The Constitution Committee has spoken out against the Government’s fast-tracking of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill, which was hijacked on Tuesday by pro-abortion MPs.
Concern about tracking NI legislation
The Lords Select Committee, which examines all Public Bills for constitutional implications and investigates broad constitutional issues, said in a report released yesterday that it regrets the Government’s decision to fast-track this bill, and warned that it is ‘constitutionally unacceptable’ for legislation relating to Northern Ireland to be fast-tracked save for the most exceptional and urgent circumstances, of which this is not.
The report concludes: “We reiterate our concern about the routine nature of fast-tracking legislation relating to Northern Ireland. It is constitutionally unacceptable save for exceptional and urgent circumstances. Given this will be the fourth (and potentially fifth) extension of the period for forming an Executive, and the lack of progress in the cross-party talks, it can hardly be argued that the need for this legislation was not foreseeable and that it could not have been introduced earlier and proceeded with less haste.”
The report comes as more questions are being asked about the unprecedented and unparliamentary measures that were adopted to table amendments seeking to force abortion and same-sex marriage on Northern Ireland.
At the start of the second reading of the debate in the House of Lords yesterday evening, the Government minister, Lord Duncan of Springbank was forced to admit that “the amendments as drafted do not function properly, and so do not enable the Government to deliver on the instruction of Parliament.”
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Extraordinarily, however, he said just before the debate, he had met with Stella Creasy (who tabled the abortion amendment) and Conor McGinn (who tabled the same-sex marriage amendment), along with representatives of the Labour party, to discuss how to implement the changes. He said: “We are actively considering how we can take this matter forward, reflecting as we are upon the wider considerations from the other House, to ensure the amendments are workable, recognising the clear message which we have received from the other place. We need to ensure that we do not end up with defective laws, which would not serve the interests of the people of Northern Ireland”.
He could not give a satisfactory answer to Lord Alton’s question of: “If these amendments, which were known about only as recently as last Thursday, are defective, why is it now the Government’s job to sort that out, when these were not government proposals in the first place?”
Fast-tracked and out of scope
A majority of the Lords debating the bill denounced the amendments on moral or procedural grounds. Lord Brown of Belmont and Baroness O’Loan both referenced the Constitution Committee’s report. Several peers noted that the amendments should never have been selected because they were not related to the subject of the bill. Lord Browne summed up the situation when he said:
“I might add that those constitutional due process concerns have been greatly compounded by dispensing with the rule about scope in the other place yesterday. That means that the amendments that now constitute Clauses 8 and 9 of the Bill were ruled out of scope by the clerks. That in itself is hugely concerning because it means that we undermine our rules-based approach to law-making. However, the immediate implications of the jettisoning of scope feed back into, and massively compound, the problems of fast-tracking. They mean that two huge, highly controversial social issues have been added to the Bill, massively widening its remit, but without changing the fact that the Bill is still being introduced via the shoddy first-tracking procedure. It is bad enough to subject us to fast-tracking. To compound the problems by also jettisoning scope is to make the problem of fast-tracking far more serious and to treat Northern Ireland with total contempt.”
“wholly, totally and utterly unacceptable”
Many of the Lords also furiously denounced the attack on devolution that the amendments constitute. Lord Morrow said:
“It is extremely difficult for me to convey the distress in Northern Ireland this morning following the changes made to this Bill on abortion and same-sex marriage in the other place yesterday. Even if you support changes in those two areas and are a fanatical fan of them, the manner in which many Members of the other place who do not represent Northern Ireland—I suspect many have never been there in their lives and have no plans ever to go there—took it upon themselves to try to change the law in these two areas is wholly, totally and utterly unacceptable. Whatever one thinks of these matters, they are colossal issues in Northern Ireland. Do not underestimate them or the impact that this will have.”
“There is no human right to kill unborn babies.”
Baroness O’Loan, the former Police Ombudsman, gave perhaps the most passionate speech of the evening, saying that what happened in the Commons was “reminiscent of colonial days”.
She also summed up what is at stake: “I have no doubt that the ultimate purpose of these amendments is to change Northern Ireland and UK law by decriminalising abortion. I know that many of your Lordships will have a different view on abortion from me, and I accept that, but that is not actually the point today. Clause 9 would mean that abortion would cease to be subject to any penalty in all circumstances. That means that any baby, at any stage of gestation, right up to birth, could be aborted without penalty…There is no human right to kill unborn babies.”
SPUC is asking supporters to write to peers asking them to oppose this measure.