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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 15 July 2009

[Ann Winterton in the Chair]

Abortion Law (Northern Ireland)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Mr. Watts.)

9.30 am

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mrs. Winterton.

When I was first elected to Parliament, I served on the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. Abortion law in Northern Ireland was an issue then and it will continue to be an issue until the Government fulfil their responsibility and grant equal rights to women in Northern Ireland. I have no doubt that this is an immensely controversial issue. Parliament has taken a fair old battering in recent months, but we right hon. and hon. Members are at our best when we do what we are sent here to do: to engage in the battle of ideas with mutual respect, particularly on difficult, controversial issues like this. I trust that this debate will be conducted with that in mind.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Martin Salter: No.

I well remember campaigning with colleagues from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on a cross-party basis for the Belfast agreement in 1998. I campaigned with Sinn Fein in the Falls road in the morning, with the Social Democratic and Labour party at lunchtime, and with the Progressive Unionist party in the afternoon in the Shankill road. [Interruption.] I am afraid that my colleagues from the Democratic Unionist party were on the other side of the issue at that point. One thing that came through in talking informally to people was that, yes, this issue-sadly, in my view-unites the vast majority of politicians in Northern Ireland.

David Taylor: Will my hon. Friend give way on that point?

Martin Salter: No, I will not.

The single exceptions are Anna Lo from the Alliance party and Dawn Purvis from the Progressive Unionist party. I have immense respect for those two people, who have shown great courage in standing up for what they believe in. Other politicians in Northern Ireland, particularly in the Assembly, share their views, but in the prevailing atmosphere people feel that it is difficult to express them, or they feel uncomfortable doing so. We all understand that; we are all under pressure from our electors.

We should all be concerned about this matter. It is a human rights issue. It is staggering that anyone can sit back and believe that it is okay to treat certain
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United Kingdom citizens as second-class citizens, purely on the basis of where they live. This is happening to women in Northern Ireland on a daily basis.

Devolution is a good thing, and I have no doubt that the devolution argument will be made today.

Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab/Co-op): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Martin Salter: No.

We did not devolve this issue to Scotland. There are, in my constituency and others, people from all over the UK, whether from England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, who have the right to travel to have heart operations or to see cancer specialists. However, somehow, a woman from Northern Ireland facing potentially serious medical complications or even worse cannot travel and be funded for abortion services in the mainland in England. How on earth can that be right?

It will be said that this is not a matter for the Westminster Parliament. However, a significant e-petition on the No. 10 website has been signed by many thousands of people, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) tabled early-day motion 625. Of course, in May 2008, Northern Irish Members of Parliament had no compunction about coming to this place and voting to restrict the reproductive rights of my constituents, and they voted to reduce the abortion limit down to 12 weeks. I am afraid that anyone in this debate who trots out the argument that this is not a matter for Westminster has sold the pass.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that, in addition to tabling an early-day motion, I tabled an amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill on abortion rights in Northern Ireland, in response to which I received hundreds of letters from men and women in Northern Ireland, saying that, on this matter, the four major parties did not represent them and that they looked to the Westminster Parliament to be a voice for women there?

Martin Salter: I am well aware of the strength of feeling on this issue. We are nothing-we are pygmy politicians in this place-if we do not stand up for the rights of people who feel that they do not have a voice. My hon. Friend is right to articulate the fact that many women-many people-in Northern Ireland feel that they do not have a voice on this issue.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the nearer to the people the decision is taken, the purer the democracy? People's views should be respected. The vast majority of people in Northern Ireland want to protect the unborn child and are absolutely right in holding that passionate view.

Martin Salter: I have great affection for the hon. Gentleman, but his argument blows apart if localism is taken down to its purist level, because the local decision of the individual woman herself is the one that we are defending.

Women in Northern Ireland have been waiting for more than 40 years to secure the same sexual and reproductive rights as women in the rest of the UK.
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The Abortion Act 1967 allows women in England, Scotland and Wales access to safe, legal abortion services. For women in Northern Ireland the situation is drastically different, because Victorian legislation-the Offences Against the Person Act 1861-is still in place there, which is a scandal. That means that women are only able to access abortion if their lives are in danger or if continuing the pregnancy would lead to severe and permanent harm. The penalty for obtaining an illegal abortion is imprisonment for life.

