HL Deb 22 July 1987 vol 488 cc1454-6

7.39 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The Bill is an exact duplicate of that given a Second Reading in your Lordships' House on 28th January 1987. The sponsor of that Bill was the then Bishop of Birmingham who has since retired and is no longer a Member of this House. The Bill was referred to a Select Committee on 11th February and the Select Committee, under the distinguished and wise chairmanship of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, began its work in March. We were well advanced in our task, had heard many witnesses and had received a great deal of evidence when the dissolution of Parliament put the whole thing to an end.

The Select Committee is automatically disbanded and the Bill falls when Parliament is dissolved. On such an occasion most of the work in progress lapses. If it is to be revived then a special step is necessary. I am taking that step tonight.

It would be a great shame if the work in progress in the Select Committee at the time of the dissolution of Parliament was cast aside. The problem committed to it is still a live and controversial issue arousing deep emotions and will no doubt come before your Lordships' House or another place if matters are left as they are. Therefore, I am impressed with the need for the work of the Select Committee to be revived. It should be enabled to finish its job and report to the House. The Bill is an indispensable condition of doing so under the procedures which are most convenient to secure the end in view

Noble Lords may ask why I, a strong opponent of the Bill earlier, should be moving that the Bill be now read a second time. The answer is quite simple. Whether I was for or against the Bill last January is immaterial tonight. I am convinced that the Bill should be given a Second Reading solely for the purpose of enabling commitment of the Bill again to a Select Committee in order that the work started may be continued and completed. That is the case for the Second Reading of the Bill.

In this House when we take up a matter and deal with it as thoroughly and conscientiously as we have done in this case (and as we always do with matters referred to Select Committees) and it then lapses through the accident of parliamentary affairs, we owe it to ourselves and the public particularly—with such a difficult and sensitive cause—to discharge the duty and give the Bill a Second Reading.

If I were to say I have undertaken this task almost by accident, that would be almost the truth. I have been interested in the recommittal of the Bill to a Select Committee ever since dissolution. The Select Committee was doing an important job and having started on the matter it should be allowed to continue. I was inquiring what steps had to be taken, and who had to take them, in order to get the Bill read a second time and for the Select Committee to commence again. I was told that it was necessary, being a Private Member's Bill, for a private Member to do it. Also if the Bill was to be introduced in time for the Second Reading to be over before the beginning of the Recess I was told there was one hour to put the Bill down for First Reading the following day. That happened on 8th July. On 9th July the Bill was given its First Reading, and I had no time to consult anybody.

As one of the principal opponents of the Bill earlier, I thought I was probably as well qualified as anyone to move the Second Reading for the purpose in mind tonight. I had qualms about it the day after I decided to do it, but everybody fully understands that this is a procedural motion which takes the form of giving the Bill another Second Reading.

I hope that the Bill will be received in that spirit and that the record will contain the explanation of why I stand here in this unusual situation. I am not attempting to wear the mantle of the then Bishop of Birmingham, which I would never dream of trying on for size or appearance. I am doing this only for severely practical reasons. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Houghton of Sowerby.)

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, has explained the reason why he has introduced this Bill, which is identical to that introduced in the previous Parliament by the then Bishop of Birmingham. In the circumstances your Lordships will expect me to be brief.

The Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 makes it an offence to destroy the life of a child capable of being born alive before it has an existence independent of its mother unless this is done in good faith to preserve the mother's life. If at a trial for this offence the prosecution prove beyond reasonable doubt that the woman was pregnant for 28 or more weeks, this is prima facie proof that she was carrying a child capable of being born alive. As presently drafted this Bill would reduce this period from 28 to 24 weeks.

This proposal is based on a recommendation contained in a report by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists which we received in 1985. That report recommended that the gestational age after which a foetus is considered as viable should be changed from 28 to 24 weeks. So far this advice has been implemented by administrative action. In England and Wales abortions may lawfully be carried out only in NHS hospitals or in hospitals approved by the Secretary of State. In practice clinicians now apply a 24-week limit. In the private sector my right honourable friend has made it a condition of approval of the limited number of hospitals permitted to carry out late abortions that they will not permit terminations after 24 weeks. As my noble friend Lord Beaverbrook explained in the last Parliament, this Bill would carry through the change into the law and we would not oppose a change in the 1929 Act to reflect existing medical practice.

Your Lordships then decided that the best way to proceed was to refer the Bill to a Select Committee. The committee had time only to hold seven meetings before the Dissolution prematurely ended their work. Even so I am sure that your Lordships are grateful to the committee and to its chairman, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, for the careful and detailed consideration they were able to give to this important subject in the short time available to them. I think their special report is a valuable contribution both to our debate and to the wider public debate on this issue. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, that there is advantage in a Select Committee of your Lordships' House completing the work so ably begun by the previous committee. Our views on the Bill before your Lordships may differ slightly from those of the noble Lord who introduced it; but we are agreed on what its immediate fate should be.

Therefore, I am happy to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, and urge your Lordships to give the Bill a Second Reading and then agree to the Motion in his name to refer it to a Select Committee.

On Question, Bill read a second time.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I beg to move, That the Bill be committed to a Select Committee.

Moved, That the Bill be committed to a Select Committee.

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