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22 Oct 2008 : Column 325

I sympathise with the Minister’s view that the Bill is not a vehicle for abortion issues, but the Government must take note of the significant feeling in all parts of the House that a serious debate about the workings of the abortion legislation needs to take place. There is real concern and anger in all parts of the House about the Government’s tactics to limit debate, both on abortion and on other key aspects of the Bill.

I know that the Minister wants to ensure that the Bill, when it is enacted, has the same longevity as the 1990 Act, and like most Members of this House, I share that aim. A key part of the 1990 Act’s success was the depth and thoroughness of the debate and discussion that took place on it, and my fear is that the curtailment of debate today as a result of the programme motion will mean that the same might not be said for this Bill. That is why I shall vote against the programme motion, given the chance.

1.41 pm

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): I agree with the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) that the Bill deals with large and fundamental moral issues. I am not discussing the Bill’s merits at the moment, but I point out that it deals with fundamental moral issues about the human race. I therefore agree that free votes are appropriate on this Bill, just as they were on the Bill that became the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, when my party, like the hon. Gentleman’s, had free votes throughout.

After a great deal of discussion within the Labour party, our Whips have agreed to free votes along the way on this Bill. They have agreed to more free votes than they originally intended—their original intention was that we should have none. Despite the fact that Labour Members are whipped on Second Reading and on Third Reading, paragraph 3 of the parliamentary Labour party’s code of conduct allows members of the PLP not to vote on an issue of this kind. Having written to the Chief Whip, I shall avail myself of paragraph 3 and not vote on Third Reading of the Bill, because I refuse to give it my support.

The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness rightly says that the issues raised in the Bill on which amendments have been tabled and to which the Government are giving priority go to the very heart of the nature of the human race. That is why it is very important that the programme motion allows the opportunity to discuss matters that trouble me and trouble large numbers of my constituents. Such matters relate to hybrid embryos and saviour siblings, among other things. It is essential that this House is given a proper opportunity—and uses it—to debate those issues and to come to decisions on them, whatever those decisions may be. I know on which side I shall be voting, as I did in Committee in May. I go that far with what the hon. Gentleman said.

This Bill is clearly not about abortion, which is why I raised my point of order with Mr. Speaker before we began discussing the programme motion, why I went to see him and why I wrote to him. The Bill does not contain a single word about abortion; it did not when it was originally published or when it was completed, and
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it does not now. I acknowledge—who would not acknowledge it?—that the issue of abortion is of profound importance, whatever view one takes on it. Many different views on abortion can be taken, so talking about pro-abortion and anti-abortion oversimplifies an approach to a topic on which people have very strong feelings. I respect those feelings, whatever side of the argument they represent. I do not regard it as appropriate for the issue of abortion, given all its profundities and the strong feelings it generates, to be pinned on to this Bill. The Bill was never tabled to deal with abortion and does not deal with it.

The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness is right to say that the issues relating to abortion, of which there are many—the time limit is but one such issue, despite its importance; other such issues include medical approval and the question of procedure—are very important. However, it is clearly not appropriate to debate them in relation to a Bill that has nothing to do with abortion. It should be appropriate, at some stage, to debate the issues associated with abortion. Since David Steel introduced his private Member’s Bill, the issue of abortion has never been introduced into, debated by or legislated on by this House of Commons as a Government issue and in Government time. As with a number of other very important moral issues, such as the legalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults, these matters have been brought before this House of Commons by private Members.

I support the Government’s motion because the abortion issue should not be pinned on to a Bill that is not about abortion. If a Member of Parliament were to be successful in the ballot in the next Session and able to introduce a Bill on the issue, it might be appropriate at that stage for the House to debate it.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. Perhaps it would be convenient for the House if I were to re-emphasise the ruling that Mr. Speaker gave a short while ago that the subject of abortion is within the scope of the Bill. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman wishes to maintain a clear distinction between arguing about Mr. Speaker’s selection and about the order contained in the programme motion.

