if only there was a government with class and confidence in Whitehall rather than a collection of disparate and desperate individuals who act with all the finesse of a tap-dancing wildebeestDeidre Brock MP
Ah, the constitutional machinery, the frameworks for intergovernmental cooperation – such fond memories of happy days discussing these issues with people on the doorsteps of Edinburgh North and Leith in 2014 – and how engaged they all were with it!
I love a bit of constitutional machinery – I love the way it works so well when governments co-operate for the greater good. It's special, an aggregation which is greater than the sum of its parts, benefits all sides when governments, sovereign in their own rights, none subservient to another and none in a position to overrule another unilaterally. They benefit all of the peoples of their nations by agreeing a way forward.
That's the EU, by the way, a supranational organisation where cooperation between nations delivers benefits for all that no nation could have achieved on their own. They put aside their differences, any petty mistrust they may have of each other, they agree common rules and laws and they tear down barriers. None has the right to impose on another, none can say "we'll keep this power here" or "you don't know enough to do this yourself". That's the difference between confederal cooperation and controlled devolution. It's the difference between sovereignty being pooled only with the consent of individual nations and power devolved being power retained. It's the difference between parity of esteem and patronising guff from a parliament and a government that thinks it is above all else.
Of course, we could have had this debate in a forum where it matters – in the withdrawal bill – if only there was a government with class and confidence in Whitehall rather than a collection of disparate and desperate individuals who act with all the finesse of a tap-dancing wildebeest. The sheer cowardice displayed by refusing to programme properly for debate on devolved issues was as appalling as the contempt shown by the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster – of all offices – who made sure he talked away any chance of anyone else contributing on the day before he left the chamber with a smug grin and a spring in his step.
Surely there can never have been a government so tone deaf to such a crucial constitutional debate as the government that decided that would be the way to handle things? When you think back through the list of Prime Ministers who have navigated their way through the parliaments in this building there are some numpties but there are few who would have made such a breathtaking mistake as to allow that contempt to show so openly and even fewer who would not have been advised well by others around the cabinet table of the dangers into which they were placing themselves, their government and the united kingdom they so preciously guard.
But the current Prime Minister, the least able of all recent holders of that office, worse even than Gordon Brown, is poorly advised by her colleagues, ill-advised by her staff and not advised by her Secretary of State for Scotland. For he is posted missing. Not quite absent but most certainly not present. Not engaged in Whitehall on Scotland's behalf but busy in Scotland on Whitehall's behalf. If George Younger were Banquo the current MacBeth would wonder what he was on about. Younger's boast that UK government decisions on Scotland were made in Edinburgh, not London, would never pass the lips of the current Scottish Secretary – his constitutional machinery has broken down.
He is not Scotland's man in Whitehall, he's not even Whitehall's man in Scotland, he is simply Whitehall's voice in Scotland – a dunnerin brass. He is the propaganda man under whose tenure Scotland Office spin doctor spending has gone through the roof, reaching three quarters of a million pounds this year. On his watch advertising spending on social media has become a Scotland Office priority – excluding people who have an interest in Scottish independence from a marketing campaign trying to suggest that Scotland needs the UK more than we need the EU, but including people with an interest in RAF Lossiemouth in a campaign about the budget. Then, of course, there was the entire online advertising campaign that was run entirely in his constituency.
The UK Government talks a lot about Scotland having two governments and how they should work together but there is a chasm between that suggestion that there still is a respect agenda and the reality where a Secretary of State uses his office of state to attack Scotland's government, to denigrate the politicians who are trying to improve Scotland, and to undermine the very fabric of devolution itself. We have seen a sustained and unrelenting attack on the choices Scots have made – none more so than the decision we made to stay in the EU – and we have seen the disregard, the disrespect and the contempt that this UK Government has held those choices in.
Scotland's parliament voted for Scotland's Continuity Bill, Scots MPs wanted to debate the implications of EU for devolved administrations, the Scots Government offered compromise and conversation. At every step this UK Tory Government turned a sneering, contemptuous face away.
The constitutional machinery, the frameworks for intergovernmental cooperation on these islands – they only work if the political will is shown. They only work if there is mutual respect, they only work if they're allowed to work.
They don't work and that is the fault of the Ministers of Whitehall
"I stand with my sisters in Northern Ireland, and I absolutely endorse their right to choose, but I do not claim to know their situation better than they do. I endorse their right to help shape the legislation they live under, but it is not for me or for anyone here to tell them how to do that."Deidre Brock MP
In the aftermath of the vote in Ireland, I saw a quote from a woman in Northern Ireland to the effect that she had the right to hold both UK and Irish passports and to be citizens of either or both, but she now did not have the right to choose that women in either jurisdiction have.
That quote was third or fourth-hand by the time I saw it, but it seems to be an indicator of where many women in Northern Ireland find themselves.
