Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Viscount Thurso: My Lords, perhaps I may briefly make clear our position in regard to the amendments. Abortion was discussed at some length in Committee. I believe that there was a Division and that noble Lords took a decision. In that respect, those of us on the Liberal Democrats Front Bench will accept the views expressed by the House in Committee. However, it will be a free vote for my noble friends and they may go whichever way their consciences take them.

On euthanasia, I find it rather odd that something that basically does not exist can be devolved or reserved. Euthanasia, whatever it may be as a concept, is not something that exists in law. We have manslaughter, culpable homicide, murder and all sorts of things, but one thing that we do not have is euthanasia, so I do not see how we can write it into the Bill.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: My Lords, I rise to oppose Amendment No. 219 as I opposed a similar amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, in Committee. As I said then, in dealing with timescale, circumstances and conditions to be met before termination can be carried out, the 1967 Act did not, and does not, differentiate between different parts of the country with the exception of Northern Ireland--a point to which I shall return. Throughout the UK common criteria and common conditions must be met before termination can take place. The arguments for justifying that decision are just as valid today as they were then. That view was supported by your Lordships' House when it substantially defeated the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, by 88 votes to 45, after a debate which lasted one-and-a-half hours. I would have expected the decision of the House to be final. However, having said that, the fact that we are having the debate again gives me the opportunity to respond to some of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, during previous discussions and indeed today.

The noble Lord suggested that somehow myself and the two other noble Baronesses who spoke on this side of the House could not possibly have a view of the matter because we were new to the key arguments on devolution and, therefore, did not appreciate the real

3 Nov 1998 : Column 206

effect of the amendment. I can only speak for myself. I am certainly not a recent convert to the question of devolution. Indeed, I have been a supporter of devolution and an active participant in the debates since the 1960s and 1970s when it was not quite as popular as it is now.

On the last occasion, the noble Lord went on to say that the debate was not just about whether one is for or against abortion--that is correct--but about a grown-up Scottish parliament taking serious decisions. It is serious for a woman to have to decide whether to have an abortion. Having taken that serious and distressing decision, whether it is carried out should not be determined by whether she has the money to travel across the Border in either direction. If women can afford to travel and pay for abortions that is fine, but if they cannot that fundamental right is denied them. It is that right that we are talking about today.

I am sorry but I must correct another inaccuracy by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, when he implied that I believed that the law in Scotland would be more restrictive. In fact, I appreciated that the medical profession in Scotland has a strong tradition of support for abortion. In 1996, the last year for which figures are available, the NHS in Scotland provided 99 per cent. of abortions free of cost to women, while the proportion paid for by the NHS in England and Wales varied between 97 per cent. and 34 per cent.

We might well see more liberal and effective laws in Scotland, but that is not the issue. Nor is the issue the competence of the Scottish parliament to take these important decisions; it is about the consequences for women--the consequence of cross-Border traffic. It is this cross-Border traffic which justifies abortion being a reserved matter. The heartache of the 6,000 women who came from Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic to the United Kingdom in 1995 in order to have abortions clearly illustrates the problem. The existence of such traffic is no reason to introduce such bad practice into the differences between England and Scotland.

I reiterate: this debate is not about the content of the law or about any change in abortion law; nor is it a question of whether the law in Scotland would be more rigid or relaxed, nor indeed is it about the competence of the Scottish parliament to take serious decisions. It is about who should have legislative responsibility over a complex and sensitive issue that can affect the lives of many women. As the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, said, it is about whether the Scottish parliament should be able to legislate and create a situation where the law on abortion is different on either side of the Scottish Border. However, the noble Lord did not mention the question of cross-Border traffic. I really wonder whether he is at all concerned about it and the effects on women.