Sir Gerald Kaufman: I made it perfectly clear in my point of order to Mr. Speaker that I totally respect the Speaker’s right to decide which amendments to select. Once I had put my point of order to Mr. Speaker, I in no way questioned his decision; the House must accept his decision and respect it. If anything that I was just saying appeared to infringe on the Speaker’s absolute right to make a selection within the bounds of order, I am very sorry, because that was never my intention. What the Government have done in this programme motion is to introduce an order in which the groups of amendments should be taken. That order, which the Government are proposing to the House and which I support and shall vote for in the event of a Division, says that amendments on abortion should be dealt with right at the end, after every amendment or group of amendments has been considered. That is appropriate because abortion is a subject all on its own. While it may well come within the ambit of the Bill as drawn, it was not intended by those who drafted the Bill to be debated as part of this Bill. That being so, I support this motion and I shall vote for it.

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1.50 pm

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): Like the Conservative spokesman, I confirm that my party will have free votes throughout the debate, including on the programme motion. What I say will therefore reflect my personal thoughts.

I will oppose the programme motion. There has been no consultation on it. The Minister said in her opening remarks that the Bill dealt with serious issues that needed to be debated, but the Government could have chosen to take two days to debate it, and they could also have chosen not to have a statement today. So there is no substance to the Minister’s suggestion that that is the reason for the proposed order for debate.

It has been suggested that there may have been some secret deal or understanding that has led to this outcome. There have been suggestions that the Government are concerned about what might happen in the House of Lords, but Front Benchers from all parties in the other place have confirmed that they would not interfere with the decisions of this House on abortion. That was the case in 1967 and 1990. In any event, that is no good reason to prevent debate in this House.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): My hon. Friend surely recognises that abortion was not discussed at any stage in the consideration of the Bill in the House of Lords.

Norman Lamb: My understanding is that it was, but in any case that does not negate the points that I am making.

The Government allowed expectations to be raised that opportunity for debate would be provided at this stage. That is demonstrated by the number of amendments that have been tabled and the investment of time and energy by Members and by organisations outside on both sides of the argument. I am sure that all of us have received many letters and e-mails from women in Northern Ireland. Whatever side we take on that issue, those women clearly had an expectation that their case would be heard, but they will be denied that opportunity.

The Government say that it is not appropriate to debate these issues at this time. If that is the case, when is the appropriate time to debate abortion issues? On other occasions, such debates have arisen on amendments tabled by Back Benchers. In 1990, the Conservative Government allowed time for discussion of abortion issues. This time, the Labour Government have refused to do so. Will the Minister give a commitment now to allow time at some future point? There has been a suggestion that the Government would commit to allowing time on a private Member’s Bill. Will she now ensure that that is the case, because it is important that this significant issue, with strong feelings on both sides, should be properly aired and debated in this Chamber?

1.54 pm

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): I speak against the programme motion because—and I say this with no pleasure—it and the order of discussion appear to be a shabby manoeuvre by Ministers to stop the full debate of some very important matters. I appreciate that Ministers did not intend this to be a Bill about abortion. I am open to the
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argument that we should have another piece of legislation that would enable a full debate on most of the matters in relation to abortion that have been raised as amendments and new clauses to the Bill, but there is a special case for debating and voting on the particular new clause that I tabled to extend the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland.

In Northern Ireland, abortion is a criminal justice matter. In due course, criminal justice matters will revert to the Assembly. At present, no major party in the Assembly supports a woman’s right to choose. If we do not debate my new clause today, women in Northern Ireland will lose for a generation the opportunity to gain the rights that women in the rest of the United Kingdom have enjoyed for more than 40 years. The other matters in relation to abortion can come back to the House in due course, but my new clause is widely regarded by the hundreds of women who have written to me as their last chance to get justice on this matter.

