Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill Debate

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Department: Scotland Office

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill

Baroness Smith of Basildon Excerpts
Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Monday 15th July 2019

(4 years, 11 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 190-I(Rev)(a)(Manuscript) Amendment for Committee, supplementary to the revised marshalled list (PDF) - (15 Jul 2019)
Lord Anderson of Ipswich Portrait Lord Anderson of Ipswich
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I am very grateful to the noble Lord for the point he makes. However, getting hung up on an entirely different precedent from 1948 and suggesting that it might be in some way determinative of the position which we are now asked to contemplate is, I would suggest, too ludicrous to bear.

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab)
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It may help to remind the Committee that the position to which the 1948 prorogation gave effect was the commitment of the Government’s 1945 election manifesto, which had overwhelming support from the House of Commons.

Lord Anderson of Ipswich Portrait Lord Anderson of Ipswich
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The noble Baroness makes another very good point. I refer to 1948 simply to say, first, that prorogation has been controversial in the past, and, secondly, that it pales into insignificance compared with what we are now asked to contemplate.

Those who contemplate prorogation not only are heedless of the sovereignty of Parliament but risk plunging the monarchy into the heart of an intense political dispute. We saw how this could happen in Canada in 2008, when the Governor General, as the representative of the Crown, was required to adjudicate on a request for prorogation that was widely seen to be politically motivated, and only granted it subject to an undertaking given by the Prime Minister. I appreciated the dry understatement of Catherine Haddon of the Institute for Government when she said last week:

“A constitutional showdown between Parliament and the executive of the order of the Civil War is definitely something that the palace would prefer not to be dragged into”—


but she made a serious point.

If agreed, these amendments will serve two purposes: the sending of a political message and the sharpening of a legal challenge such as that already mooted by Sir John Major, should it be needed as a last resort. My noble friend Lord Pannick made a powerful case in the Times last month for the proposition that the courts, if invited, would come to the rescue of parliamentary sovereignty, as they did on the basis of the noble Lord’s submissions in the Miller case. Over 30 years, I have learned to bet against the noble Lord only rarely and I would not do so on this occasion. One who has done so is the legal academic Robert Craig, who recently suggested that the courts would decline to intervene because,

“there is no particular statutory provision that would be frustrated by prorogation”.

To the extent that there may be merit in that view—and I accept that absolute certainty in this area is difficult to achieve—that is all the more reason for supporting these amendments.

I regret that it has been necessary to table them in the context of this Bill, but they will put beyond doubt the resistance of Parliament to an undemocratic and profoundly discreditable device. I beg to move.

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Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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The noble Baroness raised those points before. I say once again that the question of scope is not for this House; it was a question determined by the other place. On that point, it was not the Government or Opposition who won or lost; it was the will of the other place taken in a vote of conscience. There was no government Whip whatever in the other place. Those majorities were singular and significant; we as a Government heard them and must respond.

On the issues that we are discussing here, the majorities were not significant or singular; indeed, they were remarkably anything but. I stress, as I say these things now, that we need to recognise that which is germane to the issues in Northern Ireland and that which is a vehicle for another purpose—perhaps a Brexit purpose, divorced and distant from the thing we are here to discuss. I do not doubt that noble Lords will seek to find by other means a way to ensure that the future leader of this country, whoever that individual may be, is held to account by both the other place and this place. That is right and proper, but there are other means by which it can be done; this is not the right vehicle by which to do it.

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon
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I thank the Minister for giving way. I am intrigued by his argument that there are other ways in which this could be done. Will he expand and tell us what they are?

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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The noble Baroness almost got me on that one, but she will not be surprised to know that I, too, will not be drawn on those matters. It is important, as we circle back to where we began—

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Baroness Deech Portrait Baroness Deech (CB)
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I agree with the noble Baronesses, Lady Tonge and Lady Barker. I recall that just a few weeks ago we debated the provision of sex and relationships education to young people. I was shocked and dismayed by the protests of our colleagues from Northern Ireland. The point is, you may or may not approve of abortion or same-sex marriage, but we live in a world where we have to tolerate these relationships and choices. As the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, said, you do not have to do it if you do not like it—but you must not stop other people having the information and having the right.

You may or may not be a fan of Europe. Our human rights have come not from the EU but from the European Convention on Human Rights, much of which was British-based. It is not a question of consultation, either. If the population had been consulted on every single human right, we probably would not have them. Sometimes there has to be an external body that brings people into that circle of human rights and gives them their liberty. In this particular case, it is the right to a private and family life that women must have.

