied to them. It is therefore essential that this Parliament addresses the issue, particularly in the context of the economic and social situation in the city of Derry, which I think most noble Lords would agree is deplorable at the moment.

Derry has the highest unemployment rate in Northern Ireland and the lowest employment rate. Indeed, it has the highest unemployment rate of any city in the United Kingdom. When I met leaders of the business community in Derry, they said that the single decision that could do more than anything to boost job creation, confidence and the location of new businesses in Derry would be the building of a dedicated university in that city. So I think it is right that we address this issue. For as long as there is no Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, this is going to be a burning issue of concern in Northern Ireland.

I look forward to the Minister’s assurance on two points if direct rule is going to continue for any length of time—and despite the assurances given earlier today, it looks perfectly possible that it may continue for some substantial period. First, will the Government unblock the decision about the creation of medical places in the University of Ulster’s Magee campus in Derry? Could that not be taken forward next year? What is stopping that decision? Secondly, if direct rule continues beyond September, as appears likely, will the Government give an assurance that they will look at the expansion of university places in Northern Ireland as an issue of urgency, so that more young people do not have opportunities denied to them? I beg to move.

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Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble
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My Lords, looking at Amendment 10, the key thing I see is,

“offering a consultation with the people of Northern Ireland if no Executive has been established”,

by the date mentioned. It is really indefensible that we sit here acquiescing in the continued non-existence of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

I understand why my noble friend has put this amendment forward. I am slightly uncomfortable that the amendment is a bit passive—

“if no Executive has been established”.

One should really do more than just say, “We will do this if it happens, but we don’t appear to be doing much else to keep things going”. I know there is a talks process under way from time to time, and sometimes I hear people saying that they are very close and that things are going well. I very much hope that that is the case, but we have been here before and had negotiations that were getting very close—then some gentlemen whom we rarely see or hear anything from send their messages in and the landscape shifts considerably.

In an earlier debate, the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, referred to the fact that this is not just a matter of interest to Her Majesty’s Government but that another Government are involved. That brings back to mind the agreement we made nearly 22 years ago. That agreement had two elements to it: the multi-party talks, which happily came to a positive conclusion, and the agreement between Her Majesty’s Government and the Irish Government, which finds expression in legislation passed by this House. In that very short agreement, which I think had only two or three clauses, the first clause—the important one—contained a solemn undertaking by Her Majesty’s Government and the Irish Government to support the product of the multi-party talks; in other words, to support the steps we took towards the creation of the Northern Ireland Assembly and to support the Assembly itself.

I draw the attention of Her Majesty’s Government to the fact that they have an obligation to support the Northern Ireland Assembly. I do not think they are discharging that obligation. It is true that you have to proceed via agreement with the parties, but one must go further than saying, “We’ll leave it up to the parties”. That is not supporting it.

Since this unhappy situation came about, a number of Members of this House have made proposals from time to time about what could be done. I did that several times myself until I started wondering what the point was of trying to work up something that gives another way forward if there is no sign of any support coming from the sources from which it should come. Unfortunately, where there is an obligation on Her Majesty’s Government to support an Assembly—and, by extension, to support those trying to bring it about, even though that means going a roundabout route and applying pressure to various parties—there should really be more consideration from them about their obligation and how and when they will implement it.

Amendment 18 says that regulations,

“must be introduced if no Executive has been established”.

I know it is a bit premature to try to work out at this stage what the form of those regulations would be, but, if there is a legal obligation on the Government to introduce some regulations at that point, that is to be welcomed, as it might help accelerate the rather anaemic processes that are going on at the moment.

These are suggestions to think about, but I bring the Committee’s attention back to the fact that that agreement was made on the basis that there would be good faith from the Government in implementing it. They responded by making a solemn undertaking. I now invite them to fulfil it.

Baroness O'Loan Portrait Baroness O'Loan
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My Lords, I cannot endorse the words of the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, too strongly. He is absolutely right. Consultation is essential if Northern Ireland is to have any sense that there was integrity in the intentions of the Government in what they have done in the past.

As I have told noble Lords, over the weekend I received 15,000 signatories to my letter to the Prime Minister; I keep getting texts, and the number seems to be rising by a thousand an hour. There is another side to this that I do not think noble Lords are aware of. Given that Northern Ireland voted not to leave the European Union, if we move towards Brexit and we simultaneously move to direct rule, many of the unionists in Northern Ireland—my noble colleagues may contradict me—would reject that. They will want a Northern Ireland Assembly; we are capable of governing ourselves in these devolved matters.

I know from what is written that the nationalist people of Northern Ireland would reject it utterly. For them, it would be the end of the Good Friday agreement; it would be the end of support from the British Government for the institutions of the Good Friday agreement; it would imperil our peace process. Equally, it would create a construct within which the reunification of Ireland would become rapidly more likely. If Northern Ireland is not allowed to govern itself and space is not made for the talks which need to take place, direct rule, which has been a very bad thing for Northern Ireland, will inevitably follow.

I say to noble Lords with a heavy heart that, as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, said on Wednesday, they are walking on very sacred ground as they contemplate these issues. It is not just about abortion; it is about the whole devolved settlement, the integrity of government and the future peace and prosperity of all four parts of the United Kingdom.

