HL Deb 21 February 1990 vol 516 cc352-79

8.3 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee. —(Lord Houghton of Sowerby.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD ALPORT in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Grounds for medical termination of pregnancy]:

Viscount Buckmaster moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1, line 9, leave out ["two") and insert ("three").

The noble Viscount said: In moving this amendment I wish also to speak to Amendments Nos. 3 and 4. This is essentially a probing amendment. It is based on my view and the view of many others that abortion, particularly late abortion, is abhorrent. I took this line at Second Reading. Is it not horrible that England has now become the abortion capital of Europe? It is especially the social abortions that I and many others find so repulsive.

One of the most moving moments of my life was at the Albert Hall in 1987 during David Alton's presentation. We saw 2i million paper darts released from the ceiling and falling to the ground, each one representing a fetus which had been aborted since 1967. The figure is now some 3 million. While I concede that many of those fetuses would have been aborted for medical reasons, many among them would have been aborted for convenience sake. How many of those fetuses might have become lawyers, doctors, musicians, statesmen, and how many of these lives might have been saved if three doctors had had to approve the abortion rather than two?

It goes without saying that the later the abortion the more traumatic it becomes for the fetus, the mother and the medical staff. The pain suffered by the fetus during abortion was discussed at some length at Second Reading but little was said about the mother. Perhaps I may briefly quote from a letter written to David Alton which indicates that the mother suffered terrible trauma. The letter says: I will always remember the young nurse who was given a parcel to take to the incinerator. On the way it whimpered. She returned, and gave in her notice there and then. We are chasing away the most caring nurses because they cannot take this destruction".

I should also draw attention to the speech at Second Reading of the noble Lord, Lord McColl, who spoke so movingly about the horror experienced by many of the doctors and nurses involved in late abortions.

The Bill lays down in Clause 1 that two doctors must certify that the termination of pregnancy, however late, is necessary in the interests of the mother or the child. But is "two" the right number for a decision of this magnitude? I have heard that it is often possible to get two doctors to collude in approving an abortion. The addition of one to this number would in my view and in the view of several others to whom I have spoken seem likely to reduce the possibility of collusion. Perhaps I may suggest that of these three doctors, one should be a consultant, one an abortion expert and the other the family doctor. This is to my mind a very grave decision. I hope that the Committee will discuss this matter in the serious way in which it should be discussed. I beg to move.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

I hope that the noble Viscount will not press the amendment. I should like to point out one or two difficulties about it. The amendment applies only to the post 24-week cases. That is its effect. If this were carried, we should have two doctors for a gestational period up to 24 weeks and three doctors afterwards. One can imagine the borderline problems which would be aggravated by that provision. The question will be asked, "Are you a three-doctor woman or a two-doctor woman?" We all know that in any event doctors allow an error margin of two weeks. This would mean that there would have to be a third doctor in the anteroom waiting to be called in if it was decided that the woman had passed the 24th week.

There is another side to this. All inquiries into the cause of late abortions have mentioned the delays caused by getting through the system. Already it is difficult to get together two doctors to listen to what are very often heart-rending stories of a woman who is to receive the abortion. If there were three doctors to get together, they never would get together. I believe that this amendment would cause delays to occur within the administration. That is not what the noble Viscount wants.

I can see the point behind this. The noble Viscount is looking for some reinforcement of the stiffer conditions which are provided for in the Bill. However, this is not the way to do it. Indeed the Bill contains words to emphasise the nature of the new criteria. As I said on Second Reading, when we legislate words must mean something. They must mean the construction which is usually put upon them. Therefore when we say that it is "essential" that an abortion shall be needful on certain grounds, the law means "essential". Doctors concerned should understand that it means "essential" and not just "desirable".

I believe that all in all we could not possibly accept this amendment in Committee. It would create more difficulties than it would remove.

Lord Winstanley

In opposing the amendment moved by the noble Viscount I should like to ask him to acknowledge, which he did not do in his opening speech, that many of those in favour of this Bill and many of those in favour of the original 1967 Act—and I was a sponsor of that Act—are just as much opposed to abortion as is the noble Viscount. I hope that he will acknowledge that.

It is not that we believe in abortion. We merely believe that there are circumstances in which the termination of a pregnancy is the only proper and correct procedure in the interests of the patient, the family and society as a whole. However, we regard it is a regrettable procedure but one which is periodically necessary. I hope that the noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, will acknowledge that we are not all pro-abortionists for a moment but we recognise that abortion takes place.

When I was working at a hospital in Salford at one time I had control of a ward of 30 women. That ward consisted entirely of patients suffering from septic abortions—illegal abortions. The consequences of illegal backstreet abortions were tragic and I saw many of them. I am happy to say that, partly as a result of the 1967 Act and these new practices, wards such as that no longer exist. Therefore, it really is a dream to believe that abortions would not take place but for this legislation. There would be more illegal abortions and we should go back to the kind of tragedies with which I had to wrestle as a young doctor.

The noble Viscount has specified that there should be three rather than two doctors. It is difficult to say why three should be better than two. He went on to say that one should be a consultant, one a general practitioner and the other plucked out of the air somehow, and I am not quite sure by what means. However, I believe that Members of the Committee should be aware of what happens at present. The usual practice is for one doctor to be the patient's family doctor who knows the patient, the patient's family and the circumstances, and the other is usually a reputable consultant of the particular specialty relating to the patient's condition. That seems to me to be wholly admirable. To bring in a third party who has no direct contact with the patient or the patient's family—and it is unlikely that there would be a third doctor who had that contact—would be inadvisable in every way and would not provide a greater safeguard.

I oppose this amendment. I do not believe that it helps in any way. I do not even believe that it helps the position which the noble Viscount takes up. I hope that this Committee will not accept the amendment.

8.15 p.m.

Lord Monson

Although my views on the availability of abortion are very much closer to those of the noble Lords, Lord Houghton of Sowerby and Lord Winstanley, than those of my noble friend Lord Buckmaster, I have some sympathy with his amendment, in principle at any rate.

I did not take part in the debates on the 1967 Act because I was far too much of a new boy for that. However, I seem to remember—and the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, will correct me if I am wrong—that when the Bill emerged from the House of Commons to come to this House there was some sort of tacit compromise or agreement to the effect that precautions should be taken to ensure that the two doctors whose approval was necessary before abortion could take place should not act in collusion in any way.

