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Lord Lester of Herne Hill: I rise with hesitation, because this is a very emotive issue and the last thing I wish to do is to contribute to an emotive debate. However, this has not been an emotive debate; it has been conducted with conspicuous moderation by the three noble Lords who have spoken so far.
I should like to say one or two things, if I may. First, the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, has referred to his speech at Second Reading, when he put to me a number of questions about whether or not there was discrimination in this area. He said, among other things, that 1,300 United Kingdom women die every year because of breast cancer directly caused by abortion. I have been written to by Mr. David Paintin, Emeritus Reader in Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the Imperial College School of Medicine, who, in a very learned paper on behalf of the Birth Control Trust has suggested that the noble Lord was misinformed. He has given me a great wodge of articles and studies, suggesting that the statement made by the noble Lord has the potential to cause women a great deal of unnecessary anxiety and also that the medical research does not support that proposition. I mention this because it is important that the Committee should always be well informed on these matters. I am not competent at all to be able to choose between the medical studies but, having said that, I shall say something now which will please the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and those--
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: I will give the noble Lord the other studies and then leave him to go through them. I am sure that is the best way of proceeding. I have a great deal of sympathy with the view that this is a subject which is sufficiently protected by the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act to safeguard women in Northern Ireland against some extreme and fundamentalist legislation hypothetically enacted there, because the European Convention fairly balances the right to life with the right to respect for private life. This is caselaw which the Northern Ireland courts would have to follow and is very balanced. The Northern Ireland Assembly, were it foolish enough to pass extreme legislation, would find that legislation struck down by the courts, having regard to Strasbourg caselaw.
My other point--I am sorry to have to say this--is that I find the Government's values strange in that they will fully devolve equality law and place that utterly at the mercy of the Assembly but will not devolve abortion law. I find that an odd sense of priorities, so I have great sympathy for the speeches that have been made. As for the medical matters, I leave those for outside the Committee and another occasion.
Lord Cope of Berkeley: I do not want to take any view today on the question of what the law on abortion in Northern Ireland or, for that matter, anywhere else should say. I am on record on that elsewhere over the years if anyone wants to know my position. The question now before us is not what the law on abortion should state, but who should settle the law on abortion with regard to Northern Ireland and where the responsibility should lie. The Bill provides that the responsibility remains in the reserved category. When we began discussing the Bill, it seemed that the matters listed in Schedule 3 and the reserved categories would be transferred to the Assembly in due course. Certainly, some of them will be so transferred although during our debates on other matters we have discovered that the fact that a matter is within the reserved category does not necessarily mean that responsibility for it will ever be transferred to the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive. In that sense, the debate on whether abortion should be in this category takes on a more permanent character than it originally seemed to have.
It has also been pointed out to us on other amendments dealing with these categories that a matter that is within the reserved category can be legislated on by the Assembly with the approval of the Secretary of State and the Westminster Parliament. That is a partial
The noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, spoke of the Government unravelling the inconsistencies between the Scotland Bill and this Bill and, for that matter, the Government of Wales Act. There is no hope of that. As we have discovered in discussing other parts of this Bill, there are many inconsistencies between those three pieces of devolution legislation--and the likelihood of unravelling those inconsistencies has reduced as we have proceeded. That is because the approach taken in the drafting of the Bills and on the various issues has differed. That is well demonstrated by the fact that the matter of criminal justice is being divided in Scotland so that responsibility for abortion is kept at Westminster. However, we have also been told that it is impossible to divide criminal justice so as to remove responsibility for abortion to Northern Ireland. That is only one of the inconsistencies.
I see no reason why criminal justice cannot be divided in this way either in Scotland, where that is what the Government propose to do, or in Northern Ireland, which is what this amendment seeks to achieve. I cannot see a reason of principle or a reason relating to the administration of justice to explain why such a division should not be made. After all, once the law has been passed by whoever is responsible, the police will have to enforce it. The police in Northern Ireland will have to implement laws made by both the Assembly and the Westminster Parliament. There is no doubt about that.
As far as I am concerned, the matter of abortion can be transferred now. I see no reason for delaying it and for putting it in the reserved category. Therefore, I have a great deal of sympathy for the amendment. I should add that because of the complexities surrounding Private Member's Bills, which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned, it may be right for the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, not to press his amendment to a Division today but to carry over the discussion to Report stage. I would not object to that. However, in principle, it seems to me right that the question of abortion should be settled in Northern Ireland by the Assembly and not here by the Westminster Parliament.
Lord Dubs: I think we are all agreed that we are not discussing what abortion policy should be in Northern Ireland; we are simply discussing whether retaining or changing such a policy is the responsibility of Westminster or ought to be the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I think that that is clear.
Amendment No. 258 bears on paragraph 8(a) of Schedule 3 to the Bill. It would have the consequence that the whole of the law on abortion in Northern Ireland would become a transferred matter. Under the Bill as it stands, any reform of the law on abortion, such as the
At a future time when we consider the transfer of criminal justice responsibility in the light of the review now under way there will need to be a decision as to which parts of the criminal justice field should transfer. Any change in the status of any reserved matters could, under the Bill, be brought about if, but only if, there were agreement in the Assembly based on cross-community support and after the approval of an appropriate resolution in each House here at Westminster.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, has written to me. Indeed, the noble Lord referred to the recent correspondence. He sought an assurance that time would not be made available for a Private Member's Bill to change the law on abortion in Northern Ireland. The noble Lord quoted parts of that letter, but I hope that he will permit me to develop the theme more fully. It has been very rare for such a time to be made available. Although we can all recall cases in the 1960s, they have been rarities since. So I do not think that there is any expectation that such time will be made available.
I hope that the noble Lord will understand why, as a matter of general principle, we would not wish to give absolutely open-ended guarantees of that sort about any matter. We cannot commit ourselves in unforeseeable future circumstances when the position might be completely transformed. I want to make it clear, however, that, as we have said before, we are aware of the strength of feeling on this issue in Northern Ireland. We are aware in particular that there is little support among the political parties there for a reform of the law on 1967 lines, but any change at all in the law relating to abortion would need the most careful consultation in Northern Ireland. We have no wish to foist anything on the people there that is against their will. I think that that is a clear statement.
I believe that I have indicated how, in the fullness of time, such matters as abortion can become transferred matters. However, my noble friend Lord Fitt suggested to me that all the Northern Ireland parties wanted the Assembly to take immediate responsibility for abortion. All that I can say to him is that had the Northern Ireland parties wanted that, surely they would have argued the case in the Good Friday agreement, but it is not there. Therefore, I do not think it appropriate in the main Bill giving effect to the Good Friday agreement to depart from what the agreement says. It says that in the future at some time this is a possibility. It does not say here and now.
If I understood him correctly, the noble Lord, Lord Cope, suggested that the matter should be for here and now. I have to point out that we have stuck consistently by the Good Friday agreement and I intend to continue to do so. I believe that it is right and proper for criminal justice matters to be reserved matters at this stage. Then, if we consider such matters in the future, there will be scope for making changes either for the whole criminal justice system or for parts of it. I repeat: I do not believe that that is a matter for now. I urge the noble Lord not to press his amendment.
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