HL Deb 11 February 1987 vol 484 cc710-6

7.20 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Birmingham

My Lords, I beg to move, That the Order of Commitment of 28th January last be discharged and that the Bill be committed to a Select Committee.

I have never moved a Motion with such reluctance. I hope that your Lordships will understand if I speak with deep feeling and a heavy heart. Noble Lords will recollect that when the Bill was read a second time on 28th January the debate lasted some hours. I thought that it had passed its first hurdle, as indeed did other noble Lords from the reports of the debate which I read afterwards. Of course quite a few noble Lords were opposed to the Bill. That was only to be expected. However, the noble Lord, Lord Beaverbrook, told us that the Government supported it and he commended it to the House. There was not a large number of noble Lords who waited until the Division—72 voted—but then it did not take place until half-past 11. The Bill was then passed by a majority of about 14 per cent. I know that The Times described this as scraping through, but that is the kind of remark which we expect nowadays from The Times in describing such a majority.

I was confidently expecting to steer the Bill through a Committee of the whole House tonight. However, I should obviously have taken more note of the closing remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby. He said, and I quote his words from the Official Report of 28th January, at col. 1450: If this Bill gets a Second Reading we shall have to fight all along the line". He went on to say, There is a long, bitter trail ahead if this Bill gets a Second Reading". I should have realised that the noble Lord is indeed a man of his word. I have been advised that this House would witness what I think are called in some places filibusters night after night. The noble Lord was kind enough to say that the House would have to listen to remarks that I would make in Committee ad nauseam. On the contrary, I think that the House would have had to listen to remarks ad nauseam by the noble Lord and others with him.

I am advised that there would be amendment after amendment. I am advised that the business of this House would have been seriously disrupted by these proceedings. I am advised that the staff of the House would have been kept on duty until very late hours. I am advised that noble Lords would have been in similar straits. This would have been contrary to the traditions of your Lordships' House. I felt that I could not do that to noble Lords. Accordingly, after taking soundings through the usual channels and being advised to move the Motion which is before your Lordships' House, with great reluctance I agreed to do so.

I feel that I ought to put before the House the reasons for this reluctance. The first is personal. If a Bill of this kind ever returns to the House it will not be mine. For personal reasons—into which I shall not enter here—I am resigning my See on 1st April and from that date I cease to be a Member of your Lordships' House. I have no right even to appear before the Select Committee which I am asking noble Lords to set up.

Despite a clear majority in the Division, despite the promise of government support, I have been successfully pressed into killing my Bill, which is so close to my heart. I feel it all the more as I now have evidence in my support as a result of a special computer programme at the Office of Population, Censuses and Surveys which I suppose might reach the Select Committee. This may be politics but I confess I am surprised to see it in this House.

Secondly, this Bill will be delayed, perhaps fatally. This means that hundreds of babies will be killed at a time when they would be capable of being born alive. In 1985 there were 494 abortions of 24 weeks and over, so the OPCS informs me, and, in the first nine months of last year, 196.

I cannot anticipate the findings of the Select Committee. But if it recommends that the Bill proceeds there will not be much time in this Session to send it, or a similar Bill, to be considered in another place. In any case, a dissolution of Parliament would bring the Select Committee to an end unless it was reconstituted. I moved the Bill because I believed that it could become law, but the Motion which I am being pressed to move makes that less likely unless somebody else decides to re-introduce it.

The third reason for my reluctance in moving this Motion is that I am committed to the democratic process and I greatly regret that a Bill passed at Second Reading by a clear majority and supported by the Government cannot proceed along what most people would think of as normal democratic lines. It is only with great reluctance that I give precedence to the parliamentary convenience of your Lordships' House.

However, I see the argument on the other side. Indeed, it has won my agreement. This Bill seems to have given rise to considerable emotional disturbance on the part of certain persons. I can see that it would be best to get it off the Floor of the House rather than to create the bitterness and inconvenience of acrimonious exchanges night after night—and if I may judge from the language of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, on Second Reading as I find it in the Official Report, these are indeed likely to be acrimonious.

I hope that noble Lords will bear with me for I am nearly done—and indeed I am nearly done with speaking in this House. The Times informed its readers that I am trying to save this Bill by sending it to a Select Committee. I am doing nothing of the kind. I like a fair fight whether I win or lose. Concerning this Bill and the amendments, I would give blow for blow, because I believe in the Bill and I care about the babies that will be killed when they could be born alive. My reason for moving the Motion which stands upon the Order Paper is this, and this alone: the convenience of your Lordships' House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Order of Commitment of 28th January last be discharged and that the Bill be committed to a Select Committee.—(The Lord Bishop of Birmingham.)

7.30 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I shall not respond either to the tone or to the contents of the speech of the right reverend Prelate. This is not the moment for further acrimony or controversy. This is the moment for conciliation and an effort to have the Bill examined as closely as it requires—and it does require that—in a Select Committee of your Lordships' House.