However, the Bill was rushed through this House in enormous haste. I believe it was shortly before the Recess. I seem to remember that the Third Reading took place at 2 o'clock in the morning, which is not the best time of day for getting things right.

Lord Ennals

That Bill went through this House two years before the 1969 General Election. It was not rushed through this House at all unless your Lordships wished it to be so.

Lord Monson

I think that I am right in saying that the Bill was rushed through because it was shortly before the Recess or something of that nature. However, the Third Reading did take place in the small hours of the morning. In any event, for whatever reason, the precaution about the two doctors not being in collusion was not written into the Bill. That is the point.

There is a problem as regards the drafting of the amendment as was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. The fact that it refers only to abortions taking place after 24 weeks is a snag in itself. Therefore, my noble friend might think it worthwhile not to press this amendment this evening but to come back with an amendment at the next stage to ensure that the good practice to which the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, referred —that is, that the two doctors concerned should not be in the same partnership or group practice —is written into statute. That seems to me to be the right way to go about it. It will ensure that what is normally good practice is confirmed in statute. That is the way to go about this matter and not to stipulate a minimum of three doctors.

Lord Ennals

I was not able to take part in the debates in 1967 because I was a Minister at the time. However, I gave my personal support to Mr. David Steel. When I became a Minister of State and later Secretary of State for Health I thought that it was the responsibility of the Secretary of State to see that the legislation was administered as fairly as possible.

I absolutely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, that before that legislation we had a chaotic situation. It was absolutely disgraceful. On Second Reading I referred to what was going on in back streets and the hardship and cruelty that women, who were sometimes young and ignorant, suffered from a situation which they did not understand. It was deplorable. As the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, said, it is not that we are pro-abortionists. We would all like to see the avoidance of abortion by all sorts of methods. However, the technique of having two doctors is very widely known in legislation. For example, it applies to all sorts of provisions in the Mental Health Act where there needs to be two voices, one not tied to the other. However, doctors are very busy people and to produce three would create a real difficulty.

I suspect that in proposing this amendment the noble Viscount would really like 13 or even 300 doctors because he is opposed to the whole concept of abortion. If he wishes to carry that through, then he should propose a more substantial amendment. I believe that this is a silly way to deal with the matter and I do not believe that it would help at all.

Lord Rea

I should like to re-emphasise the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, that this would actually delay the abortion so that a woman who wanted to have her abortion at, say, 23 weeks might find it takes her a week or so more to find three doctors. She would then be in a more dangerous situation.

Abortion is now very safe when it is carried out very early, preferably before three months. I know that this Bill concerns abortions after 24 weeks; but the point should be emphasised that the amendment would add to the time before the woman was able to obtain an abortion, particularly in some parts of the country where it is difficult to get even two doctors together to perform a National Health Service abortion. As well as delaying the time of abortion, it would actually push the unfortunate woman into the private sector, even though she wished to have an abortion under the National Health Service.

Lord McGregor of Durris

I should like to underline the point about administrative delay made by the noble Lords, Lord Rea, and Lord Houghton. In a dozen or so years' experience as president of the National Council for One Parent Families I have been concerned with what may be the most tragic group of girls who suffer the regrettable consequences —as my noble friend Lord Winstanley described them —of abortion; the very young, the 15, 16 and 17 year-olds.

Those instances raise the most horrifying implications for the girls, their families and for society generally. The Select Committee of your Lordships' House received considerable evidence that administrative delays to abortions were one consequence of the operations of the National Health Service. We were repeatedly told that, and it was given as one reason for late abortions, which we all know are to be avoided at all costs. We should set the very proper desire of the noble Viscount to promote stiffening of the conditions contained in the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, against the fact that requiring three doctors instead of two must inevitably add greatly to the delays within the system. For that reason, and for the other reasons given, I wish to oppose the amendment.

Baroness Jeger

I feel like a stranger in this masculine Chamber when we are talking of women and their problems. There seems to be a minimal number of women who can put something of their ideas into this Bill.

I want to say briefly that as a doctor's wife, when we ran a practice in the East End, there were two groups of women who needed to come for late abortions. The first group were middle-aged women who had five or six children, whose husbands were unemployed. The women came to our surgery and said, in their own words, "Doctor, I thought I was just not getting it on the change, but now I think I am, falling on the change". There would be a pregnant woman in her late 40s who had already brought up a family and who could not face a situation where she had to deal with a new child.

I vividly remember one of these cases when my husband had to tell a woman that she was pregnant and that it was not just the change. He could not help her because this was before the act sponsored by David Steel. She went home, did something terrible to herself and she died. The result was that these children were motherless and the unemployed father had no wife. I do not know what good that did to anybody. I shall never forget that situation.

I shall also never forget a situation which occurred when a woman in a similar circumstance came to our East End surgery at Shoreditch. My husband had to tell her that he could not help her. Later, the police came. They said, "This woman, your patient, was admitted to hospital and died last night. You sent her in so we will charge you with septicaemia and abortion". My husband could only say that if she had been his patient she would not have died of septicaemia. It was an awful situation for us in this poor little surgery in the East End having policemen coming in and saying "Did you do this, and did you do that?" That made it absolutely vital for us to feel that the law was wrong. Unfortunately, it was not until a long time later that things changed. It was because of those many experiences that I was so supportive of the David Steel legislation.

Reading all that has happened about the reports in Romania, of the ghastly results of the abortion restrictions and the restrictions on family planning, I believe that we must take a new view of these things. As I seem to be one of the few women speaking tonight, perhaps I may say in regard to the period of 24 weeks—whatever it may be—that women know how to get around that. We do not tell a doctor when we last "saw", as we used to say in Shoreditch. It may have been last week or the week before. I do not think there are many doctors who will say to a woman —and certainly could not have said to me—"You are 20 weeks" or "You are 22 weeks pregnant and can therefore have an abortion this week but you cannot have it next week".

The whole situation is stupid. What we really need to do is improve our family planning provisions and try to make it less possible for women to want a termination of a pregnancy. There is nothing more traumatic for a woman than to have a termination of pregnancy. Let us try to work out what the reasons are for a woman wanting a termination of her pregnancy. They are very complicated and very difficult. I have great respect for my noble friend Lord Houghton, but the only answer in what we are trying to do tonight is to improve family planning. Where there is a disaster, we should be compassionate and helpful for any woman who is in a situation where she feels it is impossible to go ahead with her pregnancy. This is something very personal and it is nothing which your masculine Lordships tonight can really make rules about.

