Abortion changes in Northern Ireland overwhelmingly backed by peers

A liberalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland has been overwhelmingly backed by peers.

The House of Lords supported the controversial move in a free vote by 182 to 37, majority 145.

The revised amendment was brought forward to address “technical problems” with the change to legislation previously approved by the Commons.

The proposal requires the law change comes into force in the new year, although the Government indicated the timescale could cause problems.

Introducing the amendment, Liberal Democrat Baroness Barker said it would ensure women were no longer criminalised for having an abortion in Northern Ireland.

She also said those who had fought long and hard for change were fearful that demands for consultation on the issue might be used to “frustrate the will” of MPs and said her amendment would not allow for the proposals to be “dragged out”.

But Northern Ireland Minister Lord Duncan (pictured) said consultation would not be about “whether this should be done”, and only on how the recommendations could be implemented, complying fully with human rights obligations.

He said: “Any consultation would not be about restricting abortion. It will be about how, in practical terms, to establish a new regulatory regime that fully delivers on the recommendations.”

The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill seeks to again push back reintroducing a law placing a legal duty on Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley to call a fresh assembly election.

The aim is to give the Stormont parties more time to resolve the long-running deadlock in the province and restore the powersharing executive, two and a half years after it collapsed.

However, during consideration in the Commons, MPs agreed a series of changes to the legislation, including on abortion.

Terminations in Northern Ireland are only allowed in cases where a woman’s life is at risk or if there is a danger of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.

The move by the UK Parliament to legislate on the sensitive devolved issue in the absence of an administration at Stormont has fuelled controversy and led to tense exchanges during the Bill’s report stage in the House of Lords.

Independent crossbencher Baroness O’Loan argued there were “huge gaps” in the amendment.

Appealing to peers, she said: “I would ask you again not to rush into legislating in this way, it really cannot be said to be fit for purpose.”

In opposing the amendment, Democratic Unionist Party peer Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown said he was standing by a promise he and his colleagues had made to voters.

He also sought to cast suspicion on the conduct of the debate, saying: “It makes one believe that much of what we are going through has been carefully choreographed.”

Labour leader in the Lords, Baroness Smith of Basildon stressed she and other peers “would far rather” the decisions were being made at Stormont.

She said: “If we rejected this today it would not cut the number abortions at all.”

As well as women and girls being forced to travel outside Northern Ireland to get a legal abortion, Lady Smith added: “Women risk their life and liberty by illegally buying abortion pills online, which they then take without any medical expertise or support and often delay seeking care if there are any complications.”

Lord Duncan said: “It is important to ensure that the regime which we bring into Northern Ireland is human rights compliant.”

The minister also admitted he was “struggling” with the deadline of January 13, 2020, set out in the amendment.

“It is important for me to stress that our ambition is to try and realise this in a safe and secure manner for the women of Northern Ireland,” he added.

Lord Duncan sought to reassure peers by giving a guarantee that no abortions would be carried out over 24 weeks.

Later, a bid to effectively give assembly members a veto over the abortion liberalisation was defeated by peers.

An amendment calling for assembly members to be individually consulted over the change and for the regulations to be implemented only if a majority supported them was rejected by 138 votes to 39, majority 99.

Baroness O’Loan, moving the amendment, said although the assembly was suspended it still had 90 members. To consult them and give them a say would show respect for devolution, otherwise it would look like going back to direct rule.

Tory former lord chancellor Lord Mackay of Clashfern, backing the move, said the issue had previously been voted against by the assembly and it was important the constitutional situation should be taken into account.

It was vitally important that Parliament knew that the present assembly was content with the change, Lord Mackay said.

But the amendment was opposed by the Liberal Democrat and Labour frontbenches, as well as the Government.

Lord Duncan said assembly members would be consulted as part of the ongoing consultation with stakeholders. “The difference is that they don’t get a lock on that. The views of the MLA’s will be taken and heard but they won’t be the determining factor.”

The minister said it would be inappropriate to give assembly members a “lock” on the progress of the proposal backed by the Commons.

At third reading of the Bill, in the early hours of the morning, peers agreed an amendment to extend the deadline for introducing the abortion changes from January 13 2020 to March 31.

Lady Barker said: “All this is intended to do is to give the minister’s department sufficient flexibility and a small amount of time which it may need if matters fall slightly behind.

“It is absolutely not intended to be a reason to take these matters, which we have deliberated in some detail and with great seriousness, and in any way frustrate or delay them for a long time.”

In a further change, it was also agreed that regulations relating to abortion would need to be approved by both Houses of Parliament under the so-called affirmative procedure.

The amended Bill now returns to the Commons for consideration.

Copyright (c) PA Media Ltd. 2019, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) House Of Commons.

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