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The Duke of Norfolk: My Lords, from these Benches, I should like to raise a voice that we feel very strongly on this subject and hope that the Government will accept the amendment. I shall not rehearse all that has been said. Some of us feel very strongly about abortion, and the Irish, both north and south, are perhaps more concerned about religious and ethical matters than we are in our country. It would be quite wrong for us not to allow them to decide that issue for themselves.
I voted for abortion to be devolved to the Scottish parliament in the firm belief that in the end Scottish abortion law would turn out to be not very different from that prevailing in England and Wales. But, as we know, Northern Ireland is rather different. A number of noble Lords have stressed that already this afternoon.
There is a human rights aspect here. With the possible exception of Poland, nearly every country on the continent of Europe, be it mainly Catholic, mainly Protestant or mainly Orthodox, permits abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy, subject to certain not-too-onerous restrictions; and possibly longer than 12 weeks in the case of rape victims.
Where pregnancy is further advanced, laws tend to vary quite sharply from country to country, understandably so, as different considerations then come into play--the viability of the foetus, the possibility of the foetus experiencing pain and so on. It then is no longer essentially a libertarian or human rights matter.
As regards the first stage of pregnancy, I believe that women in Northern Ireland, and indeed in the Republic of Ireland, are to some extent being deprived of the rights which are available to women in most other industrialised nations. It is therefore one of those fields where local majority opinion should not necessarily prevail over minority rights, and it may be that in the future--not immediately--the Westminster Parliament will decide that certain minimum rights in this sphere should prevail throughout the United Kingdom.
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, as in all matters concerned with abortion, my party has a free vote. Speaking for myself, I do not believe that it would be appropriate to transfer this matter alone when the whole of the rest of the criminal law, including the subject of euthanasia, remains a reserved matter.
Abortion is a particularly sensitive and emotive matter. It has the potential to inflame relationships between the communities in Northern Ireland and indeed between the Republic and Northern Ireland. I hope that matters will develop in a way in which the criminal law and abortion can be transferred in due course, but that time is not now.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that it would not be right to legislate for Northern Ireland on this issue without the consent of its people. That is not the same as saying that abortion should, at this stage, be a transferred matter. Treating abortion as a special case in a sense invites the Assembly to take up the issue with possibly damaging results. For that reason abortion is best placed as the Government placed it; that is, along with the rest of the criminal law as a reserved matter.
Lord Peston: My Lords, after a word of support for the Government, following on from what the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, said, I am somewhat puzzled that noble Lords stated that they did not want to debate abortion and yet tabled an amendment on it. The Government are overwhelmingly right as a matter of principle not to devolve the criminal law to this Assembly. That is both the beginning and the end of the matter. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will not be remotely deflected by any of those arguments, which I find quite preposterous.
Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I remember the days when the right to legislate over abortion resided in Stormont. However, I have lived a long time in Northern Ireland. I have seen the stress and problems that can be caused through young women being unable to obtain abortions and would therefore love to see it legalised there.
However, as the noble Lord, Lord Monson, pointed out, the island of Northern Ireland and the Republic, sadly, is not an ordinary place. If the right to legislate over abortion was placed tomorrow in the new Assembly, it would cause untold difficulties. Nobody is sure in this House--certainly I am not--if there were to be a debate and a vote in the Assembly, what the result would be. Strong and divided feelings exist, not necessarily down the straight, religious-political divide that we are used to in Northern Ireland.
Much has been said on the subject. I have discussed it with a number of people and given it a considerable amount of thought. Because being reserved leaves the Government with considerable flexibility and because it will be easier at any stage for the Government to move it from the reserved to the transferred list rather than the other way round, the matter should be reserved. Also, were the Northern Ireland Assembly to legislate to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland, it would probably cause serious offence and be used as a tool to cause offence in Dublin whereas, if that were enacted here at some stage, it could be done in a more tactful and agreed manner.
To summarise, having given the matter much thought and having seen the hardships of living in a country where abortion is illegal; where young women have to catch a boat or a plane to the mainland--if they can afford it--and where those who cannot are left carrying a foetus or baby that they do not want, I believe that the Government are making the correct decision in keeping the right to legislate on abortion in Westminster.
The Earl of Perth: My Lords, I can be brief. Once again from the Cross-Benches I should like to support the amendment of my noble friend Lord Molyneaux. This is essentially a matter--I know it is extremely delicate--for the citizens of Northern Ireland. I cannot see any reason why we should not grant them the right, if they so wish, to choose what their own conscience dictates. In that connection we must remember that the fact that southern Ireland and Northern Ireland are one geographical whole is important.
Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, first, I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Peston, that, as his noble friend Lord Stallard made clear at the beginning of the debate, the question before us is not what the law on abortion should be; it is whether it should be this Parliament or the Assembly who decides it.
But the question is even more complicated. It relates to who should decide the matter at this stage. The Government's view, as expressed in Committee, is that in due course the Assembly should be able to decide the law on abortion; but not now. Two considerations arise in that regard. The first is what happens in the meanwhile, while it is still Westminster's responsibility; the second is how it is affected by the agreement. The Government relied considerably on the agreement in pursuing their case.
The timing of when this matter should be transferred to Northern Ireland will be decided by other matters connected with the criminal law and the state of Northern Ireland generally--the police and so forth--not necessarily specifically to do with abortion. The timing is therefore uncertain; it has nothing to do with abortion and may be an extended period. But what happens in the meanwhile?