8.30 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Henley)

I was not going to intervene on this amendment. I start by repeating, as I believe Members of the Government always do, our neutrality on the issue of abortion. I take the opportunity of repeating that again this evening. Perhaps I may pick up on one or two points, particularly those made by the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, and then developed by the noble Lord, Lord Rea, and the noble Lord, Lord McGregor.

Parliament has decided that abortions may be lawfully carried out in circumstances specified in the Abortion Act 1967. The Government have a duty to see that the provisions of the 1967 Act are properly applied until and unless Parliament chooses to change the law. Having said that and having repeated the Government's neutrality on that issue, as regards this amendment it would add another step to the process through which a pregnant woman, at an already emotional and distressing time, has to go when seeking the termination of her pregnancy.

The prospect of a third consultation might well deter some women from seeking medical advice even when they had valid grounds under the Act passed by Parliament in 1967. It is also likely to add to the delays which can occur in some areas of the country and may result in the termination being carried out at a later stage of gestation than would otherwise have been the case.

Viscount Buckmaster

I am grateful for the very fruitful exchange of views that we have had. In the circumstances I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Earl of Halsbury moved Amendment No. 2: Page 2, line 2, leave out ("its twenty-fourth week") and insert ("the specified period").

The noble Earl said: In moving this amendment, I shall, with the leave of the Committee, speak to all three amendments standing in my name and then move each of them serially in numerical order as they are called. They all stem from the very wise advice given to the House at Second Reading by my noble and learned friend Lord Brightman; namely, that in our own minds we should decouple the abortion issue from the fertility legislation issue though the Long Title of that Bill permitted us to couple them if it was our wish. I believe that we took that view. I have discussed the matter at some length with my noble and learned friend. His view still is that we should polish up both Bills with as much spit and polish as we can at the Committee and Report stages and then leave the other place to decide for itself, in the light of its own wisdom, whether to recouple them or not. It will be open to any honourable Member in the other place to move this Bill as an amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill when the time comes. I accept my noble and learned friend's advice.

For the purpose of our business this evening I consulted him in order to check the text of the Bill brought forward by my noble friend Lord Houghton. He is "my noble friend" for the purpose of this Bill, but not always on every occasion. We went over the Bill very carefully and he helped me with the drafting of these amendments. I am very grateful that my noble friend Lord Houghton supports these drafts.

Lord Ennals

I am very grateful to the noble Earl for giving way. Is he suggesting that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, actually agrees with the amendments that he is proposing? I am not quite certain of the drift of his argument.

The Earl of Halsbury

Yes, he certainly did agree. He was always helping me with a little spit and polish over the wording from time to time. I will come to that if the noble Lord will allow me to tell the story in my own way. We held a meeting of what I might call the survivors of the Brightman Committee. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, was in the chair and my noble friend Lord Houghton was present. I understand the noble Lord, Lord McGregor of Durris, was also present because I see him nodding. I was invited to be present and we went over the whole issue.

We debated one or two points and I withdrew one or two ideas that I put forward because they were not acceptable. They would stand in the way of unanimity. On Monday of this week I received a letter from my noble and learned friend saying that he had influenza and that it was rather doubtful that he would be able to attend the debate this evening and asking that I should convey his apologies to the Committee. I received a letter from his secretary this morning saying that he was in hospital and confirming that he would not be here this evening. I am sure that the Committee will be unanimous in accepting his apologies and in asking me to convey good wishes and hopes for a speedy recovery and a quick return to your Lordships' House which he embellishes so often.

The amendments stand in my name and they are three-fold. One of them is putting a little sandpaper over something which is rather dubious. The words, capable of being born alive", have been queried by many people on many occasions. So I have sought to insert, capable of being born alive and surviving to maturity with or without the aid of a life-support device". In a normal birth the first life-support device is to hold the child up by the ankles and to slap his bottom so that he takes his first breath. The next means of life support is at his mother's breast. If that is not possible, medical science may devise other means of keeping alive what in effect is a fetus, by feeding it through a tube or by attaching a heart device such as is used in heart surgery to keep the blood circulating. It may be that in due course and with the advance of medical science that may be possible. That is why I drafted the amendment to specify that the child should be, capable of being born alive and surviving to maturity with or without the aid of a life-support device". The next two amendments are concerned solely with taking this issue out of the way of confrontational manoeuvring and putting the responsibility for deciding whether the period should be 28 or 24 weeks where it belongs; namely, in the hands of the Secretary of State as suitably advised. That is the effect of the amendments.

The only difficulty I had in drafting the amendments was in deciding who were the people who ought to advise the Secretary of State on this matter. Once again, I am greatly indebted to my noble friend Lord Houghton, who came to my rescue. There are a very large number of medical bodies which conceivably might be asked and which might be affronted if they were not asked. On the other hand I wanted to keep the party small and select and not to have too long a list of people to consult. My noble friend suggested to me that I should specify the bodies which were represented in the 1985 Committee. That was referred to on Second Reading by the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, as reported in Hansard for 14th December 1989, col. 1497.

With that brief introduction to what I have in mind, I beg to move.

Lord Ennals

I greatly respect the noble Earl and I liked his way of explaining the matter. I am sorry that I intervened part of the way through his remarks. I share with him the deep regret that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, is unwell, for I am certain that he would have been with us today. I am speaking for myself, as I will if I get up again, and not for any of my colleagues.

I rise because I seriously doubt the widsom of the amendments being proposed, even though they have been discussed with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, and with my noble friend Lord Houghton, for whom I have the most profound respect. I admire what he did before 1967, during 1967, and since that year. He has shown a constancy on this issue which I believe is to be totally admired and appreciated.

I support this Bill, the whole Bill and nothing but the Bill. I have looked carefully through the report of the Select Committee and, though a number of noble Lords got together afterwards and had a cup of tea or a couple of drinks, that discussion was not reflected in the meetings of the Select Committee. It did not come forward with this recommendation. In fact it came up with the recommendation that my noble friend Lord Houghton has encapsulated in the Bill.

I believe that one of the merits of this very short Bill is that it does no more and no less than carry into legislation the recommendations of the Select Committee presided over by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman.

These amendments create new difficulties for us. I understand the wish of both noble Lords that this issue should not be one for annual debate or attempts through Private Members' Bills over successive years, as has been the case, not every year but probably in two out of every three years. I can understand that it would be nice to be rid of this. However, I do not believe this is the way, because I do not think that it will work.