Northern Ireland women are living under a Victorian law created at a time of workhouses and child labour. Women were not even allowed the right to vote at that point, yet this law continues to govern the health and lives of women in Northern Ireland. The law in Northern Ireland is so restrictive that even a 14-year-old girl who had been raped or was a victim of incest, or even both, because that can happen, would not be able to access an abortion just because she had been raped or was a victim of incest. It is one of the most restrictive laws on abortion in Europe.

I have huge respect for people who raise moral issues in this Chamber and elsewhere, but it defies my comprehension that somebody could say to a 14-year-old girl who had been raped that they would, because of their particular religious beliefs and their own particular morality, force her to go through the agony of childbirth to satisfy their own moral code. I do not see what is particularly moral about that, but I respect people who have a different point of view.

David Taylor: I would guess that this is one of the rare debates in which my views and those of my hon. Friend are not closely aligned. Does he not accept that, with policing and justice powers on the point of being devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, it is quite probable that that Assembly will widen the laws to include reference to rape, incest and other issues? Is not that the forum in which these matters should be debated? He has been a strong supporter of devolution and I know that he still adheres to that point of view.

Martin Salter: I will touch on some of these points a little later, but I have already highlighted the inconsistency in respect of certain medical conditions: where there is no devolution people have a right for their travel to be funded, whereas in Northern Ireland that is not the case, solely in respect of abortion, even for rape victims.

For the vast majority of women in Northern Ireland who want access to safe, legal abortion services, their only option is to travel, either to the mainland or to other countries, such as Holland, and pay for an abortion procedure. Despite being UK taxpayers, women from Northern Ireland who travel to the mainland are unable to access abortion services that are available to women in the rest of the UK, free of charge through the NHS, which we all pay for, whether we are taxpayers in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. They have to pay for their own travel, accommodation and abortion procedures, which can amount to £2,000 or even more. That is not okay, although it is manageable if one has £2,000, but many people in Northern Ireland do not have access to such cash, so their choices are limited.

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Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab): One way forward, which would not be popular with all of us-compromise is always required-might be to allow women from Northern Ireland to have a free abortion if they came to the mainland. In that way, abortion would remain illegal in Northern Ireland, but it would be legal for a Northern Irish woman to have an abortion in England. That would be illogical, but at least it would allow such women access to free abortions.

Martin Salter: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, which is in the spirit of my early-day motion 1754 and early-day motion 625 tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington. That is the least that the Government should do-I am giving away the conclusion of my speech-and I do not want to hear Ministers washing their hands of the matter by trying to farm it out elsewhere.

I shall give a short case study, and I am grateful to organisations in Northern Ireland for providing me with the information. Susan-the name has been changed-is 37 and is married with four children. She has found that she is pregnant with her family's fifth child. She has recently moved back to Northern Ireland after living abroad for many years, and lives in a rural area where she has not built up a strong support network of friends, so she feels isolated. She believes that having another child would place unbearable pressure on her, her husband and their children. Since her husband lost his job 10 months ago, the family have been reliant on benefits and have no other financial or family support. That makes it impossible for Susan to raise £2,000 or £2,500 even to travel to the mainland to secure an abortion.

A myth surrounding abortion in Northern Ireland is that people there do not support a woman's right to choose. A survey by the Family Planning Association in September 2008 showed that almost two thirds of people-62 per cent.-in Northern Ireland support abortion following rape and incest, but it seems that our politicians do not. Furthermore, in its submission to the UN committee on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland called for

It has been estimated that since the Abortion Act 1967 excluded Northern Ireland, about 70,000 women have travelled to England and overseas to have an abortion. For the past 40 years, women have voted with their feet.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I do not know whether he took part in any of the meetings with women trade unionists from Northern Ireland, but there was strong support among trade unions for the measures that he proposes. They said that they were looking to us to help them.

Martin Salter: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. That is why we are here today.

A culture of secrecy continues to surround abortion in Northern Ireland. The majority of women who have abortions are unwilling to speak out about their experience because they fear the reaction from wider society, and sometimes from family and friends. The Family Planning
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Association is the only organisation in Northern Ireland that offers non-directive, non-judgmental counselling and support services for women and their partners or families who are faced with a crisis pregnancy. Its office in Belfast is picketed four days a week-I have seen videos of that-by anti-choice protesters, including protesters from Precious Life. Those protesters not only harass women going into the building, but intimidate them by telling them that they will be waiting for them when they emerge. When the women leave, the protesters follow them to bus stops and train stations, and thrust false information and graphic photos in their faces. That is not moral or acceptable, and I would not dream of doing that.

