“Whatever Members’ differing views on abortion, if we respect devolution, we should vote against this motion. It proposes far-reaching changes in abortion law, not only for England and Wales but for Northern Ireland, where abortion has been respected as a devolved matter since 1921. Indeed, it would set a dangerous constitutional precedent of interference.
It is not only unconstitutional. It is untimely, at such a sensitive time in relations between the Westminster Government and the Northern Ireland Administration. It would completely undermine the substance and spirit of the Good Friday agreement, and it is unwanted. Northern Ireland is the most recent part of the UK to vote on abortion law, in 2016, and it voted by a clear majority to retain its law as it stands. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) quoted statistics in her support, but let us hear what the people of Northern Ireland said just last week when asked. Some 66% of women and 70% of 18 to 30-year-olds there said that Westminster should not dictate this change to them.
If, however, the Province in time decide to change their law, that is for them, not for us here as MPs in Westminster to decide. Colleagues will no doubt recall the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland saying in the House recently:
“The Government believe that the question of any future reform in Northern Ireland must be debated and decided by the people of Northern Ireland and their locally elected, and therefore accountable, politicians.”—[Official Report, 5 June 2018; Vol. 642, c. 220.]
That was specifically in respect of abortion. She has also said that
“it would not be right for the UK Government to undermine the devolution settlement by trying to force on the people of Northern Ireland something that we in Westminster think is right”.—[Official Report, 9 May 2018; Vol. 640, c. 661.]
Those sentiments were reinforced by the Prime Minister, when she said:
“Our focus is restoring a democratically accountable devolved government in Northern Ireland”.
In that clear respect, this motion is contrary to Government policy and should be voted down.
Can we in all conscience vote on the one hand tomorrow on a Bill to
“Facilitate the formation of an Executive in Northern Ireland”,
as its long title commences, respecting the authority of that Executive to make decisions on such issues as roads and infrastructure, and then on the other hand today seek to deny Northern Ireland that authority on a matter of such fundamental social significance as abortion? We cannot, and we must not.
Whatever the views of Members across the House on abortion, they should hear what a number of Northern Irish women who wrote to me said:
“Changing the law in Northern Ireland at this sensitive political moment on this sensitive political issue is bad for devolution everywhere.”
The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) has said from the Scottish National party Benches:
“The decisions of devolved Administrations are taken for reasons that people in those devolved nations understand from their point of view”—[Official Report, 5 June 2018; Vol. 642, c. 228.]
Or, as Ruth Davidson, who is in favour of changing the law on this issue, more bluntly puts it:
“as someone who operates in a devolved administration, I know how angry I would be if the House of Commons legislated on a domestic Scottish issue over the head of Holyrood”.
This motion is an ignoble endeavour to take advantage of a temporary Executive lacuna and to foist legislation unconstitutionally on to the people of Northern Ireland. In so doing, it would radically alter our own abortion laws here in England and Wales.
Although the Bill has yet to be published, let us look at what it would do. It seeks to permit a woman up to 24 weeks pregnant to obtain an abortion for any or no reason at all—abortion on demand up to five months of pregnancy. We already have some of the most extreme abortion laws in the world, but this would make them even more so. There is no public call or appetite for this whatsoever. Indeed, it is the opposite; there is clearly grave public concern. Apart from Brexit, I have had more cards from constituents asking me to vote against this ten-minute rule Bill than on any other issue in this Parliament. Only 21% of women in England and Wales want an extension to our abortion laws, and less than 2% of them are in favour of sex-selective abortion, which the Bill would legalise up to 24 weeks. It is no good the hon. Lady arguing, as she has, that clinicians’ regulations or practice could cover that issue. The fact is that if her proposals go through, sex-selective abortion will not be illegal in this country up to 24 weeks. Do we want to go the way of Canada, which is now described as
“a haven for parents who would terminate female foetuses in favour of having sons”?
Do we really want to support a Bill—[Interruption.]
Mr Speaker, John Bercow said:
Order. The hon. Lady must be heard. If she wishes to put the matter to the vote, which I believe she does and which is entirely proper, the House will then cast its judgment, but she must be heard with courtesy.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I do want to put the matter to a vote.
Do we really want to support a Bill that could remove the only opportunity that many women have, often at the most vulnerable stage, to speak confidentially and one-to-one with a doctor about their concerns on abortion and what their alternatives might be? If we really trust women and want them to make the most informed decision and give them the best support we can, surely we should not take away this important legal safeguard. The bottom line is that if there is an abusive relationship, and there is no legal requirement for a doctor’s involvement and no need for a reason to be given for an abortion, it is far more likely that a vulnerable woman will be pressurised into having an abortion by an abusive partner. This Bill does not improve protection for vulnerable women. It reduces it.
The hon. Lady talked about the legislation being out of date, but should we reinforce, as this motion proposes, an outdated 24-week time limit when babies are consistently surviving now at 22 weeks, and some even at 21 weeks and a few days? The Bill is out of step with scientific progress and public opinion. Some 70% of women want this time limit lowered.
In recent weeks, lobbyists supporting this motion, as the hon. Lady said, have said that the UN has called for this change. The UN has done no such thing. The lobbyists for this change cite a report by a minor UN sub-committee, which does not have any standing to rule on the UK’s legal obligations in this respect. As for the non-binding judgment of the Supreme Court, which has also been used to justify this motion, there is nothing in that judgment that could remotely be said to give rise to anything approaching a requirement for the Bill. As Lady Hale said there, we in this place do not have to act.
We should not act, particularly in relation to Northern Ireland, on this issue—not only because it would be unconstitutional, though that is enough, but because the complex ramifications of this proposal, which have clearly not been thought through, would result in contradictory and inconsistent results in different parts of the UK. Those are too detailed to be debated here, but Northern Ireland would in fact be left with a total legal void, with no law covering, for example, the place where an abortion could occur and no legal requirement for abortions to be restricted to legally approved hospitals or clinical settings—abortions for any reason or no reason in any place.
The permanent secretary of the Department of Health in Northern Ireland was asked this year,
“What is the situation if the 1861 Act was to be repealed in the UK?”
His answer was:
“This scenario would leave abortion unregulated in Northern Ireland.”
The best people could hope for there would be some guidance from the Department of Health. The hon. Lady honourable places great reliance on regulators, but regulators do not have the standing of law, as we have recently seen in cases of regulatory failure by the Care Quality Commission. Regulation cannot replace legislation. Taking the responsibility for abortion out of the hands of elected representatives and putting it in the hands of unaccountable medical bodies would be a derogation of our responsibility as Members of Parliament.
To close, I repeat that as Members of Parliament, we must respect our devolution settlements, and particularly in this instance that of Northern Ireland. Whatever Members’ views on abortion, we must vote against this proposal. It is unconstitutional, legally incoherent, untimely and unwanted.