For me these amendments create a profound difficulty. They require the Secretary of State to make a judgment. The amendments that have been tabled, and which I understand are supported by my noble friend Lord Houghton, set out a number of qualifications. Amendment No. 6 states: The 'specified period' means the period of 24 weeks or such lesser period as the Secretary of State shall from time to time by order determine for the purposes of this Act". I recognise that there may be medical evidence that leads one to say that perhaps 22 weeks is more appropriate than 24 weeks. It then states: the Secretary of State shall have regard to the period of pregnancy at which a child in utero is then generally considered to be capable of being born alive". A third qualification is that he will be required to consult with five professional bodies and, fourthly, if he wishes to make a change, it will require the approval of both Houses.

I have to say that it is the Secretary of State who is called upon to make a judgment. Speaking as one who held the office of Secretary of State for three years, it is not a responsibility which should be imposed upon him. To put it at its extreme—or it may not be very extreme—let us suppose that the Secretary of State is a Catholic. There is nothing wrong in having a Catholic Secretary of State. Of course not. Many of my best friends are Catholics. I know that the views that are expressed in this House and elsewhere by Catholics are based on their own deeply-held convictions, so I make no criticism of the fact that Catholics take a particular point of view in relation to abortion. But let us suppose that we have a Secretary of State who is a Catholic. First, what would be the reaction of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child? It would have achieved a victory; it would be delighted if this amendment were carried because it would then bring pressure to bear, not on Parliament but on whoever was the Secretary of State. If that Secretary of State were a Catholic he would be under the most profound pressure to act in a way that many of us might not think was fair, and I believe it would place an intolerable burden upon him. I do not think that that would be fair to him and I do not think that it would be wise.

The belief that that would avoid a controversy, that the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child would pack up its bags and go home and that Pro-Life would be heard no more, is not true. They wish to see the end of this legislation or a change in the legislation in a very major way. They will not give up the battle. They will simply change the target, and the target will be the Secretary of State and not Parliament. I do not think that that is right and fair to a Secretary of State or in the interests of Parliament. In my view, these decisions are so controversial that they should not be taken by the Secretary of State. For us to try to shift responsibility from Parliament to the Secretary of State would be quite wrong.

My advice is to take no risks. This is a very important Bill and I hope that it will be taken seriously in another place; but with this amendment it would be taken in a different way from that which is intended. I think it would be seen by those who oppose the current legislation, and who may even oppose this Bill, as being a victory.

That is not just my view. I am not saying that we should always accept the views of the BMA—by no means—but it is valid to say that I have a letter from the BMA dated 19th January. I quote: The BMA supports Lord Houghton's move to amend the Infant Life (Preservation) Act in order to lower the gestational age limit of viability from 28 weeks to 24 weeks. However, we have no mandate to support any variation of the 24 week limit and could not therefore support Lord Halsbury's amendment to the Bill. We believe that 24 weeks' gestation marks a physiological and anatomical boundary below which the lungs are not expected to function. Advances in clinical medicine have made it possible for a number of babies of 24–28 weeks gestation to be saved. So there is no support, as far as I can see, from the main representative bodies of the medical profession.

8.45 p.m.

The Earl of Halsbury

Will the noble Lord give way? I had a talk on the telephone this morning with the writer of that letter. I said, "I quite appreciate you have not got a mandate to support it, but have you got a mandate to oppose it?" She said, "No". In other words, what the noble Lord has been reading is really written in an entirely agnostic mood.

Lord Ennals

I put it on record that that is the advice that I have received from the BMA. I was interested to hear about the telephone conversation, but that cannot be read into the record because there are two sides to any telephone conversation. I simply read this into the record as the views of the BMA as we know them.

Baroness Jeger

If I may have permission to speak again, I should just like to say to my noble friend that he is talking absolute rubbish. I am the only woman speaking here, and I can tell him that none of us tells our doctors when we are 22 or 24 weeks. There is no way in which the many doctors whom I have loved and worked with will accept that a woman can be absolutely honest about when, as they used to say, she last "saw". I think it is stupid for us to be wasting time tonight on 22 or 24 weeks. A woman who wants termination of a pregnancy will get it, and the sooner Parliament recognises that the better.

Lord Winstanley

My first inclination was to support the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, and this group of amendments. It seemed to me that their inclusion in this Bill would marginally improve it in that it might help avoid the confrontational situations which arise from time to time as a result of Private Members' Bills in another place, or indeed in this place. It also seemed to me to make it possible for the statute as it stands to be varied in the light of recent medical discoveries and what was happening scientifically in the medical field without the necessity for new primary legislation.

I had some doubts when I saw the words in subsection (2D): The period of pregnancy at which a child in utero is then generally considered to be capable of being born alive". I thought that "generally considered" seemed to be rather vague. However, subsection (2E) states that before making such an order the Secretary of State should consult various people. It seemed to me that that prescribed it in such a way as not to allow a Secretary of State to make a wholly idiosyncratic personal decision on these matters. He would have to consider the factors outlined in this group of amendments. That was my first inclination.

I have listened very carefully to the words of the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, and I see certain dangers in giving powers of this kind to a Secretary of State, whoever he may be. It even seemed to me that there was the remote possibility, should there be some kind of convulsion in British politics, that my honourable friend Mr. David Alton might become the Secretary of State. On more mature reflection I have decided that the likelihood of that is not such that it should cause me undue anxiety at this moment.

I understand the point that one is in difficulties as one is giving great powers to an individual Secretary of State, but are they not hedged in with subsection (2E)? I do not think that a Secretary of State could make a wholly idiosyncratic decision on the basis of his own views. Were he to do so, surely that would be ultra vires.

Lord Ennals

Before the noble Lord sits down, I know what the views happen to be of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal Paediatric Association, the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal College of Midwives and the British Medical Association about the Government's NHS Bill. They are all opposed to it. But has the Secretary of State taken any notice of them? He is not required to do so.

Lord Winstanley

The noble Lord may know what the royal colleges' views are on the amendment at the moment. This is an amendment to provide for a change in circumstances from time to time in the light of changes in medical knowledge and practice. The noble Lord cannot possibly know what their view will be in the light of those changes.

Lord Ennals

The noble Lord misunderstood me. I know what their views are in relation to the NHS reorganisation Bill because those organisations have made their views clear, and the Secretary of State has taken no notice whatsoever.