We have been reading about the harrowing case of Sir Edward Downes and his wife who chose to go to Switzerland to die. Would anyone with a shred of morality harass people who have made a brave, courageous, controversial but personal decision about their right to take their own life? I leave that hanging, because I find it one of the more revolting aspects of how the debate is conducted.

Abortion is upsetting for women, and they may be distressed and need to access the Family Planning Association's counselling services. Northern Ireland is a small community, and a woman being followed down the street and shouted at is hardly inconspicuous. Despite the false information that the protesters give out, the FPA's counselling service offers a welcome opportunity for women to make their own choice. That is what this debate is about-women in a small part of the United Kingdom having the right to make a choice that is available to women in the rest of England, Scotland and Wales.

The culture of secrecy also extends to politicians in Northern Ireland-I touched on this earlier-and many are unable to admit that they are pro-choice because of their party's stated anti-choice policies. I have had dialogue with Northern Ireland politicians who felt that they were in a compromise situation. The secrecy around abortion in Northern Ireland permeates every thread of society, and masks the reality of what happens to women when they are faced with an unplanned pregnancy. It adds to the anguish and struggle that they face when making the decision and raising the money, sometimes without the support of family and friends. Such women decide to access safe and legal abortion services behind a veil of secrecy, and that is not acceptable in 21st century Britain.

In the past year, two UN committees have stated that abortion law in Northern Ireland needs to be amended. In 2008, the United Nations committee on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women recommended that the UK should initiate a process of public consultation in Northern Ireland on abortion law. In line with general recommendation 24 on women and health and the Beijing platform for action, the committee also urged the UK to consider amending the abortion law to remove punitive provisions imposed on women who undergo abortion.

Regardless of whether the Government are devolving policing and justice, which includes abortion, to Northern Ireland, they should remember that to UN committees, Britain and the British Government are still responsible for the UK, which includes Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. By signing up to UN treaties, the Government
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have made a commitment to meet the obligations for all UK citizens, not just some. There is a strong and powerful argument that the Government are neglecting their responsibility to enable women in Northern Ireland to access safe and legal abortion services, as recommended by the UN committees.

I am sure that the Minister is aware that the Department for International Development supports the global safe abortion campaign, because that is stated on its website. The Government provided £4 million to the safe abortion action fund, and £6.5 million to women's health organisations. It is ironic to have one message for the developing world, and totally different values and messages for women in part of the United Kingdom. It is difficult to square that circle.

There is anecdotal evidence of women in Northern Ireland going online to buy medication to induce an abortion, even though that is illegal. Some women have accessed rogue websites, and received incomplete prescriptions or completely different substances. That could put their health in danger, and is a tragedy waiting to happen. The figures are there for all to see, and they show the number of deaths since 1967 as a result of people being so desperate that they will try illegal abortion methods. That is as much a moral issue as any other.

I do not believe that the Government whom I support do not care for women in Northern Ireland, or do not want to end the scandal of them being treated as second-class citizens in relation to their reproductive rights. The Minister may respond-Ministers have responded in this way in the past-by saying that this is not a matter for the Government any more. He may try to wash his hands of it, but I hope not. I say that it is an issue for this Parliament and for all Members of this House, as Northern Ireland Members have demonstrated by their willingness to restrict abortion rights for my constituents and those of other right hon. and hon. Members who are on the other side of the issue from them.

I ask the Government to commit themselves to extending the Abortion Act 1967 to Northern Ireland while they can still do so. I am not holding my breath for the response to that request, but if they will not do that, which they should, they could start by redressing the blatant inequality faced by women by providing funding for women who are forced to travel to access safe and legal abortion services, so that they can access them free of charge in the national health service that we all pay for. That is the very least that should be done.

Several hon. Members rose-

Ann Winterton (in the Chair): Order. Before I call the next speaker, I make a plea for contributions to be as brief as possible, because I have received many names of people wanting to speak, and obviously many people have risen wanting to speak. We must also have the winding-up speeches, which may themselves have to be slightly curtailed. I call David Simpson.

9.51 am

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