I have been roundly abused by male politicians from Northern Ireland for tabling the new clause, so I wanted to touch not on the substance of the new clause but on why I have tabled it. I have not tabled it out of any desire to run contrary to people’s deeply held religious opinions, nor out of a desire to persuade people in Northern Ireland that abortion is a good thing—which I do not think myself. Nor did I table the new clause to override the authority of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I certainly did not table it to force a single woman in Northern Ireland to have an abortion. I tabled the new clause because, as it stands, the law on abortion in Northern Ireland is the same law that was passed in 1861. So long as this remains the Parliament of the United Kingdom and so long as women in Northern Ireland are citizens of the United Kingdom, we have a responsibility to move those women’s rights into the 21st century.

Women in Northern Ireland cannot have an abortion under the 1967 Act, not even as a result of rape, incest or gross foetal abnormality. If we do not have sufficient time to debate my new clause this afternoon, we may miss the opportunity to change that for a generation. Women from Northern Ireland cannot have an abortion in Northern Ireland. The lucky ones are the thousands who have the resources and the support to travel to Britain to get an abortion. How can that be right? If I go to Belfast and break a leg, I can have an operation on the national health service, but because of the manoeuvrings of politicians down the years, poor women have to find the money—at a time of enormous stress and difficulty—to come here and pay for an abortion. I do not wish to speak to the merits of my new clause, but I do wish to emphasise the urgency of this matter. The question is whether this United Kingdom Parliament is content to keep a group of women as second class citizens on this important issue of liberty and rights.

1.58 pm

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): I am in a quandary. Normally, the very mention of the words “timetable motion” is enough to have me rushing into the No Lobby, but we Conservatives have a free vote today, even on the timetable motion, and I shall not go into the No Lobby. More time should have been given to a subject of this order of magnitude, but the Government are justified in taking the view that they have taken on the order of subjects for debate. This
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Bill began in the other place. There was no substantial debate on abortion there, save one brief examination of a disability issue related to abortion. In other words, all the issues that were raised in this House were not raised in another place and have not been debated there. That would not matter if the Bill were starting here, but it started in another place. Surely the Government are right to say that given that we have limited time—which is a shame, because time should not be so limited—the issues that we must discuss are those in the original Bill, which have already been debated and which are still in the Bill, rather than those that were raised only at a late stage in this House, which have never been considered by the other place.

The Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. Member for Bristol, South (Dawn Primarolo), and I have never agreed on any issue even remotely connected to this subject matter, but I reluctantly have to say that I think that the motion is right. I urge people who do not normally welcome timetable motions to at least take that into account when deciding how to use their free vote.

2 pm

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): Many Opposition Members have laid proper emphasis on the fact that they will have free votes on this measure, but we will have free votes for those Labour Members who wish to exercise them. I encourage my right hon. and hon. Friends to do precisely that.

I wish to address a question to the Minister. She was so thoughtful in ensuring that the House had as much as possible of the 45 minutes available to discuss the programme motion that one did not even have a chance to intervene. I believe that the Government are right to say that we should concentrate on the main issues that gave rise to the Bill. I also believe that the way we go about debating abortion in this place, picking off bits and pieces as though we were playing bingo, is not an appropriate way to consider a major issue.

That is why I tabled a new clause that would empower the House to set up a Select Committee of both Houses to report back coherently on how we might or might not reform the abortion laws. My preference would be that we should make abortion much easier earlier on and much tougher later on, but it might be that that would not be the conclusion of the Select Committee. We would then at least have before us a coherent set of proposals. We would know what we were voting for and could table our amendments accordingly.

Although the Government are right to exclude abortion today, I hope that when the Minister gracefully replies she will tell us what the Government’s plans are to give us the appropriate time for the sort of debate for which my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) also asked.

2.2 pm

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe) (Con): I find this programme motion particularly cynical. It marks another rather important change in the way that Parliament is handled. The Government have decided to stop parliamentary debate on various important issues altogether
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and to ensure that no votes take place at all on key issues that they find it politically embarrassing to have raised at the present time. If that becomes an established practice, we will see another serious step back in the way the House can discuss matters.