Referral to the Select Committee does not kill the Bill. It is not going to the mortuary. It is going to the clinic. When we have heard the evidence about its condition and we have deliberated about the remedies, after a few transplants it may emerge a fit and proper Bill for the approval of your Lordships' House. It may be a candidate for popular approval too. That is not unheard of.

I wish the right reverend Prelate had studied the record of the Private Member's Bill introduced by the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, on animal experimentation and the setting up of a Select Committee of this House to study the controversy surrounding that painful and emotional subject. The right reverend Prelate would have realised that it would have been better had he proposed at the very outset—after the Second Reading—that the Bill should go to a Select Committee for examination and report.

We do not have Standing Committees upstairs which are a little away from publicity and public gaze. All our Committee stages are on the Floor of the House almost without exception. The right reverend Prelate must surely understand that as parliamentarians we follow procedures at times which ensure that a Bill with which we disagree receives the examination and the scrutiny that we think it ought to have. That is not a filibuster. The amendments which are put forward are not a filibuster. The amendments have been put forward to enable the right reverend Prelate to grasp more readily the full implications of what he is doing.

The right reverend Prelate was certainly unaware when he proposed the Bill of the controversy that he would arouse, and the implications of any attempt to amend the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929. That Act has been lying moribund for years. This Bill stirs up a good deal of discontent with its provisions which has probably been muted because the Act has been so little used. We have a focus on an Act of Parliament which for 30 years has been ineffectual, which has not resulted in a single successful prosecution throughout that time, and which the right reverend Prelate's Bill proposes shall stand guard over the new dispensation.

It will be no more successful now than it has been over the years of its existence. In any case, it represents a remedy for a narrow margin of behaviour for which the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861 did not provide, nor did the law of murder. The Act of 1929 was an attempt to bridge the gap between those two.

To apply it now with the Abortion Act in operation raises much wider issues. The Act of 1929 would no longer be dealing with the miseries of servant girls and others who at that time were denied abortions, who could not obtain any lawful relief from their pregnant condition and who were ultimately driven to strangle their children at birth. That is what the 1929 Act was intended to stop and to make a criminal offence. It is not suitable legislation upon which to build the modern approach to this difficult problem.

I am sorry that the right reverend Prelate has not taken the opportunity of making a wise and gracious speech in support of his own Motion. He should not have forgone that opportunity merely in order to make an attack on me. I am sad about his disappointment and I quite understand how frustrated he must feel. However, he must be a realist. Those who introduce into your Lordships' House Private Member's Bills which are full of difficulty, controversy and contention, cannot expect those Bills to have a smooth passage no matter how simple they may appear to be on the surface.

All reasonable people will see that the Bill leaves many questions unanswered. If the right reverend Prelate wishes to know what some of the questions are, I ask him to study the guidelines on late abortion given by the British Medical Association to its members. He will then see the problem and that this Bill would be no solution to it.

I believe that we must persevere to try to reconcile what I would call the absolutist point of view on the one hand, and the humanist point of view on the other hand. Some reconciliation will have to be found if we are to have any stability in the work which is going on at present in hospitals, in perfectly good faith and in circumstances which those concerned feel fully justify what they do. I hope that the House will pass this Motion in a better spirit than that in which it has been introduced and with a resolve to do our best in the Select Committee.

I believe that the Government have been extremely maladroit about the Bill. We had a shocking performance from the Front Bench opposite at the end of the debate. The whole of the debate went on with the noble Lord, Lord Beaverbrook, sitting on a brief which he was going to plunge upon the House right at the end of the debate. That was unfair to us and if there is any procedure committee to look into that matter it should study the need for the House to be more fully acquainted at an earlier stage in a debate and not be left in ignorance right to the end and then be faced with an entirely new situation.

However, I have no ill feelings about this matter. I have done a great deal in this field over many years in the hope of saving a great many people a lot of misery through the operation of the existing law. I hope that we can accept the right reverend Prelate's Motion, understand his frame of mind, forgive him for making me the scapegoat of his discontent and get on with the business of the Select Committee. He may feel that up to this point he has achieved a considerable amount of progress. There is no need for him to be gloomy and disappointed about the matter. Attention has been focused on this difficult problem and he has been instrumental in that. It is now in the hands of the wise council of your Lordships' House. All that is an achievement; it is something that has never before been accomplished in Parliament. We are possibly on the way to solving something which needs to be solved in a conciliatory and common-sense way.

I therefore warmly support the right reverend Prelate's Motion. I hope that he will feel, after the Select Committee commences its work, that his achievement has not been lost and his endeavour has not been entirely in vain.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, as a contribution to emollience, let me say that the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, and I are a rather eccentric pair of sparring partners. We can each tear strips off one another at Second Reading and then collaborate harmoniously in a Select Committee.

The noble Lord referred to my laboratory animals protection Bill and the Select Committee to which it was referred. I should tell your Lordships that it was on the advice of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, that I moved its reference to a Select Committee, and I was immensely grateful for that piece of good advice.

Looking back to the Second Reading debate, statistics were being flung across the Floor of the House from different lobbies. All were in disagreement with one another and all required very close critical analysis. The task of doing that is quite beyond a Committee of the Whole House. I believe that the Bill is one that should be referred to a Select Committee of the House.

