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Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 253:

Page 44, line 40, at end insert--
(". The conferral of functions in relation to Northern Ireland on any Minister of the Crown.").

The noble Lord said: This is a technical amendment to ensure that functions in the transferred field in relation to Northern Ireland cannot be conferred on a Minister of the Crown without his consent. This is necessary because the functions of a Minister of the Crown in relation to Northern Ireland are excepted from the exception of the Crown in paragraph 1 of Schedule 2, but it would not be appropriate for the Assembly to be able to confer new functions on a Minister of the Crown without prior consultation and consent. There might, for example, be propriety or financial considerations which would need to be taken into account before such agreement could be given. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 253A:

Page 44, leave out lines 41 and 42 and insert--
(" . Property belonging to Her Majesty in right of the Crown or belonging to a department of the Government of the United Kingdom or held in trust for Her Majesty for the purposes of such a department (other than property used for the purposes of the armed forces of the Crown or the Ministry of Defence Police).").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 254 and 255 not moved.]

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 256:

Page 45, leave out lines 5 and 6 and insert--
(". The Post Office, posts (including postage stamps, postal orders and postal packets) and the regulation of postal services.").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 257:

Page 45, line 11, leave out ("including the creation of offences and penalties") and insert--
("( ) the creation of offences and penalties;").

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 257, I wish to speak also to Amendment No. 260. These amendments bear on paragraph 8 of Schedule 3. The first is a technical amendment to avoid confusion and to ensure that the criminal law is contrasted with the civil law. The second amendment has the effect of ensuring that the reservation of the criminal law and creation of offences and penalties does not include matters within paragraph 16 of Schedule 2 which excepts national security and provisions to do with terrorism, subversion and so on. Thus the amendment ensures that these matters are excepted rather than reserved. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead moved Amendment No. 258:

Page 45, line 11, at end insert ("but not the law relating to abortion;").

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The noble Lord said: There are two aspects of this amendment. One is the moral issue, which was the subject of debate on many occasions during my 27 years in the other place. It was noticeable that on all those occasions the elected representatives of Northern Ireland made common cause right across the traditional divide. It would be true to say that that same unity will be found in the recently elected Northern Ireland Assembly. Thus there remains broad opposition to abortion and I have detected no wavering on the part of any of the main parties in Northern Ireland.

Since Stormont was abolished in 1972, successive governments, Labour and Conservative, have proclaimed their willingness to take heed of, and to act upon, proposals and suggestions if they had the support of both sides of the community. But, surprisingly, when the Northern Ireland parties spoke with one voice, successive sovereign governments pretended not to hear. One typical example is the education Bill which gave us all so much trouble and which ended up with all of us supporting the Roman Catholics bishops in Northern Ireland in seeking a judicial review. In this Bill, your Lordships have another example.

The modest amendment before your Lordships moves us on from the rights and wrongs of abortion, as was the case in our deliberations on the Scotland Bill on 27th July this year. We have a problem in convincing the people of Scotland and the people of Northern Ireland that there is some justification for applying different standards and rules to two forms of killing--abortion and euthanasia. The latter is to be devolved to local assemblies in Scotland and in Northern Ireland while the other is not.

Few people will find any comfort in the assertion that abortion is to be a reserved matter, with the implied possibility that it may be devolved to the Assembly at a later date. For most people, whether they be in Scotland or in Northern Ireland, the implication is that after a span of five or perhaps 10 years their elected representatives will be not quite mature enough to be entrusted with power to deal with subjects like abortion. That is an unfair reflection upon those representatives.

I remember that in the debate on this very subject during proceedings on the Scotland Bill the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, said that abortion had been placed in the list of reserved matters--and then added,

    "which ... can be reviewed by agreement between the two parliaments".--[Official Report, 27.7.98; col. 1305.]
Those are the sovereign Parliament at Westminster and the Scottish parliament. If the possibility of reaching agreement is clearly within the Scotland Bill, is it also within the present Northern Ireland Bill? Surely we ought now to make a decision in principle to devolve the power to the Northern Ireland Assembly as soon as possible. I beg to move.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Fitt: In associating myself with the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, I am all too conscious from many years experience at both ends of this building that when the subject of abortion is raised great passions are generated and friendships are lost.

27 Oct 1998 : Column 1863

Of a number of controversial subjects that have been debated in both Houses, this is by far the most personal to many people.

As the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, said, it cuts across religious boundaries. Abortion is not only opposed by Roman Catholics but by Protestants as well. As we have seen in Northern Ireland, many people are opposed to abortion. I am aware that if this debate is to continue at Report stage it will become more heated as the days go by. In America last weekend a doctor who supported abortion was cruelly murdered by someone who opposed abortion. As I say, this issue generates great passion among those who support it or reject it.