Sadly, most people in this debate are men and most of the supporters are women. That is highly significant. In an age of #MeToo complaints, when this Chamber has just been criticised by Naomi Ellenbogen for the attitude that some men take towards female employees, it is high time that men laying down the law had a bit more consideration for the feelings of the women who may have been put in the position of having to have an abortion, because the man who made them pregnant has abandoned them or is not supporting them—whatever the reason may be.

I think that in this situation devolution is being used as an excuse. This is perhaps the most profound human right a woman can have. Had it not been for the advances in contraception and abortion over the last 50 years, which gave us the confidence and freedom to go ahead with our education, plan our lives and have our children when we wanted them, we women in this Chamber would not be where we are. We must give this to the women of Northern Ireland. They are 50 years behind the rest of the world. Any man here who wants to deny this to them does not understand human rights or what he should be doing to help those women, rather than holding them back and condemning them to shady, shabby and expensive trips to other countries to get their human rights.

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon
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My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, might like to speak, because his clause stand part debate is grouped with these amendments.

Lord Morrow Portrait Lord Morrow (DUP)
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Yes, I wish to speak to Amendment 20, which is part of the first grouping. I understand that the groupings are not binding. If the noble Baroness is suggesting that I make my speech now, I will take the opportunity. I am quite content to do so and thank her very much.

We hear much about the Northern Ireland Assembly deciding this by a majority of one, but we do not hear much about when the Northern Ireland Assembly decided by a very comfortable majority that there should be no change in the abortion laws in Northern Ireland. If it is important how the Assembly voted on same-sex marriage, is it not also important how it votes on every other issue, namely abortion? There were strong feelings expressed here on Wednesday about the manner in which the other place amended a Bill which was intended to change the date by which an election in Northern Ireland has to be called and made into a Bill that brings in sweeping reforms relating to abortion.

We know that abortion is a devolved matter; we know that the clerks in the other place had advised that the amendments were out of scope; we know that this Bill was subject to a fast-track procedure—making it wholly inappropriate to deal with such a matter as abortion; we know that in 2016 the Northern Ireland Assembly voted by a clear majority not to change the law in any way, and we know that a ComRes poll shows that 64% of the people of Northern Ireland oppose Westminster legislation for Northern Ireland on this matter, rising to 66% of women and 72% of 18 to 32 year-olds. We also know‘ that all the main denominations in Northern Ireland oppose any change in the law—the Presbyterian Church, which is the largest denomination, the Roman Catholic Church, the Methodist Church, and the Church of Ireland—as do all the minor denominations which, added together, would make one major denomination, probably the third largest Protestant denomination in Northern Ireland.

However, these things do not seem to be important. The Commons saw fit none the less to impose Clause 9 on this Bill. It has to be said, of course, that 100% of Northern Ireland MPs who take their seats voted against the provision. Quite apart from the substance of the issue, as a matter of procedural fair play it is hard to imagine a better expression of being treated beneath contempt. To really appreciate the significance of this, we must turn to the substance of the issue and recognise that abortion is a far more sensitive issue in Northern Ireland than in any other part of the United Kingdom; others have alluded to this. We must recognise that many people in Northern Ireland are very attached to our abortion laws; I might add that they are the most up to date of any region of the United Kingdom.

The Both Lives Matter report, which shows that 100,000 people are alive in Northern Ireland today who would otherwise not be, is hugely important. I realise that the Government have not created this problem. Their response, however, has the capacity to make things better or infinitely worse. The Minister suggested last week that there were some difficulties with Clause 9, but rather than acting as he should to moderate their effect, my reading of what he said was that the Government were interested in helping to rescue the provisions and possibly create a new power not based on Section 26. That would be wholly wrong because the amendment in another place that sought to create a new power—that is, new Clause 5—was not selected for debate and because the Government cannot introduce new offences without contradicting the Sewel convention. I am a wee bit disturbed today that there has been very little mention of respect for the Sewel convention.

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Lord Carlile of Berriew Portrait Lord Carlile of Berriew
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My Lords, I have listened to the debate with growing concern and anxiety about its tone and about what seems to be a very poor understanding of the constitutional issues that arise.

We ought to remind ourselves that we have been talking about moral issues that affect young women and young men of an age that does not exist among the membership of this House. Those of us who are the fathers and grandfathers and mothers and grandmothers of young people ought to bear that in mind. We have listened—I do not want to offend anyone but I will take the risk—to a lot of anecdotally based, at best, moral relativism, which to those who eventually come to read what has happened in this House today, particularly the young, will view as uninformed, if possibly well-intentioned, and with disdain.