This is the first time that the House has had the opportunity to discuss embryology or abortion in Government time since 1990. We have private Members’ Bills on the subject of abortion from time to time, but they do not have the faintest prospect of changing the law because there is always, on one side or the other, a sufficient blocking minority to stop progress. I would be very surprised if more Government time were made available in the next 20 years or so for those subjects to be returned to, but they are very important to many of our constituents and they arouse profound emotions.

The general public, whom we represent, have every view and none on the subject, but there is an enormous range of opinion, about which people on both sides feel very passionately. It cuts completely across political party, both for the public and for us, and there is no way in which a particular Member of Parliament can possibly hold himself up as representing the strong feelings that some sections of the population hold.

We must have legislation, and this is the legislative Chamber for the country. As it happens, the House is representative, because, again crossing party lines, Members of the House of Commons represent, in my experience, just about every range of opinion one could possibly have on the subject. Many Members have strong feelings on moral, political, practical and social grounds that ought to be expressed. Every now and again, a chance comes to address those issues.

The 1990 Act has been referred to, and I spent far too much time on Second Reading reminding the House of how that went through. A free vote was permitted to every Member of the House, including Ministers in the then Government. That Bill was deliberately drafted to ensure that abortion came within its scope. I pay credit to Geoffrey Howe, now Lord Howe, who was then the Leader of the House of Commons. He made it quite plain that he wanted me, as Secretary of State, to ensure that the Bill was drafted in such a way that Mr. Speaker would allow abortion amendments, because there was such a demand from the House that they should be considered. A great deal of time was allowed for the discussion and the law was settled for the next 18 years. It needs to be revisited and debated again.

A motion such as this programme motion merely serves to outrage the range of opinion in the House, on both sides of the argument, as people find that they are not allowed to open up the subjects again. There is no practical reason for it. It is some political embarrassment—political with a small p or a large P—that causes the problem. I suspect that Scottish by-elections are determining the progress of the Bill all the way through.

The House has lots of time in which it could consider the issues. I cannot remember a period in which the House of Commons has had less serious business to transact brought before it by the Government. There is no earthly reason why we should not have the powers extended today to go on into this evening. There is no earthly reason why we should not have two days’ debate, at least at this stage. A Christmas recess of quite
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unprecedented length has just been announced, because the Government cannot think of anything to occupy the time of the House.

As we have, in practice, a free vote on both sides, I make the usual hopeless plea that I have found myself making in recent debates on programme motions. I trust that Members on all sides will regard themselves as having a free vote. If we allow this motion to be whipped through, it will be applied to other sensitive and political Bills. In future, by reordering clauses and putting knives in the guillotine and so on, the Government will be able to determine that any subject that they regard as inappropriate or unsuitable will not even be debated, let alone voted on, by the House of Commons. Such cynicism would take my breath away if I were not becoming ever more accustomed to such a process on the part of a control-freak Government who regard the House of Commons as an embarrassing nuisance to be silenced on all suitable occasions.

2.8 pm

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I have spoken to the Bill on a number of occasions, and on each occasion I have spoken about the embryology elements, but I have been in the Chamber when amendments relating to abortion have been discussed. It feels to me as though the issue is being treated in an asymmetrical way, so that those who sought at an earlier stage to curtail abortion rights were heard, but those who seek at this stage to extend them are to be silenced by the programme motion. Frankly, I feel that that is a failure of leadership of this House and this Government and we should rethink.

I accept that my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) makes a reasonable point when he says that the Bill is not necessarily the right vehicle with which to deal with this matter. If we were assured by those on the Front Bench that there would be an opportunity to deal properly with the issue, when all aspects of the abortion debate could be properly discussed, I would be content to support the programme motion. If we do not receive that assurance, I shall not feel able so to do.

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