"Stranded" might be the best description of how they see their plight. Their plight is my plight, and their fight is my fight. If they suffer, I suffer, too. I stand with the women who feel themselves shorn of the rights they see across the border in Ireland and across the Irish sea.
I wonder, though, why this should be seen as an emergency debate. The referendum in Ireland did not change the conditions in Northern Ireland. Nothing has changed for women in Northern Ireland in terms of access to health services, except that they now have another geographically close comparison. Nothing has improved for them; nothing, happily, has got worse for them. Nothing has changed for them, more is the pity.
Yes, this is a very sensitive issue. Our sisters therefore deserve a little more consideration than a rushed debate. Who here, other than Members serving constituencies on the other side of the Irish sea, has any real perception of the issues and possible consequences surrounding abortion in Northern Ireland?
I stand with my sisters in Northern Ireland, and I absolutely endorse their right to choose, but I do not claim to know their situation better than they do. I endorse their right to help shape the legislation they live under, but it is not for me or for anyone here to tell them how to do that.
Support I can offer and encouragement I will give, but legislation has to be with the agreement of the people. Government is only with the consent of the people.
I hear those who say this is a human rights issue, and I agree. That is why we must leave the judgment on that in the hands of the Supreme Court, which has a duty to examine the reference from the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland and will give guidance that must be followed.
As we know, the judgment will be handed down on Thursday. We have two days to wait.
A little look at how Ireland approached amending its constitution would be instructive for many in this Chamber and, indeed, in the Chamber next door. Ireland's move to allow abortion to be legislated for—that being the substance of the constitutional amendment, as has been pointed out—began with a citizens' assembly.
It was the people who had their hands on the tiller. This was no political campaign or activist-led agitation; this was people power from the start, and it should be a lesson to anyone who wants to effect major change.
The details of the assembly are online at citizensassembly.ie, which I recommend to anyone who would like to think a little more about how nations should change direction.
As we have heard, Ireland is now free to choose whether to legislate to allow terminations, and I understand legislation is currently being drafted. Ireland does not yet have that law in place and, as the Secretary of State mentioned, the debate is just getting started.
I note that the Taoiseach has indicated that allowing women from Northern Ireland to access such services across the border is being considered, and he points out that women from Northern Ireland regularly access other health services in Ireland and that there is no reason why they should be denied any new services.
We should not, however, think that Ireland's legislation is done and dusted. The drafting is not yet complete, never mind its passage, but that legislative process is a matter for Ireland, for the Irish people and for the people they have elected to serve them.
Likewise, the issue of abortion in Northern Ireland is a devolved matter and is an issue for the people of the Northern Ireland and the people they elect to the Assembly. It is a matter devolved and, frankly, it matters not a jot whether the decisions made at Stormont, when it is sitting, are agreeable to Members sitting here. That is the point of devolution, a point that some Members of this place have been spectacularly slow to appreciate at times.
The decisions of devolved Administrations are taken for reasons that people in those devolved nations understand from their point of view, and they are taken using evidence that the people, politicians and policy makers of those devolved nations consider important. That principle stands, and it can be seen in the way in which Scotland has led on public health issues.
As we know, Stormont has not sat since January of last year, and I wish absolutely to condemn the cowardice of the politicians who cannot give enough ground, or cannot risk losing a little face, to get the show back on the road and start deciding on issues that affect the people they are paid to serve.
I say that because this issue has been considered at Stormont; the need for legislation has been agreed at Stormont and a way forward has been laid out by a working group in Northern Ireland. In a debate on the consideration of a Justice Bill in February 2016, amendments were tabled that would have allowed abortions to take place in Northern Ireland in specific circumstances. Those were tighter than the conditions in place under the Abortion Act 1967, but they represented movement none the less.
This followed a deal of public consultation undertaken by Ministers on the issues of fatal foetal abnormality, incest and rape. It is clear from what has been said today and from reading the transcript of that debate that there was not exactly a consensus that day, and the amendments were defeated—not overwhelmingly, but substantially.
One telling contribution that day was made by the then Member of the Legislative Assembly for South Belfast, who is now the Member for Belfast South in this place. In her speech that day, she said she was speaking on behalf of the Democratic Unionist party on the issue and she urged the Assembly to reject the amendments in favour of the DUP plan. She said:
"the DUP is rejecting the amendment but outlining a road map to a sensible, informed and appropriate way forward. The Minister of Health has been asked to establish, by the end of February, a working group that will include clinicians in this field and legally qualified persons to make recommendations on how this issue can be addressed, including, if necessary, bringing forward draft legislation. We have asked that all interested parties should be consulted and that the group will be tasked to report within six months. We all need to hear more fully the views of the Royal College and others. We all need the opportunity to ask those vital questions to get the appropriate advice. That is why the working group is the best and most appropriate way forward."
That working group has now reported and as the DUP is behind it, it surely has enough impetus to clear the hurdles of political impasse in Northern Ireland.