The Government have said they will not wish to do anything about the law on abortion in Northern Ireland without the consent of the people there. That seems to me a reason for transferring it, so that the people there
Therefore, there may be attempts--even if the Government do not necessarily wish for or indeed initiate such moves--to alter the law on abortion in Northern Ireland during the period in which Westminster remains responsible for it. Given the fact that the Government's view is that they should not alter the law or lend their weight to an alteration in the law without the agreement of the people of Northern Ireland, why not let the Assembly decide the matter now?
However, the Government have also said--I believe that the Minister made the point in Committee--that we must stick to the agreement. We understand that; it has been made clear to us during our debates on the various amendments. But at times the Minister has also departed from the agreement during our proceedings as a result of consultations which have been held with other people. Of course, we have not objected to that. Indeed, there has been continuous consultation with the parties. That is part of what has led to the 450 amendments which have been tabled during the course of our proceedings on the Bill. Some of them have brought the Bill closer to the agreement in detail, while others have been a reaction to further suggestions and have, in some cases, put more flesh on the bones of the agreement.
There is nothing specific in the agreement about abortion. There are references to the criminal law, but I do not know whether abortion was ever mentioned or discussed during the course of the negotiations which led to the Good Friday agreement. It would be helpful to know if abortion, although not specifically referred to in the agreement, was nevertheless in the minds of those who agreed to the Belfast agreement. It would also be helpful to know if the First Minister and Deputy First Minister or the Assembly parties have been consulted during the past few weeks about this matter, as they have been about so many other matters arising from the Bill.
It seems to me that the agreement in this case is not something which can be relied upon totally: first, because it is not mentioned in the agreement and, secondly, because we are not at this stage aware of the opinion of the various other parties to the agreement on the matter. In general, I stand by the statement of my right honourable friend John Major, which was read to your Lordships a few minutes ago. I believe it is right that the law on abortion should be the responsibility of the Assembly. Indeed, as the noble Lord from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench said, it is a matter upon which anyone is entitled to express his or her own opinion. For myself, I support the amendment.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, let us be clear on the matter. As my noble friend Lord Stallard said when he spoke earlier, this debate is not about the merits or de-merits of abortion. Indeed, it would have been a quite different afternoon had that been the case. The debate is about where decisions on abortion should be taken in the immediate future as regards Northern Ireland; in other words, whether those decisions should be made in Westminster or Belfast.
I have consistently argued--the whole Government have argued--that we stand fully behind the Good Friday agreement. We have not, as the noble Lord, Lord Cope, suggested, departed from the agreement. Indeed, the whole thrust of our support for the Good Friday agreement can be seen in the fact that we have at every point referred to the agreement as being the basis on which this Bill and other government measures should be supported. The Good Friday agreement is the key to all of this. It is clear that the agreement says that criminal justice is one of the matters which is to be reserved for decision here at Westminster.
There is no doubt at all--indeed, no one has suggested otherwise--that abortion is part of the criminal law. Therefore, it follows that it would be a breach of the Good Friday agreement if we were to do other than have criminal justice and those matters as reserved matters for decision at Westminster. The amendment would have the consequence that the whole of the law on abortion in Northern Ireland would become a transferred matter. I said very clearly in Committee, and on other occasions, that the abortion law in Northern Ireland was a matter for the Belfast agreement because criminal law is currently reserved in Northern Ireland terms.
I have also said that, as and when it is deemed appropriate to do so, some reserved matters, which may include criminal justice matters, could be passed to the Assembly. That will have to be considered in the light of the reviews envisaged in the agreement. I should also make it clear that I cannot give any cast-iron guarantees about when such transfers might be made or what individual items might be part of any transfer of responsibility. Any change in the status of reserved or transferred matters can only be made under the Bill with the agreement of the Assembly, based on cross-community support, after the approval of an appropriate resolution in each House here at Westminster. Which matters precisely are transferred must be a matter for decision at the time.
In particular, I should like to re-emphasise what I said during the debate at Committee stage; namely, that our guiding principle should be adherence to the Belfast agreement. It is my deeply-held view that it would be wrong in the principal Bill giving practical effect to the agreement to diverge from what the agreement commits us to. While it makes provision for a possible transfer of abortion law to the transferred category in future, it does not commit the Government to carrying it forward now. I believe that that is the heart of the argument before us this afternoon.
Noble Lords referred to the situation in Scotland. I do not want to divert the debate to the Scotland Bill, except to say that the position there is quite different. Indeed, the 1967 reform does extend there. Therefore, the starting point for Scottish legislation is a different matter.
I have already given reassurances to the House that the Government have no intention of forcing change upon Northern Ireland in respect of the current abortion law; nor have they plans to bring forward legislative provision of any kind. We are, of course, aware that the situation is regarded as unsatisfactory by some while others are anxious to ensure that there is no change in Northern Ireland. We will continue to listen to local opinion in Northern Ireland but will not--and I stress the word "not"--move forward without consensus. Therefore, I urge noble Lords not to support the amendment. Indeed, I urge the noble Lord who moved it not to pursue the matter. As I said, we stand fully by the Good Friday agreement. That is the basis upon which I say to the noble Lord that his amendment is outside the agreement. Therefore, it is one that I urge him not to press.
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