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15 July 2009 : Column 90WH—continued

15 July 2009 : Column 91WH
10.40 am

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait). It is a shame that she did not have the opportunity to expand her views, because she would have made a valuable contribution to the debate.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) on securing the debate. My heart did not leap with excitement when I saw that it had reached the Order Paper, but we have had a good and, for the most part, well-measured debate, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the manner in which he opened it.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the so-called travel option. Northern Ireland is, and remains, part of the United Kingdom, so the fact that the abortion law does not extend to the Northern Ireland counties does not make abortion illegal. None the less, for logistic reasons-for reasons relating to travel and the rest of it-it remains a difficult option for women there to pursue. That messy compromise serves nobody well. Moreover, it encourages a double standard that pretends that it is all right for Northern Ireland to have a different law from the rest of us as long as people can quietly cross the Irish sea and have their terminations on the UK mainland. From the point of view of the women concerned, it is an exceptionally unsatisfactory situation. When young women contemplate a termination, they are at their most emotionally vulnerable. To remove them from the immediate ambit of their friends and family at that most vulnerable time is unacceptable.

The hon. Gentleman also spoke about the picketing of Family Planning Association premises, which was taken up by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Dr. McDonnell). Clearly, there are extreme views on all sides about this issue. If such picketing is going on, it is unacceptable. I bow to nobody in the defence of freedom of speech, but nobody suggests that freedom of speech is an unlimited right. When it comes to targeting individuals who are at their most vulnerable, that is an unacceptable use of freedom of speech, whatever the basis of it may be.

Finally, the hon. Member for Reading, West mentioned that women in the 21st century can go online to obtain abortifacients. If that is happening, women in Northern Ireland are clearly in the same situation that women in the rest of the country were in prior to David Steel's Abortion Act 1967. When I was a law student, I remember reading about abortion cases in Scots law. At that time, slippery elm bark was one of the abortifacients that was used, and it was a brutal and inhumane procedure.

Many hon. Members have talked about starting from a position of strongly held principle. I respect such principles, especially when they come from a religious perspective. However, for me, this has always been an entirely pragmatic question. My view was formed some 26 years ago when I was outside a polling station in Glasgow. During a quiet spell, I spoke to the duty policeman who was reaching the end of his 30-year service. He said, "What party are you for, Sonny?"-people used to call me Sonny in those days. "I am a Liberal," I replied. He said, "David Steel's abortion Bill was the best thing that ever happened. People forget that when women went into public toilets to have abortions it was the police who had to go in and remove the foetus from the toilet." I was struck then that whether or not abortion
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was illegal, we would never remove it from our society. As a matter of pragmatism-not high principle or religious belief-if that is going to be part of our society, I want to see it done in the most humane, clinical and controlled way possible. That is why the Government should, even at this late stage, take a careful look to see whether there is an opportunity for this House, while it retains the power, to have the debate that Northern Ireland, as part of the United Kingdom, deserves.

10.45 am

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I will put forward the Conservative party's view on the logistics of the matter and then make one or two personal comments. Having discussed the matter with my party-or, certainly, a number of people in it-we take the view that this is a matter for the devolved Assembly. As has been pointed out, the devolved Assembly cannot take that decision at the moment because policing and criminal justice remains a reserved matter. As the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) recognised, there were good reasons for reserving such matters to Westminster. It was to do not with keeping control over abortion, but with the terrorist situation that had existed in Northern Ireland for very many years. None the less, there are moves to devolve policing and criminal justice.

The target date, as set out in the St. Andrews agreement, was May 2008. That date was not set in legislation, but that was the target. Of course, we have gone somewhat beyond that because there was not sufficient confidence in the community to devolve such issues, but the matter is back on the agenda. I have had meetings with representatives of all the political parties in Northern Ireland, some very recently, and they say that the decisions on devolving policing and justice are imminent and will probably go through. If such a decision goes through, the Conservative party does not intend to oppose the devolution of policing and justice. We will accept that they have decided to devolve those issues. When it gets to that stage, the Northern Ireland Assembly can decide on abortion-they cannot at the moment because it is a matter of criminal justice and not health. We take the view that that is the right way to proceed.

I have every respect for the Minister, but I hope that he will allow me a little criticism for the way in which the Government dealt with some issues in Northern Ireland before the Assembly was restored. Decisions were taken in Committee in this House on matters such as local government reform and education reform in advance of the Assembly being restored. That was wrong. Those decisions should not have been taken here in advance of the Assembly being restored. They should have been left to the Assembly. I take the same view on the issue under debate. I am very happy to discuss it, but decisions should not be taken in advance of the devolution of policing and criminal justice, especially as all the main parties in Northern Ireland are united on this one issue and no other. I have been doing this job for four-and-a-half years and can remember no other issue on which all the parties were united. For us to take legislative steps that not only undermined the role of the Assembly but went against everything that all the political parties in Northern Ireland are saying would be wrong and somewhat anti-democratic.