The report recommended a relaxation of the restrictions on abortion, citing the general duty of the Department of Health under the Health and Personal Social Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1972 to secure improvement in the physical and mental health of people living in Northern Ireland. The report pointed out, however, that legislative change is required for that to be done. The report is clear that
"the current practice results in inequality of outcomes for women in this particular patient population group when compared to the standards for treatment and care afforded to other pregnant women by Health and Social Care as required by the Department of Health's Maternity Strategy".
It recommends changes in the law to allow abortions to take place.
The changes suggested would not go as far as the legislation here or in Scotland. Examining that was not the remit of the working group; it was examining only what legislative change was needed.
The changes would not bring legislation into line with the rights and protections we have here and would not end women having the trauma of travel to a foreign jurisdiction for health treatment.
The changes would not be the changes I would like, but they are the changes that the politicians of Stormont agreed to support. We have an obligation to respect the fact that the debate on abortion has not perhaps yet been won in Northern Ireland, but this small step can be taken while the debate continues.
Stormont should be reconvened and it should consider legislation on abortion, along with all the other responsibilities it has, but this is a devolved responsibility. Legislating here on a matter that is the responsibility of a devolved Administration is invidious, and the idea that Members sitting here can make decisions without any regard to the consequences is foolhardy.
Stormont has not sat for far too long and that looks set to continue. It is a disgraceful abdication of responsibility on the part of elected Members. It is not sitting, but it has made this decision, and there is no reason why this place should not legislate to put that decision into effect. Stormont could always decide how to proceed when MLAs return to work.
Legislating here for abortion in Northern Ireland without the consent of the Northern Ireland legislature is not tenable, but consent has already been given for some change and we should implement that.
We should press ahead and deliver that; a comprehensive review of the legislation can then proceed, with the people who would be affected front and centre.
Too often, the rights of women are ignored and women are belittled. There is a moral obligation on the politicians of Northern Ireland to get back to work, engage with the people and move on.
They can look to Dublin's example for a way in which to start. There are decisions to be made, and hopefully they will lead to a full and proper health service for women, but I argue that that is not our decision. By all means we should legislate to put into effect the changes that have been decided, but we should not make decisions here that should more properly be made in Belfast.
I stand by the women of Northern Ireland and I stand with those who campaign for a full service, including a proper abortion service. They should be able to influence such decisions and have them made in their own legislature.
Too often, the conceit is that this place knows best, but the re-imposition of direct rule on Northern Ireland is in no one's best interests, let alone those of the women who need support and a decent health service.
The DUP supports the change in the law that was agreed by Stormont; let us help it to deliver that change.
There was a debate in the House of Commons today about abortion in Northern Ireland. In the middle of some people hoping to secure rights to abortion for women in Northern Ireland and some people playing politics with the issue a lot of truth was lost so I thought it worthwhile writing up a few points.
Firstly, today wasn't a debate that could repeal sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 (OAPA). To repeal legislation requires legislation; that means there would need to be a Bill presented to Parliament and debated and then passed and that wasn't on the agenda today. Even if there was a Bill that repealed those sections of that law, though, we wouldn't have legalised or decriminalised abortion in Northern Ireland because section 25 of The Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945 would still prohibit it. In fact, that Act means that people can go to prison for life for performing an abortion in Northern Ireland but no-one had mentioned that Act before I spoke today nor was anyone suggesting we get rid of it.
The referendum in Ireland didn't change the conditions in Northern Ireland. Nothing has changed for women in Northern Ireland in terms of access to health services except that they now have another geographically close comparison. Nothing has improved for them, more's the pity.
Stella Creasy MP had suggested that repealing the OAPA sections would free up all of the devolved legislatures, including the Scottish Parliament, to make new laws about abortion. It doesn't apply to Scotland, though, our laws are different. Because OAPA doesn't apply to Scotland, of course, no Scottish MP would be able to vote to repeal it – English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) would prevent that – so even if today's vote had been about repealing the legislation and doing what Ms Creasy had suggested no MP representing a Scottish constituency could have voted for or against repeal.
Abortion is, of course, devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, as it is to the Scottish Parliament and is a matter for the MLAs at Stormont. Stormont hasn't sat since January of last year but there are already proposals to liberalise abortion in Northern Ireland, recommended recently by a working group set up by the Assembly – those proposals could be implemented now. MLAs should get back to work and get on with making good law for Northern Ireland, of course, but the Assembly not sitting doesn't give anyone else the right to jump in and make laws about Northern Ireland without consulting the people of Northern Ireland. Democracy demands that the people have a voice.
Human Rights are also devolved to Northern Ireland and there is a case currently with the UK Supreme Court concerning human rights and the abortion laws in Northern Ireland. There is a Judgment due on Thursday about whether those rights are infringed by those laws.
Watch or read my contribution to the debate here: http://dbrockmp.scot/my-blogs/full-speech-from-northern-ireland-abortion-debate
Windrush is not some isolated case, and it is not an aberration or a deviation from the norm. It fits right into the institutional racism of this place.Deidre Brock MP
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