The only evidence that I can rely upon is the evidence that I see with my own eyes and in my own experience. I can tell your Lordships that among my five daughters and step-daughters and my nine grandsons and grand- daughters, I have one daughter who is in a very happy gay marriage to our beloved daughter-in-law and another daughter who was in a gay civil partnership and is now married to a man, as a result of which we have a beloved former daughter-in-law and a beloved son-in-law. That is what real life is like. When you look at what happens in real families in these issues, without pontificating about what they should be thinking or, even worse, thinking for them, you see things in a much more realistic light.

I turn to the Bill and the constitutional issues. I repeat what was said by my noble and learned friend Lord Judge about Clause 3(6), which expresses that these changes are,

“subject to a sunset clause to respect devolution”.

The Bill seeks to do almost exactly what those who have proposed these amendments are asking for; it just does it in a coherent and logical way. I have spent a great deal of time in Northern Ireland, looking at the Good Friday agreement and working as Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation. If you asked the good people of Northern Ireland what they thought about these issues, their answer would be, “Well, we’re not terribly interested in these issues as a constitutional matter, although we have opinions. What these wretched politicians should get on with is governing Northern Ireland by devolved government, which they are choosing not to do at the present time”. Devolution is not a right but a choice. The politicians of Northern Ireland have chosen not to govern their country through devolution at the present time.

So what happens to the political process in Northern Ireland? Does it come to stasis? Does it come to a standstill because the politicians cannot sit down in a locked room for a few days and realise that their duty is to govern that very important part of the United Kingdom? That is the choice they have made so far. When that choice has been made, it is constitutionally the duty of the Parliament in which we sit to determine all the issues that a devolved Government would consider, including these enormous social issues. Northern Ireland’s constitutional settlement, which produced the miraculous results of the Good Friday agreement, which I admire without a single word of demur, sets out and accepts that when there is no government by devolution, there is government from this Parliament. In my view, this Parliament is perfectly entitled, and under a duty, to take the decisions set before it this evening.

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon
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My Lords, this has been a long debate. When the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, spoke at the beginning, he said this was sensitive, delicate territory. He is right. I have close friends on both sides of the argument and I resent it when people abuse the integrity of those who have a different view. All views should be respected in this House. The tone in which some comments have been made does not reflect well on this House. That point was made by the noble Baroness.

Coming back to the comments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, about what we are debating tonight, which were moderate as always, I have not written a speech like some noble Lords, but I have a couple of comments. I think one of our colleagues from the DUP described this as a process which was not procedurally correct—

Baroness O'Loan Portrait Baroness O'Loan
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I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. She talked about the nature of comments and said something about a noble Baroness making a comment. I would like to know who and what she was talking about.

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon
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I was referring to the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott. She said she was upset about some of the comments that had been made in the debate, and I respect the comments she made in that regard. I think she was right to make them.

Coming back to the point about whether this is procedurally correct, as somebody who has spent more hours than I might care to discussing this with clerks or colleagues, I can say that if the matters before us were not procedurally correct, they would not be debated by this Committee today. All matters before us are procedurally correct. The noble Lord from the DUP made the point that the provisions on abortion and same-sex marriage were not supported by Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland. I regard every single Member of Parliament as equal to every other. Each Member has a duty to consider the position of the United Kingdom as a whole. We have a Conservative Government, supported by Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland of a different political party, who presumably vote on issues affecting the whole of the UK. I would not criticise Members of Parliament who vote on issues that affect other parts of the United Kingdom, because all MPs are equal.

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Baroness O'Loan Portrait Baroness O'Loan
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I do not think it is quite right to say that huge numbers of women are being raped, become pregnant and are imprisoned because of breaches of the law. That is not what is happening in Northern Ireland. Yes, we have some women who are raped. Undoubtedly, some of them will get pregnant. Northern Ireland needs to sort these things out for itself.

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon
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I think the noble Baroness misunderstood. I agree that Northern Ireland should sort it out, but a victim of violent rape who becomes pregnant and seeks an abortion faces a harsher penalty than her attacker. That seems quite wrong.

The House of Commons has voted on two issues, with substantial majorities. On Wednesday, we will have an opportunity to look at how the Government have responded to Conor McGinn and Stella Creasy; the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, will be bringing it here. We look forward to seeing what will happen. This debate has highlighted how sensitive this is, and that there are intransigent different points of view which I think cannot meet. We must do what we believe is right.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, this debate has stirred a great many emotions. We have heard very powerful speeches from all sides of the House. To ensure that there is no confusion, I will be very specific, and, if you will forgive me, I will break precedent and read what I have to say; it will be easier for me.

Abortion is a sensitive issue. There are strongly held views on all sides of the debate, in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Many of those views have been expressed during this debate and during the passage of the Bill in the other place.