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The hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) said that he had campaigned for the Belfast agreement. He went down the Falls road and other such places for which I commend him. I had some reservations about the agreement and expressed them at the time, but he supported it and he supported devolution. Let us complete the devolution and let the people of Northern Ireland decide.

Nadine Dorries: On a slightly different point, does my hon. Friend agree that contrary to some of the evidence that we have heard in the debate, the polls taken of both doctors and the general public in the UK indicate that opinion is becoming far more conservative with regard to abortion, particularly at the upper limits?

Mr. Robertson: There is a case for reviewing the upper limits of abortion. I voted to reduce the limits. My hon. Friend prompts me to express my personal views. I agree with the sentiments expressed by members of the Democratic Unionist and the Social and Democratic Labour parties in the debate. Seventeen years ago, I worked in connection with a special care baby unit. Even at that time, babies were surviving after 24 weeks gestation. They are now aborted and actually survive outside the womb, only to die in the most cruel circumstances. I simply cannot accept that that is right.

I am quite assured that there is now abortion on demand-quite illegally-in Great Britain. I take the view put forward by the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), who said that if anything, we should be tightening the abortion law across Great Britain and moving away from the current situation. Last year alone, there were 216,000 abortions in Great Britain. I simply cannot accept that many abortions are not carried out for social reasons. We all know of social excuses for abortions and we all know that we are not simply talking about teenage children who cannot cope.

Nadine Dorries: Is my hon. Friend aware that, contrary to some of the evidence that we have heard that abortion is treated as a one-off sensitive issue, some women in this country, because abortion is available almost on demand, are aborting up to four or five times in a short space of time?

Ann Winterton (in the Chair): Order. Before the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman resumes his speech, may I point out that the Minister still has to reply?

Mr. Robertson: I always look forward to hearing the Minister, so I will bring my speech to an end. My hon. Friend makes another powerful point.

Conservative Front Benchers believe that the matter should be left to the Assembly. My personal view is that we should be tightening up the abortion law in Great Britain and not going the other way.

10.51 am

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) on securing this debate. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the issue and of where the decisions should be taken, he has every right to raise the issue, and the airing of views that we
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have had is welcome. We have had a good debate and some very strong and passionate opinions have been expressed by Northern Ireland politicians and others, including, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), who has a tremendous record of dealing with very difficult issues. Indeed, she and I have worked on some together in the past.

In his opening remarks, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West twice said that I would wash my hands of the issue. He may not like the answer that I am going to give to him, but it will not be an abrogation of responsibility; it will be a proper, clear, consistent explanation of by whom, where and how decisions on the matter should be taken.

When the House debates and makes judgments on abortion, we do so on a free vote. It is well understood that that is the traditional position in Parliament. The Government are also clear that the best place for discussion of and decisions on abortion law in Northern Ireland is the Northern Ireland Assembly, when criminal justice powers are restored. The hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) is right: confidence is growing that devolution of criminal justice powers can take place, and I hope it happens in the near future. Many of the discussions are now on the practicalities of implementing that.

Although the question of devolution of criminal justice and policing powers is particularly resonant at the moment, the argument that I have advanced is not an expedient. The Government have a long-standing position on the matter.

Mrs. Lait: Can the Minister explain why abortion is a criminal justice matter in Northern Ireland and a health matter on the mainland?

Paul Goggins: I will go on to explain the reasons for that.

The Government have a well established policy going back to 1920. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West is right that the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 is the foundation of abortion law in Northern Ireland, but the Government of Ireland Act 1920 gave responsibility for the criminal law to the Northern Ireland Parliament. Within that responsibility for the criminal law was responsibility for abortion law. That remained the case from 1922 right through to 1972, when direct rule was imposed in Northern Ireland. The Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945 made some changes, but the Abortion Act 1967, which went through this Parliament, was not extended to Northern Ireland. Therefore, we have a consistent position going right back to the 1920 Act.

Some, including my hon. Friend and others who have spoken in the debate, argue that over the 37 years of direct rule, this Parliament should have legislated to extend the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland. That we have not done so reflects the very strong views that have been expressed consistently down the years by political and church leaders in Northern Ireland.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) drew attention to the amendments that she proposed to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will have received letters from church
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leaders and from the four main party leaders in Northern Ireland expressing very strong views that the matter should be left to the people of Northern Ireland. They said that any attempt to legislate here would undermine the devolution settlement that we have all worked so hard to achieve.