When I was in Northern Ireland last week I talked to many people. I did not say, "Are you in support of abortion or are you opposed to it?" I said, "Do you think that the elected representatives of the Northern Ireland people, the people for whom you voted in the elections which followed the referendum, should make the decision one way or the other on abortion?" I put that question to a cross-section of the community in Northern Ireland, people of all religions. They all said that it was a matter that should be decided by the people whom they elected in the recent elections.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Dubs that this Government want to give as many powers as they can to the newly elected Northern Ireland Assembly. They want to give it responsibility for bringing Northern Ireland into a new era. They want to give it responsibility for taking decisions which will affect the people of Northern Ireland--decisions involving matters of life and death. Over the past number of years we have had matters of life and death decided by murderers and terrorists.

All I would say to my noble friend the Minister is that I believe that the people of Northern Ireland who have voted for their representatives should not deny the right of those representatives to take a decision on this very crucial and emotional subject. I was speaking to people last week and I asked them: "Do you think it is right that people within the august atmosphere of the House of Lords should take a decision as to whether or not there is a right to legislate on abortion?". Your Lordships' House is very remote from the everyday concerns of people in Northern Ireland. Therefore I would ask the Minister, in view of what has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, that whether a private opinion may be held for or against abortion, this is a matter which should be legislated for in the newly-elected Northern Ireland Assembly.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: At Second Reading we had a debate on the general matters contained in the Bill and I took the opportunity of raising the issue of whether abortion would be a reserved or an exempted power. I will not weary your Lordships with all the arguments I put forward then. Suffice it to say that I support very strongly the amendment to which the noble Lords, Lord Fitt and Lord Molyneaux, have so eloquently spoken from their respective Benches today.

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This is an issue which unites politicians in Northern Ireland and which unites the community. Therefore, we should tread extremely sensitively in being prepared to try to impose our view, whether it is for or against abortion, on the community in Northern Ireland. This surely is exactly the type of matter that ought to be properly debated there. The noble Lord, Lord Steel, and I, for instance, would disagree on the fundamental question of abortion, but when we came to consider the Scotland Bill we both put precisely the same view: that this is a matter to be decided in Scotland.

Indeed we are in danger of opening up a number of contradictions because in the Scotland Bill we say that euthanasia may be decided in Scotland, but not abortion. That, we have said, will always be a power retained at Westminster. Yet we have taken one criminal justice question and placed it in the hands of the Scottish assembly and taken another criminal justice question and said that it must be retained here at Westminster.

The argument is being advanced in the case of Northern Ireland that the abortion issue will for now be reserved to Westminster but may eventually be resolved in Northern Ireland. I think it would be much clearer if all these questions such as euthanasia and abortion--the big moral and social issues--which do predominate in the minds of many people in parts of these islands, far more so than many of the economic and other constitutional questions which so preoccupy us in our Chamber here, should be decided on the ground in both places.

That would be a much more straightforward way of looking at these things and it would accept the principle of devolution because devolution should carry with it the responsibility that goes with a grown-up assembly which can make up its own mind on these matters. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, since our debate not only answered a Parliamentary Question which I tabled on 15th October, but in correspondence on 19th October and in a letter dated 27th October to me has gone a long way to address some of the concerns which I raised at Second Reading. I should like to thank him for the way in which he has gone about trying to conduct this debate. It is in nobody's interest that we should need to have a Division on this question and it is in everybody's interest that we should try to find some rational and reasonable way forward in resolving what the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, has quite rightly described as a sensitive issue which raises passions. Those passions should be raised in the new Northern Ireland Assembly and, in my opinion, resolved there.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, when dealing with the question of whether parliamentary time would be made available for a Private Member's Bill from this place until such time as this matter is exempted to the Northern Ireland Assembly, said in his letter to me today:

    "I should explain that while additional time was allowed for the passage of controversial legislation on social issues in the 1960s, more recent Governments have made it plain that such Bills will have to proceed only during the normal time available".
I welcome that statement and I think the whole Committee should dwell on it, because it effectively means that if the Government say they will remain

27 Oct 1998 : Column 1865

neutral on questions of this sort and will not provide Private Members' time between now and whenever Northern Ireland has this matter exempted to it, then the status quo would be maintained in Northern Ireland until that moment is reached.

In other words, we would not then seek to impose a change in the law--a law which was after all crafted with the deliberate intention of recognising that different circumstances prevailed in Northern Ireland, which is why the 1967 Act deliberately exempted Northern Ireland in the first place. It would mean that the status quo could be preserved in the interim. I welcome the statement that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, has made and I hope that he might go slightly further in that respect. I recognise why the noble Lords, Lord Molyneaux and Lord Fitt, tabled this amendment today and I hope that in the period between now and Report stage the Government will try to become firmer in giving a timetable of when they would anticipate that this matter will be exempted to the Northern Ireland Assembly and that they will also recognise that they need to unravel the inconsistencies that they are building into these two respective pieces of legislation.

In the meantime, I welcome the position of the Opposition Front Bench and that of the Liberal Democrat Front Bench, who made their position clear on the Scotland Bill. The Official Opposition, I think, have tabled a further amendment for the Report stage of the Scotland Bill to the effect that these are properly matters which should be devolved to those respective assemblies.

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