I remind your Lordships that, having set up a Select Committee, we shall have an expert adviser probably on the embryological and gynaecological aspects and another expert adviser on the legal aspects and the draftsmanship. We shall be able to invite the public to give evidence and although one member of the public will, alas, no longer be the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham, he will still be the right reverend Hugh Montefiore. I am perfectly certain that he will be one of the witnesses asked to give evidence.

I support the Motion and I hope that it will commend itself to your Lordships' House.

Lord Henderson of Brompton

My Lords, I should like to say a brief word about the Motion. The right reverend Prelate said that he moved the Motion with deep feeling and a heavy heart. I should like to say that I support the Motion with deep feeling and a sigh of relief. I say "a sigh of relief" because this is the very course which I recommended during Second Reading. I do not often quote my own words, but at col. 1427 of Hansard on 28th January this year, I said that if the abortion settlement of 1967 was to be disturbed: nothing should be done without careful consideration by a committee. I am perhaps biased but I should prefer a parliamentary committee". That is exactly what is being proposed by virtue of the right reverend Prelate's Motion and with the good offices of the noble Viscount, the Leader of the House, to whom we should all be extremely grateful that this happy outcome has been arrived at. While talking about the Select Committee, I should like to mention to the right reverend Prelate that although unhappily he ceases to be a Member of your Lordships' House on his retirement in April, he will most certainly be able to give evidence before the Select Committee, if he so chooses. I think he was under a slight misapprehension when in his opening speech he said that he thought he should not be able to do even that.

I should like to say that this is not being referred to a Select Committee for what the right reverend Prelate rather bitterly called "parliamentary convenience". It is not for that reason. It is for the reasons referred to by the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury. I hope I do not embarrass the noble Earl by agreeing with him. It is in a Select Committee that those who are for, against and neutral can come to talk in a civilised manner on a subject which is highly contentious. They can hear the expert evidence which is so necessary for that Committee to hear, notably from the medical and legal professions. For those reasons, I very much support the right reverend Prelate's Bill. Although I should like to have seen him returning "blow for blow" in a Committee of the Whole House, as the medieval prelates used to go into battle with a mace, we shall have to deny ourselves that pleasure. I am very happy to support his Motion.

Lord Silkin of Dulwich

My Lords, I support the Motion which has been moved by the right reverend Prelate. In doing so, I too should like to thank the noble Viscount the Leader of the House for the very good sense of his intervention in this matter. He is always emollient, and I hope more so than ever on this occasion.

The position is very clear. We have a highly controversial matter which could be dealt with by Standing Committee and Report procedure, almost inevitably late at night, and squeezed into what time can be made available for it. That is not the best way of handling a matter of this kind. The alternative is the Select Committee procedure which I should have hoped the right reverend Prelate would agree is more apt for discussion of a subject which has historical, moral and difficult legal and medical aspects upon which the House will wish to be advised by experts who are able to give authoritative views.

As my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby has reminded the House, the Act which it is sought to amend has hardly ever in practice been used. I understand that in the past 30 years or so there has been no successful prosecution upon it. The Act has now stood on the statute book since 1929 and only now is the first attempt being made to alter it. In those circumstances, I hope that the right reverend Prelate will not feel that those who have made the suggestion to which he is now acceding have been either unrealistic or unfair. Certainly, I am convinced that this is the best method of dealing with an extremely difficult subject.

Lord Beaverbrook

My Lords, the Bill introduced by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham and to which your Lordships gave a Second Reading on 28th January, is in itself a straightforward measure. It is short and simple in form; and the right reverend Prelate explained that it was designed solely to take account of scientific advances which have taken place since the 1929 Act was introduced, as recorded in the report of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. These advances apparently have the result that babies are capable of survival at a significantly lower gestational age than when the Act was passed. On that basis, as I indicated during the debate on the Second Reading, the Government have accepted the case for the change to the law proposed in the right reverend Prelate's Bill, which would complement the action already taken to reduce the maximum gestational age for abortion to 24 weeks.

We recognise, however, that behind the findings in the Royal College's report and the simple provisions of the Bill there lie issues of greater complexity concerning the interaction of the Infant Life (Preservation) Act, the Offences against the Person Act and the Abortion Act; and that the impact of the proposed change on the latter, in particular, is a matter upon which differing views are strongly and sincerely held. This was evident from the Second Reading debate. Accordingly, the Government agree that it would be wise for the Bill to be committed to a Select Committee, as moved by the right reverend Prelate, so that there can be full examination and discussion of the issues.

The Lord Bishop of Birmingham

My Lords, I have listened with close attention to the noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. I have appreciated the moderation with which they have spoken. When I informed your Lordships' House about the consequences of continuing with the Bill, I was only reporting to the House the advice which I had received, and I phrased my words in that form. If anything good can come from this Motion, no one will be more delighted than I.

On Question, Motion agreed to, and Bill committed to a Select Committee accordingly.