Viscount Hailsham Portrait Viscount Hailsham
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My Lords, I rise very briefly to speak about Amendment 18A, a manuscript amendment standing in my name which forms part of this group. The sole purpose was to ensure that Parliament is sitting between 22 October and 31 October this year. The reason for that was articulated in the previous debate promoted by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson: to prevent an improper Prorogation of Parliament, for the reasons the noble Lord discussed. It has been grouped with these amendments. I have absolutely no intention of standing in the way of regulations to permit same-sex marriage. That is not my purpose. It was a procedural amendment, and your Lordships will doubtless be pleased to know that I do not intend to repeat the arguments I made in the previous debate or in any way to seek to bring forward for your Lordships’ active consideration Amendment 18A, because that matter was resolved in the second debate this Committee has had today.

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Baroness O'Loan Portrait Baroness O'Loan
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If that is the case, why was the amendment in the other place drafted in the way that it was, which was asking the Secretary of State to do this? There is no international obligation, legal or otherwise, to introduce abortion.

Baroness Harris of Richmond Portrait Baroness Harris of Richmond
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But Parliament is sovereign and so it will make that decision itself.

Baroness O'Loan Portrait Baroness O'Loan
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I did not intend to imply in any way that Parliament is not sovereign, but there is no obligation under European law or international law to introduce abortion.

Lord Deben Portrait Lord Deben (Con)
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My Lords, from time to time we have to distinguish between what is utterly true, which is that Parliament is sovereign, and the particular circumstances in which that sovereignty is actually exercised. I am in the position of having been a passionate supporter—contrary to the views of the church of which I am an active member—of same-sex marriage. I do not think that anyone can suggest that I am holding things up because of my views on this. I happen to take a different view from the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, on abortion—perhaps that puts me into a rather special circumstance on this particular issue.

But I want to say to the noble Baroness that it is very difficult for any of us to get inside the minds of many people in the north of Ireland. That is a fact. We face a wholly different community from the communities to which most of us belong. That is true of people of all denominations, as a matter of fact. It is not an easy place to be. The difficulty that we have had of re-establishing devolved rule only shows how hard it all is. I have to say to my noble friend that many of us would like to see more signs of activity from the Government and the Secretary of State. I would like to feel that this was being pressed in a more active way than seems to be true—but perhaps it is being pressed and we do not know, so I do not want to carry that criticism too far.

But I beg people not to think that it is merely a matter of asserting the sovereignty of this Parliament to put through two changes in which they passionately believe—I passionately believe in one and passionately do not believe in the other. It is not just a matter of asserting our sovereignty. That is not how every community in the north of Ireland will see it. It will be seen as us deciding what we think is good for the Province.

Now I find that attractive because I very often want my opinions to be carried through more widely than they are. But we have already stretched the connection between us and the north of Ireland to breaking point over Brexit. I do not want to get into the nonsense that we have actually tried to carry through on Brexit when we ignored the problems of Ireland while going on about Brexit. We have already stretched that connection and are now suggesting that we stretch it even further. As the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, so remarkably put it, we are moving into a position in which false moves from us will change the whole nature of Northern Ireland.

There are those who want that and would see it as a benefit. But anyone here who cares about the unity of the United Kingdom should look very carefully at putting their perfectly reasonable personal views in front of the right of the Province to make up its own mind. After all, we specifically gave a series of things to Scotland, Wales and Ireland for people there to make up their own minds about.

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Baroness O'Loan Portrait Baroness O'Loan
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I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. She talked about the nature of comments and said something about a noble Baroness making a comment. I would like to know who and what she was talking about.

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon
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I was referring to the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott. She said she was upset about some of the comments that had been made in the debate, and I respect the comments she made in that regard. I think she was right to make them.

Coming back to the point about whether this is procedurally correct, as somebody who has spent more hours than I might care to discussing this with clerks or colleagues, I can say that if the matters before us were not procedurally correct, they would not be debated by this Committee today. All matters before us are procedurally correct. The noble Lord from the DUP made the point that the provisions on abortion and same-sex marriage were not supported by Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland. I regard every single Member of Parliament as equal to every other. Each Member has a duty to consider the position of the United Kingdom as a whole. We have a Conservative Government, supported by Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland of a different political party, who presumably vote on issues affecting the whole of the UK. I would not criticise Members of Parliament who vote on issues that affect other parts of the United Kingdom, because all MPs are equal.

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On abortion, there are strong opinions on either side which must be respected, but I struggle with the notion that in Northern Ireland a victim of a violent rape who has an abortion faces a harsher penalty than her attacker. I find that quite chilling. The position at the moment does not stop abortions happening. If it was possible to reduce the number of abortions, I would be pleased to support that, financially and otherwise, but that is not what the amendments would do. More than 1,000 women and girls now travel to England and Wales for abortion, in addition to those who take illegal abortion pills bought online.
Baroness O'Loan Portrait Baroness O'Loan
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I do not think it is quite right to say that huge numbers of women are being raped, become pregnant and are imprisoned because of breaches of the law. That is not what is happening in Northern Ireland. Yes, we have some women who are raped. Undoubtedly, some of them will get pregnant. Northern Ireland needs to sort these things out for itself.

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon
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I think the noble Baroness misunderstood. I agree that Northern Ireland should sort it out, but a victim of violent rape who becomes pregnant and seeks an abortion faces a harsher penalty than her attacker. That seems quite wrong.

The House of Commons has voted on two issues, with substantial majorities. On Wednesday, we will have an opportunity to look at how the Government have responded to Conor McGinn and Stella Creasy; the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, will be bringing it here. We look forward to seeing what will happen. This debate has highlighted how sensitive this is, and that there are intransigent different points of view which I think cannot meet. We must do what we believe is right.