Lord Winstanley

I am well aware that Secretaries of State are not always obliged to accept the advice which they are obliged to seek.

Lord Ennals

That is right. That is the point.

Lord Winstanley

I am not sufficiently naive not to know that. I know it. Nevertheless, I believe that the Act, as it would be if it were amended by this group of amendments requiring a Secretary of State to act in the way suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, would surely be ultra vires. However, we must wait and see. I shall be interested to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, says about this point and what the Minister will say on behalf of the Government. This is not a matter upon which the Government can remain wholly neutral because the amendment requires certain government activity. As I said, my first inclination was to support the amendment. I have been alerted to certain dangers by the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, and I do not totally ignore them. I shall remain open-minded until I have heard other speeches on this group of amendments.

Lord Hylton

The noble Lord, Lord Ennals, has made an interesting debating point but I am sure that even he will admit that he is not comparing like with like when he puts, on the one hand, the semi-reform of the National Health Service and abortion law on the other. Surely the fact remains that for 22 years, since 1967, Parliament has failed to change the Act. That surely is a telling point in support of my noble friend Lord Halsbury.

Viscount Caldecote

I support the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, on the amendment for these reasons: first, we are all well aware of the difficulty of changing the law on this complex subject. Secondly, one of the most repugnant activities that we observe is when at one end of a hospital doctors and nurses are working hard to save the lives of premature babies while at the other end fetuses of the same gestation are being aborted. That is to some extent due to the advances in medical skill that enable premature babies to be saved to the benefit of everyone in society. The amendment would help overcome that problem because it would enable the Secretary of State to take quick action as medical science advanced.

The noble Lord, Lord Ennals, made the point that it would be an impossible task for the Secretary of State. He speaks with great authority. I have never been a Secretary of State for Health or any other Secretary of State, and I apologise if he feels that my suggesting that he might conceivably be wrong is presumptuous. From a common sense point of view subsection (2D) gives clear guidelines to the Secretary of State under which he should operate with the advice of expert medical opinion.

Lastly, the noble Lord made the point that this is a matter for Parliament. The amendment makes it clear in subsection (2F) that the final sanction is an affirmative resolution of both Houses of Parliament. Surely all the requirements about which the noble Lord seemed to be worried are met by the amendment. For the reasons I gave at the beginning, I believe that the amendment is a good one and I hope that we accept it.

Baroness Lockwood

I sympathise with the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, in the moving of his amendment. In particular, I sympathise with the view that he was advancing, that we would like to take this subject out of the realm of political controversy and base it on the advice of the medical people involved. I would like to feel that I could accept that approach, but I find that there are a number of difficulties in relation to it, some of which my noble friend Lord Ennals has already outlined.

My noble friend Lady Jeger referred to the complete involvement of women in the subject. A great deal of ill feeling and resentment would be caused if a major amendment were made to the Abortion Act by virtue of an order which, although it might be subject to an affirmative vote in both Houses, would not be capable of being amended by either House. If we were to proceed along those lines, we should not be taking the Abortion Act out of the realm of political controversy. The area of that political controversy would move from the parliamentary sphere to pressure on the Executive and the Secretary of State.

Whenever an amendment was advanced —I hope that any amendment would be based on knowledge arising from the advance in medical science—I should like to think that the debate would not take place without the advice of some of the learned institutions listed in the amendment. I do not believe that the amendment adds an additional safeguard. I would expect the information to be available to both Houses of Parliament and in particular to the women's organisations which have followed the history of the Abortion Act, not just from its inception in 1967 but before then, through all the educative work that was taking place before the Abortion Bill was introduced and finally passed. I am not convinced that the amendment would do what the noble Earl suggests that it would and what both he and I should like it to do.

Lord Reay

There is one further possibility that the Committee has not considered: let us suppose that there is a disagreement between the five bodies representing the health professionals—there is no reason for them all to take the same view on this topic—will the Secretary of State have to adjudicate? Surely that is not the right route. The right place for the decision to be taken is, as my noble friend Lady Lockwood has said, Parliament, but not in the way suggested in the amendment—by approving an order—but by being allowed a full debate on the subject, because it is of importance to the people of this country, and they have a view. There are many views other than those of the medical people that must be taken into account when any decisions on this issue are made.

9 p.m.

Earl Russell

I listened with a great deal of interest to the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, who put his case, as always, powerfully, lucidly and persuasively; nevertheless, I must admit that I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, on this matter. In particular, I was a little alarmed by the arguments we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, and the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote. They said that, because it is very difficult to persuade Parliament to change the law, we should give the right to change the law to someone else. That is an argument which has been made a good many times before in this country's history. However, it has generally not been viewed with favour in Parliament.

I understand very well the sort of weariness which the constant recurrence of this issue may generate. I can understand a desire to make the issue go away and that we should have some other way to deal with the matter. However, I think that the amendment creates problems. In the first place, a decision of the Secretary of State must be a matter of potential censure and therefore must also be a matter of party discipline. At present, we only have one Chief Whip in the House. However, I am sure that he can think of two among his noble friends whom wild horses would not bring into the same lobby together on this issue. I can see several problems arising from trying to make this a matter of disciplined organised party decision. But, more important, I am concerned about the constitutional implications of the amendment moved by the noble Earl. At this point perhaps I should apologise to him because, while I was trying to outline to him what was concerning me earlier this afternoon, three unexpected guests turned up while I was in the middle of putting my case. Therefore, more of what I have to say will be a surprise to him than I would have wished.

We have before us a Henry VIII clause. It is a clause which authorises the Minister to vary the primary legislation. Doubtless many noble Lords here present have heard the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, and the noble Lord, Lord Rippon of Hexham, speak on this subject. There are circumstances where such clauses may be acceptable, but it would take some effort to convince me that this is one of them. We are laying down law the breach of which may carry penalties. That is really the job of Parliament. That is what we are here for, and it is the job we are sent here to do—

Baroness Jeger

Is the noble Earl saying that I am to have a baby when your Lordships tell me to do so?

Earl Russell

No, I said no such thing. Indeed, I would not presume to do so.

However, since there is to be law of the land then someone has to make it. That is our job. If we abdicate it, I fear that we may end up feeling a little like King Lear.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

I do not know whether anything I can say will influence the Minister in the reply which he has before him and which has already been written. However, it will probably save me making two speeches if I can just explain my own position in relation to this amendment. Not for the first time the noble Earl and I have come together to try to overcome an impasse in parliamentary treatment of a highly controversial moral issue. Our first collaboration took place on the laboratory animals problem; that is, the use of animals in research and for other so-called vivisectional purposes.