Emily Thornberry: Does the Minister remember that all the gay rights that were recognised within the law in Northern Ireland were imposed in the teeth of opposition from local politicians?

Paul Goggins: That is a different situation for a number of reasons. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington raised the issue of the unborn child, but it is also true-I was involved in some of the consultations to which my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury refers-that there was a much wider mix of opinion on other matters on which this Parliament has legislated through Orders in Council in recent times. A much wider range of opinion came through in the consultations on those other measures, but on this matter, it is clear that there is not such a breadth of opinion. I have very little time left, so if my hon. Friend will forgive me, I will move on.

The party leaders made it clear that the proposed amendments to the 2008 Act, which were not made, would undermine the integrity of the devolution process. As I have said, we have not suddenly lighted upon that position recently. Back in 1990, Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone urged the House of Commons to reject a move to extend the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland, saying that it would be

My hon. Friend referred to the Good Friday agreement, which was legislated for in the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
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Mo Mowlam, whom we still think of fondly and who was a committed pro-choice advocate, made it very clear that the matter was different in relation to the settlement in Northern Ireland. In the debate at the time, she said:

Even Mo understood that the issue had to be dealt with in accordance with the wishes, will and views of the people of Northern Ireland.

Emily Thornberry: Will the Minister give way?

Paul Goggins: I cannot, because my hon. Friend raised the issue of the pragmatic compromise, with which I must deal in the short time that I have left. The pragmatic compromise would be that we would not change the law, but that we would somehow facilitate NHS treatment for legal abortions for women in Northern Ireland in England. However, first, it is not clear to me that GPs in Northern Ireland would have the power to refer a woman for treatment outside Northern Ireland that would be illegal in Northern Ireland. Some might argue that women should be able to leave Northern Ireland for assessment as well as treatment here, but I would argue that that would be a serious breach of the relationship between the woman and her GP.

Secondly-this is crucial, and we have only seconds to go in the debate-we would either have to top-slice the Northern Ireland health budget to fund the compromise, which would undermine the devolution settlement, or taxpayers in England, Wales and Scotland would have to pay. That would take money away from my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West. Such a compromise would not work in practice. In the end, this important matter should be determined by the Northern Ireland Assembly and the people of Northern Ireland.

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Mr. Michael Shields

11 am

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful to have the opportunity to call once again for justice for Michael Shields. I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice for taking the highly unusual step of coming here in person to answer this debate. This is my third Adjournment debate in support of Michael, who is serving a 10-year prison sentence in the UK for the attempted murder of Martin Georgiev in Varna, Bulgaria in May 2005. Michael has always protested his innocence.

I have long been convinced that Michael's case is a gross miscarriage of justice both for Michael-a then 18-year-old man jailed for a crime that he did not commit-and for the victim, as the real offender remains free. My previous reasons for supporting Michael include substantial flaws in the identification of him as the culprit, the absence of any forensic evidence and the confession of another man, Graham Sankey, to the crime. Those reasons have been strengthened by new eyewitness evidence and a polygraph test, conducted with the express approval of the Secretary of State, showing unequivocally that Michael was not at the scene of the crime.

We are at a critical stage in the campaign for justice. Despite new evidence, the Bulgarian authorities have refused to re-open the case. In December 2008, the UK High Court ruled that the Justice Secretary had the power to pardon Michael after considering the new evidence in the context of the evidence before the Bulgarian court. My right hon. Friend has decided provisionally that he is minded to refuse a pardon, but has stated that he will consider further representations before making a final decision. That provisional decision relies on extremely dubious identification evidence consisting largely of dock identification-a practice not allowed in this country for many decades. Identification parades were conducted in Bulgaria without defence lawyers present, using non-suspects who did not resemble Michael Shields and after Michael's picture had appeared in Bulgarian newspapers.

In addition to Graham Sankey's confession, there is considerable new evidence that positively supports Michael, including the lie detector test, new eyewitness statements and testimony from a Bulgarian porter in the hotel where Michael stayed. I draw special attention to the thorough investigation into a new sworn eyewitness statement from Mr. A, carried out by experienced officers from the Merseyside police major incident team at the request of the Secretary of State. The investigation shows categorically that Michael was not present at the scene of the crime. During the police review, Graham Sankey refused to be interviewed by the investigating team.

Eyewitness Mr. A recalls in his sworn statement:

The police investigation concluded that Mr. A was

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and that he was an honest and independent witness who had befriended the victim, Martin Georgiev, only hours before the attack. Significantly, the police investigation found that had the incident taken place in the United Kingdom,

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