Eddie Hughes is a member of the Women and Equalities Committee and is MP for Walsall North.
This week, the Women and Equalities Committee, on which I sit, published its report into abortion law in Northern Ireland. This follows an intensive public inquiry in the context of which we received many submissions from people and organisations across the province.
The main report, published yesterday, recommends that Westminster should legislate to change the existing law in Northern Ireland to allow abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities. While I am concerned about abortion law in Northern Ireland, I could not support our Committee – which does not contain a single Northern Irish MP – arguing that devolution should be overruled in this way, especially when the human rights arguments deployed in justification of their proposal are problematic.
Mindful of this, I submitted an alternative report (published in the appendix to the main report) which sets out some important positive steps that the Northern Ireland Department of Health and Attorney General should take to improve abortion services but which stop short of undermining the devolution settlement by recommending that Westminster imposes a change in the law. If I tell you that the proposal to replace the main report with my alternative report was rejected by a vote of just two to four, you will see that the matters which I raised caused some pause for thought and that the official committee report was not the result of a consensus.
In the context of Northern Ireland’s troubled history, it seems to me that devolution is of huge importance. Rather than contributing to its unravelling, I believe we should be fighting as hard as we can to get power sharing up and running again.
Abortion is a devolved competence and Westminster has not sought to make decisions on abortion in the province since 1921. In line with this, well over 80 per cent of submissions to our inquiry argued that Westminster should not interfere with Northern Ireland abortion law. This message is further backed up by opinion polling conducted by ComRes in October 2018. It revealed that 64 per cent of people, 66 per cent of women and 70 per cent of 18-30-year olds, do not think it should be up to Westminster to decide abortion law in Northern Ireland.
Moreover, it is important to note that the most recent abortion vote of any UK jurisdiction (that could have resulted in a change of abortion law – i.e: not a 10 Minute Rule Bill) took place in the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2016, when the majority of MLA’s voted not to change their law. In this context I think it is completely inappropriate for a committee of MPs from outside Northern Ireland to recommend that Westminster undermines devolution by legislating on a sensitive devolved matter. We surely do not want to further undermine public trust in politics, which has already been severely shaken in recent years.
The main argument put forward by some of my colleagues in justification of Westminster intervening seems to be the UK Government has the ultimate authority for human rights matters and, therefore, it is entirely appropriate for Westminster to get involved. In my report, however, I point out that the situation is more complicated. While the UK Government is responsible in international law for its compliance with international obligations, the devolved administrations are responsible for ensuring compliance on devolved matters.
It must also be stressed that there was no declaration of incompatibility with the European Convention on Human Rights made by the Supreme Court in the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) case in June 2018. As there was no standing found for the NIHRC to bring the case, the subsequent judgement issued by Supreme Court Justices following this finding was entirely non-binding. Therefore, the judgement does not provide a sufficient legal basis for the Women and Equalities Committee to recommend a change in the law.
My report also engages with a report by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of the Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which was cited as another justification for Westminster intervening. As a legal opinion written by Professor Mark Hill makes plain, however, the CEDAW Convention does not even mention abortion and the CEDAW Committee is not a judicial body and has no standing to read-in abortion rights. The report simply reflects the opinions of its authors.
The suggestion, therefore, that whilst concern for devolution is important, in this case it is trumped by legal imperatives that mandate intervention by Westminster, simply does not stand up to scrutiny.
Rather than suggesting that Westminster legislates to undermine the devolution settlement, we should instead embrace a two-pronged strategy. First, we should look at my positive recommendations to the Northern Ireland Department of Health and Attorney General about improving abortion service provision in Northern Ireland within the current law and, second, we should redouble our efforts for the restoration of power-sharing and then encourage MLAs to prioritise revisiting this difficult issue.
I am heartened by the positive response that my report has generated especially amongst women in Northern Ireland – and hope that the Government will study it carefully.