It took a long time to bring any agreed solution to Parliament, but the noble Earl laid the path in introducing a Bill. We had a Select Committee on the matter in this place, we discussed the matter further and, eventually, it was possible to find a consensus among warring elements on this question. That gave the Government the promise that if they introduced a Bill sufficient agreement upon it was assured to enable legislation to be passed without undue difficulty. That is what happened. Moreover, that is what led to the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. Further, that was the first amendment to the Cruelty to Animals Act 1876.

However, we are considering an amendment to an Act which was carried in 1967 and the first amendment to the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. We have witnessed some 15 attempts in another place to amend the 1967 Act without success. Had the procedure contained in this amendment been in place five years ago then the recommendations of the committee composed of the bodies mentioned in its schedule would have been implemented by the Government of the day. Moreover, we should have been spared much of what has happened since in attempts to get the gestational limits of abortion reduced and a tightening up of the criteria in relation to them.

But what have we had? We have had the most disgraceful spectacle of parliamentary futility in my 40 years' experience. Year after year we have awaited the lottery taking place in another place to see what Bills can be brought forward by Private Members. Each Session we waited wondering whether another abortion amendment Bill would be introduced. In most cases there has been. But they have all fallen because of lack of time, obstruction, frustration and acute controversy which no one seems to have been able to reconcile.

Then the Government were persuaded to adopt a stratagem to overcome the impasse so far as concerns the other place. They had the force to introduce a Bill on embryology as a government Bill because the matter was so pressing and there was such important work in progress. They had to have a Bill, even though they were to leave certain moral issues in it to free votes in both Chambers. However, the contrivance employed by the Government was to draw the terms of the Long Title to the Bill so wide that it could encompass amendments to the abortion law.

The Bill which is now before the Committee was introduced not to spite anything; it was introduced to try to persuade those who wanted a change in the abortion law to do it this way and not to interpose controversy on abortion to disrupt an already difficult problem of embryology and research in human embryos for fertilisation and other purposes. That is what this is really all about.

In another place they are all weighting the propaganda. The Order Paper is littered with Early Day Motions containing the most mischievous nonsense. It is all ready for the great controversy when the embryo Bill arrives. Then it will be ripped open by abortion. I wished to try to produce a Bill, a model from your Lordships' House. With it we could stand on the steps of another place and say, "This is the solution".

I was a member of the Select Committee on the Infant Life (Preservation) Act. I much deplore the absence tonight through illness of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, because I was relying on him to fortify my own inadequate efforts to get it across to Members of the Committee that we had the answer. But in introducing the Bill I felt tied to the agreed unanimous recommendations of the Select Committee. Everything in the Bill, apart from a few trimmings that had to be introduced to make it a Bill, reflected the agreed conclusions of the Select Committee.

I knew the difficulty that in a Private Member's Bill in this House we do not have the right of passage in the House of Commons. Only a government Bill has free passage between the two Houses. The House of Commons has the right of entry here. We have not the right of entry there. Therefore the Bill could fall on the threshold of the House of Commons if nobody wished to take it up. It has no claim to be heard in the House of Commons. Had we included abortion amendments in the embryo Bill, then what we had put in that Bill would have gone to the House of Commons as part of the Bill. However, eventually—and I think wisely—we kept abortion out of the embryo Bill. We have it now and we are all on our own.

I say to the Government that this is a method which the noble Earl thought of and which greatly attracted me, after some initial scepticism. It is a means of avoiding, year after year in Parliament, the perpetual row about abortion. We spend millions of pounds of public money in abortive attempts to resolve questions of whether the gestational period for abortion should be between 28 weeks and 24 weeks or 24 weeks and 18 weeks. It is dreadful, shameful. This is a colossal failure of Parliament not to resolve its procedural difficulties, represent the public interest and get a conclusion on a matter which has been hanging about ever since the Abortion Act 1967.

Let me say this to some people who are fundamentalists on the matter. I think that the Roman Catholics and others who take a fundamental view of the subject should consider what their motives are. If they are to destroy the Abortion Act 1967, to ban all abortions in Britain, if that is their ultimate aim, let me refer them to the Romanian revolution a few weeks ago. On the third day of the biggest upheaval in central Europe, women rose and said, "You must abolish the suppression of abortion in this land". The Salvation Party which has taken over the rule of Romania did so. It made a public appeal for contraceptives to be sent to Romania because the women were parading in the streets in a state of considerable agony about the problem.

Lord Carter

My Lords, will the noble Lord give way?

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I am in full spate. I do not want any help from my noble friend, with great respect. My engines are going all right at the moment! I wish to get this stuff off my chest because I believe that it is an issue of considerable constitutional importance.

When I was in the Labour Government we decided that no Private Member's Bill on a matter of considerable public interest should fall for lack of time. It is the only occasion upon which that concession has been made to Private Members' Bills. The Government have stubbornly resisted all attempts to obtain extra time to enable the House of Commons to reach a conclusion. Under that procedure, we are landed with stalemate after stalemate.

I say to the noble Lord who is to reply for the Government that if this is not satisfactory to them, will they please say what is? If the Secretary of State does not wish to take on responsibilities which are so controversial that he wishes to keep free of them, let Parliament resolve them, if it will fall to Parliament to do so. What right have the Government to snaffle parliamentary time and occupy it fully for their own works, and deny time to the House to resolve a problem which has bedevilled our debates now for 20 years? What is Parliament for? Ever since the Balfour reforms in the early part of this century, at the beginning of every Session the Government have put down a sessional order to annex all the time of Parliament for the Session except for a few scrappy bits on Fridays and Mondays which Members may use for their own purposes.

Among those purposes is to be found one of the most controversial moral issues in this country and elsewhere. The Government should tell us what the answer will be to that dilemma. The Government may say the answer lies in another place when in a few weeks' time it receives the embryology Bill. Members in another place can put something in the Bill then. They can insert provisions into that Bill but it will be in the form of amendments to a Lords Bill and it will have to come back here. Are we now going to start a battle between the two Houses? Where is the will for consensus and where is the will for resolution of this problem? If we cannot solve it, we should refer it to a body that can.