For me, abortion is primarily a health issue but it is also an ethical one. That causes confusion and inequality of access. The need to overcome that in the best interests of women would be met by having a system which is common and consistent throughout the country. That can only be achieved by all women, whether from Scotland, England or Wales, having equal access to abortion. That would almost certainly not be the case

3 Nov 1998 : Column 207

if this amendment were to be carried. I hope that your Lordship's House will be consistent and oppose the noble Lord's amendment.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Renton: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Mackay has made a most powerful case in favour of both his amendments. There is only one factor that I wish to add to what he said. It is something which I hope the noble Baroness will find is an answer to some extent to the case that she has just put forward. The Scottish courts have always had a separate jurisdiction in criminal matters, not only under the Act of Union but indeed ever since the beginning of time. They have different rules on procedure, on the burden of proof and on evidence. When we have legislated in the United Kingdom parliament on criminal matters, we have always done so separately; that is to say, we have legislated on the one hand for England and Wales and, on the other, for Scotland. There have been exceptions but they have been very rare.

The latter brings me to the subject of abortion. The noble Baroness was quite correct to refer to the Abortion Act 1967. But surely this is essentially a criminal matter on which a devolved parliament should have the right to give further consideration if it thinks necessary. The noble Baroness mentioned the ethical side of the matter, as she was fully entitled to do. However, abortion is so much condemned in the broad on both sides of the Border--that is, apart from the exceptions which are statutory--that I cannot imagine a devolved parliament in Scotland relaxing the law. If the parliament finds that the law needs to be strengthened, it is only right that it should be able to do so. In any event, in the broad, we must leave criminal jurisdiction to the Scottish courts. I very much hope that my noble friend's amendment will be accepted, even by the Government.

Lord Sempill: My Lords, I rise briefly to express my support for my noble friend's amendment. I should like to pick up on one very interesting point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso. The Government have decided that the Scottish parliament has the devolved right to deal with euthanasia. If the new parliament chooses to pass a law that brings euthanasia into being, would that not mean that that parliament would be directly in conflict with the Westminster Parliament?

I apologise if I am slightly out of court here in terms of my understanding. However, it is my clear understanding from the lengthy debates that we have had that the final power and arbitration sit within the Westminster Parliament. In devolving euthanasia, I understand that the Scottish parliament could bring about a situation which would create conflict within the United Kingdom.

Lord Rowallan: My Lords, I, too, rise to make a few brief remarks. I find myself in the rather unusual position of not being able to support my noble friend Lord Mackay on his first amendment regarding abortion. However, when it comes to euthanasia, I support him

3 Nov 1998 : Column 208

wholeheartedly. I feel most strongly that all these issues should be reserved matters and that we should only have one rule throughout the entire United Kingdom.

I entirely agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, who said that there is no such thing as euthanasia. However, it is a subject which seems to be more openly and more frequently talked about these days. Indeed, I would not be at all surprised if within a very short space of time it becomes a normal fact of life. Therefore, we should not ignore it and pretend that it does not exist because it is already happening now; we just do not talk about it. Whether that be right or wrong, it is what is happening. I very much hope that we will have a UK policy on euthanasia. I sincerely hope that we can also have such a policy on abortion.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, put forward a closely argued and powerful case for these two amendments. Of course he deserves to be taken seriously in that respect. However, I believe that he is mistaken in the conclusions that he has drawn. In terms of devolution, this is not in any way a matter of distrust of what the Scottish parliament might do as regards the criminal aspects of either abortion or euthanasia when the latter becomes a legal issue. Indeed I think the whole tradition of Scottish criminal law, particularly in these matters that involve moral questions as well as criminal questions, has had a good record over many generations, and probably a more civilised one than south of the Border.

However, I think the question before us is whether the rather special issues involved in abortion and euthanasia, when that becomes a legal issue, are issues on which there should be a single United Kingdom position which would prevent the kind of distasteful and expensive traffic that may occur across the Border between Scotland and England if there were not a single United Kingdom policy. I do not speak on the abortion issue with any particular knowledge, although I have taken my own view on the matter in free votes over the years. Compared with others who have spoken so far I may have a closer and more immediate interest in a possible law on euthanasia. I am a reformer as regards euthanasia. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rowallan, that as regards the special cases of both abortion and euthanasia the case for United Kingdom uniformity is overriding.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page