We must recognise the clear will of the other place. That House sought a commitment that the Government would legislate in these matters. The Government respect the views expressed in the other place. Those views were expressed on a free vote, which is a matter of conscience. I stress that the amendments which have come from the other place are procedurally correct, and we must recognise them for what they are. My honourable friend in the other place, John Penrose, the Minister, very clearly set out the challenges represented by the devolution settlement before these votes took place. In doing so, he was careful to ensure that the other place was fully informed.

As I made clear at Second Reading, there are technical problems with the drafting of this clause which need to be resolved. On an issue as important as abortion, which relates to the health and safety of women in Northern Ireland, it is not enough to express the desire for change. The Government must ensure that the drafting of the Bill is effective and can, in practical terms, deliver the change that the Members in the other place want to see. Discussion is ongoing, with the support of the Government, to try to deliver a clause that works. Discussions have taken place with the two Members of Parliament who moved the amendments. I hope that, when we come back to consider these on Report, we will have amendments which are fit for purpose.

I appreciate that there have been a number of views on this issue, not least those that have touched upon the question of devolution itself within a constitutional framework, and not least those that have touched upon the moral questions underpinning abortion. It is right that the Government take no view on these matters; these are matters of conscience, and each individual noble Lord must look to themselves on these matters. We hope that we can make progress on these matters at the next stage. On that basis, and rather than for me to do a full round—

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Lord Bruce of Bennachie Portrait Lord Bruce of Bennachie
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My Lords, I welcome this amendment and recognise the activity that the Bishops’ Benches have shown on this issue over the years. I hope they recognise that the Liberal Democrats have also been active on this, with both my noble friend Lord Foster in this House and Ed Davey in the other House putting on pressure to get rid of the £100 limit for fixed-odds betting terminals. It is fair to say that that pressure and the campaign that came with it, despite a number of false starts, has had results. But as the right reverend Prelate made clear, the situation in Northern Ireland is not legally enforceable. Therefore, observing the £2 limit is only voluntary for the industry. It would be beneficial to report that, even if it has in the short run, it should not lapse, but be maintained at that level so that abuses do not take place.

The other issue raised by the right reverend Prelate relates to the advertising of gambling. Nobody is suggesting—yet—that there should be a complete ban on advertising gambling, but the way it is focused should be monitored. One of the most insidious aspects of gambling and its promotion is the way it draws people in and becomes addictive to the point that it destroys lives, not just financially, but emotionally and, as we know, people have literally committed suicide. My noble friends and honourable friends have met too many families of those who have committed suicide. This has reinforced their belief that advertising gambling should be strictly controlled and done in a way as to make it clear what different types of betting, bonuses and gimmicks involve, and how much they could cost and draw people in.

The industry should also fund the help provided to people who become addicted to gambling. If the gambling industry is to have a justifiable existence—killjoys might want to stop it, but that is not necessarily the objective—it has to accept responsibility for the dangers associated with gambling and their consequences, and put resources into helping people who have become addicted. It should also put resources into ensuring that people do not become addicted in the first place, certainly not from the way the industry is promoted.

Given the practicality of the amendment, requiring the Government to report with a view to bringing the laws of Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom together, I hope that the Minister will be able to accept it. That would be beneficial. It may be perfectly right and proper to say that we can have different laws in different parts of the country—we have had this debate in Scotland as well—but the fundamentals of safe and responsible gambling should be UK-wide. It should be possible at least to establish a practice that applies across the United Kingdom even if there might be slight variations in the law—devolution can allow for that. The fundamental objective should be that gambling is non-addictive and does not draw people into levels of loss that they simply cannot support, leading to tragic consequences.

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon
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I support the right reverend Prelates on this issue. This is one of those issues where if the Government were to take some action it might get support from the Assembly—very moderate action is proposed in the amendment. Anyone who has seen late-night or daytime TV will have seen adverts for gambling, aimed particularly at women in many cases, that encourage viewers to roll their winnings and depict all the glorious things that will happen to those who gamble. If there is a gap in legislation or enforcement in Northern Ireland—and I had not realised the extent of the differences until they were explained to us tonight—it is clearly a serious problem and I hope that the Minister will be able to respond positively.

Lord Browne of Belmont Portrait Lord Browne of Belmont
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My Lords, I fully support all that has been said about the problem of gambling in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland has the highest proportion of problem gamblers. I know of one sad case where this has led to suicide. It also leads to the breaking-up of families and marriages and loss of homes. A report on this matter would be extremely useful, but to be consistent with the arguments already made, I have to say that, at the end of the day, legislation should be reserved for the Northern Ireland Assembly.