We found a solution as regards animal matters with a Home Secretary who was very reluctant indeed to take on board ethical matters relating to the use of animals. He wanted help to make a judgment upon that matter. My first impression in this case was that the advisory body to the Home Secretary, or to the Secretary of State for Health, should be a powerful committee, similar to the animal procedures committee under the 1986 Act. It should have an independent chairman with a right of approach to Parliament and the obligation to make a report to Parliament. There should be an obligation upon the Secretary of State to disclose any difference between himself and the advisory committee if he declines to accept its recommendations. But the animal procedures committee is not an advisory committee, it is a statutory committee. We could have a statutory committee in this case if we wished. It seems so elaborate in this case merely to move by one digit or more the gestational age of 24 weeks. It was out of proportion to have about 27 people on a committee of that kind presided over by an independent chairman of great stature.

The body that deals with animal matters has the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, a man of great repute, to sit in judgment on what the Home Secretary should be advised to do with regard to the use of animals.

Matters such as these can be tackled in that way. The Home Secretary's problems over ethical judgments were taken care of and the problems of the Secretary of State could be taken care of under the terms of this amendment. If such a body existed it could make a report to the public expressing its views. The Government could then introduce an order to implement the recommendations of that body. If that is acceptable, will the Government please tell us what they think the future of this controversy will be? Until we have a better consensus and until we are willing to meet somewhere in the middle of this Chamber and get this problem settled for a few years to come, there will be no end to controversy on abortion. There will be no end to the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child and no end to Pro-Life or to the other bodies, many of which exist on money from dubious sources. There is plenty of that money available. They also exist on mischievous and indeed evil propaganda. In those circumstances we have a responsibility here and now or at a later point in the Bill to attend to this matter really seriously. We should see whether we can resolve this matter with a faltering, palsied government as well as with a fractious House of Commons in the public interest and in the interests of legislation in Britain.

9.15 p.m.

Lord Carter

The noble Lord referred to the views of Roman Catholics. Does he accept that a number of Roman Catholics are opposed to abortion on moral grounds, and I am one of them, but that I would in no way attempt to impose my views on the rest of society? Does the noble Lord also accept that I personally found it deeply offensive when the views of Roman Catholics on this issue were related to the dreadful events we have seen in Romania? I hope that on reflection the noble Lord will withdraw the analogy that he appeared to make.

Lord Monson

I, too, have considerable sympathy with the amendment of my noble friend. Moreover, I fully understand the reasons why the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, wishes to remove the matter of all future modifications of the abortion law from the parliamentary arena. Nevertheless there are considerable dangers in concentrating so much power into the hands of a future Secretary of State. That has already been mentioned on more than one occasion this evening. I hope that when my noble friend replies he will tell us whether he envisages that in every case the views of each of the distinguished bodies referred to in subsection (2E) of Amendment No. 6 would be made public before the Secretary of State arrived at his final conclusion. Will my noble friend also say whether he is satisfied that no Secretary of State would ever act against the advice of those five distinguished bodies, if the amendment were to be agreed to?

Lord Butterworth: I wish to speak briefly as a member of the Select Committee. I must confess that I much preferred the first thoughts of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, to his second thoughts in supporting the amendment of the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury. I do so for this reason. It seems to me that the Bill as drafted crystallises the considered views of the Select Committee, including those of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman. It crystallises certain important rights for women. I am therefore very reluctant to intervene in the debate.

The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, accepts the amendment because it might avoid a procedural row on the subject every year or every other year. That seems to me to be a trivial reason compared to saying what we think is right. If noble Lords are convinced that the Bill sets out what the House wishes, then it is not appropriate to delegate to the Secretary of State power to change it even though such a change would require the approval of both Houses.

Therefore, tonight I urge your Lordships to pass the Bill as it stands as drafted by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton.

Lord Craigmyle

I am very hesitant to become involved in the debate because unfortunately I was not able to be present for the Second Reading of the Bill because I was in Tanzania visiting a medical mission. That was a worthwhile reason for being absent, but my absence means that I am somewhat out of date as regards the way the debate has flowed.

My first inclination is to support the noble Earl. It seems a very slight piece of Henry VIII legislation and one which would prevent recurrent arguments in another place and in your Lordships' House as to what is the correct number of weeks to be specified in the Bill. It does not go very far. It does not do very much to the Bill.

In speaking on Amendment No. 1, the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, suggested that the noble Viscount might have made more radical amendments. I had in it mind to put down more radical amendments. I then realised that what I should have proposed would have so changed the nature of the Bill that your Lordships would have dismissed them out of hand as wrecking amendments, and would have been quite right to do so. Therefore I confine myself to giving two cheers for the noble Earl.

The reason for the lack of the third cheer has already been very well expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby. What will happen to the Bill when it goes to another place? In whatever form we send it to another place someone—and I believe that it takes only one honourable Member—will shout "Object" and the Bill is dead. So far as I can see we are wasting our breath in trying to improve the Bill.

Lord Henley

Perhaps I may again remind the House that this Government, like its predecessors, is neutral on the ethical issue of abortion. Questions relating to time limits have traditionally been matters which successive governments have left to the conscience of individual Members of both Houses of Parliament. I should also like to remind the House that, as most noble Lords recognise, we are not talking about time limits —as the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, suggested—we are talking about means of altering those time limits should that ever be necessary.

The noble Earl's amendment seeks to give the Secretary of State power to make an order following wide consultation with a number of professional bodies, and others, and, subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, to specify the time limit for abortion in the 1967 Act. I understand and sympathise with the reasons that have prompted the noble Earl to move his amendments. I appreciate that experience, especially in another place, suggests that it is difficult to secure Private Members' legislation on sensitive issues such as abortion on which opinion is likely to be divided. Thus the amendment would appear at first glance to offer an attractive way out of that difficulty. It appears to make it possible, subject to parliamentary approval, quickly to change the time-limit in the light of the latest medical opinion about when a fetus is viable. I hope that the Committee will not be seduced by those arguments.

The noble Lord, Lord Ennals, who, as all noble Lords know, is a distinguished former Secretary of State, made what I think was the most important intervention in the debate. He said that it was not a responsibility that a Secretary of State should have to bear. I imagine that he was thinking personally and saying that it was not a responsibility which he as Secretary of State should like to have had or which it would have been fair to have thrust on his shoulders. He cited the case of a possible Catholic Secretary of State. I agree with what he said. It should be a matter for Parliament and not for any Secretary of State of whatever religion or conscience he happens to be.

The Government's view is that such a duty as would be imposed by the noble Earl's amendment would be wholly inconsistent with the neutral role to which I referred earlier. Moreover, there are much wider constitutional implications. The amendment would place in the hands of the Executive the power to take the initiative on decisions about a highly sensitive topic on which many people, including Ministers, hold strong and conflicting views.

It is worth indicating to the Committee that, if accepted, the amendment would place a significant burden on the Secretary of State of the day. In deciding even after those detailed consultations which the amendments envisage on the appropriate time-limit, it would ask of him to exercise the judgment of Solomon. Because of its sensitive nature, people who felt strongly that a change in the time-limit was needed would continue to press, perhaps even annually, for an amending order. The subject would be for ever on his desk. Surely abortion time-limits are too important an issue for Parliament to delegate to the initiative of an individual Secretary of State and his conscience.

The Government's line on abortion—and this is true of previous governments—has always been one of neutrality. Speaking from the Dispatch Box, I cannot give my own views on abortion. They are irrelevant. The Government must remain neutral. To accept the amendment would be a denial of that neutrality. For the Government to do anything other than resist, although I hope that the noble Earl will be prepared to withdraw his amendment, would be an abnegation of that neutrality. I hope that the noble Earl will be prepared to withdraw his amendment.

The Earl of I lalsbury

I do not know that I am prepared to withdraw the amendment as opposed to testing the opinion of the Committee. I should like to comment on some of the remarks that have been made. I am not sure that I understand the question of the Henry VIII procedure. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, is a historian and I am not.

We should discriminate clearly between advice, judgment and decision. The decision lies with the other place and with this place on an affirmative order. The judgment as to whether to put it forward is that of the Minister in the hope that he will get it through. The advice that he receives is advice from anyone who likes to give it to him. There is a common law right intrinsic in the subject to be advised by whomever one pleases. The responsibility for taking that advice is one's own. The Bill merely provides that there are certain statutory persons from whom one must take advice. That can include advice from other people. Then there is the question of whether the advice that they give him will be published. Why should it not be published? They can publish at their pleasure. There is no need for a statutory obligation on the Minister to publish the advice that he is given. The advisers can do that for themselves. They all have publishing facilities.

I now turn to a most extraordinary assertion by the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, which was denied by his noble friend; namely, that Catholics would behave in a manner totally implausible from the standpoint of what they believe. Can one imagine a Catholic doing other than rejoice at being able to lower the limit at which an abortion becomes legal? It seems to me that the attribution of a kind of blocking action to a Catholic Minister of State is complete nonsense.

Lord Ennals

I was implying that it was an intolerable burden to place on any Secretary of State and particularly on a Catholic Secretary of State.

The Earl of Halsbury

I come now to a very sensitive area. The arguments to which I have listened deny that a Secretary of State is a man as opposed to a milksop and on the battlefield when the political bullets begin humming he will put his tail between his legs and run away. Added to that, the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, said that he had been a Secretary of State and should know. Well, those who live in glass houses should not throw stones. I do not believe that that is true. I do not believe that it is true of the noble Lord, Lord Henley. I do not believe that it is true of the noble Lord. Lord Ennals, and though he tries to make me believe it is true, I still do not.

Behind all this discussion is a very simple proposition: legislation is a batch process. Noble Lords will know what I mean by a batch process as opposed to a continuous process. Typical of a batch process is an Irish stew. One begins it, puts it in one pot, finishes it and then eats it. A continuous process is like an oil refinery. Crude oil goes in at one end in a continuous stream and refined oil comes out at the other end. That is a continuous process.

Legislation is a batch process which occurs only every so often. It is now 23 years since the last successful attempt to tackle this subject. Meanwhile tempers have frayed. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, is indignant about the way people are behaving. However, I think that the ultimate indignity was the gross attack made on Sir Bernard Braine, the Father of the House of Commons, a few nights ago by pro-abortion hooligans who beat him up after he had addressed a meeting. We do not want to descend to that level.

Legislation is a batch process. We only do it every quarter of a century on any one subject. I am trying to enable the Secretary of State to catch up with the continuous process of the advance of medical techniques on the scientific front. That will go on continuously. There will always be an advancing front of medical knowledge and skill whereon parliamentary legislation lags behind by anything up to a quarter of a century.

This Bill, fortified by my amendment —and I must add my grateful thanks to my noble friend for the valiant way in which he stood up and supported it—achieves what I think is necessary. I have had support for it from both sides of the Committee and disagreement with it from both sides of the Chamber. There is therefore only one solution. Notwithstanding the hour, I shall test the opinion of the House.

9.33 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 2) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 16; Not-Contents, 57.

Beaverbrook, L. Houghton of Sowerby, L. [Teller.]
Buckmaster, V.
Caldecote, V. Hylton, L.
Cork and Orrery, E. Kinloss, Ly.
Craigavon, V. Lothian, M.
Craigmyle, L. Northfield, L.
De L'Isle, V. Rees-Mogg, L.
Dormer, L. Saltoun of Abernethy, Ly.
Halsbury, E. [Teller.]
Addington, L. Hylton-Foster, B.
Ampthill, L. Jeger, B.
Belstead, L. Lawrence, L.
Boardman, L. Lockwood, B.
Borthwick, L Lucas of Chilworth, L.
Butterworth, L. McGregor of Durris, L.
Caithness, E. Mackay of Clashfern, L.
Carnegy of Lour, B. Monson, L.
Carnock, L. Mountevans, L.
Carter, L. Newcastle, Bp.
Cledwyn of Penrhos, L. Nicol, B.
Cocks of Hartcliffe, L. Parry, L.
Darcy (de Knayth), B. Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L.
David, B. Prys-Davies, L.
Davidson, V. [Teller.] Rea, L.
Dean of Beswick, L. Reay, L.
Denham, L. [Teller.] Renton, L.
Ennals, L. Robson of Kiddington, B.
Ewart-Biggs, B. Roskill, L.
Flowers, L. Russell, E.
Fraser of Carmyllie, L. Seear, B.
Glenarthur, L. Seebohm, L.
Gloucester, Bp. Sefton of Garston, L.
Hampton, L. Sherfield, L.
Hatch of Lusby, L. Trumpington, B.
Henderson of Brompton, L. Walpole, L.
Henley, L. Williams of Elvel, L.
Howie of Troon, L. Winstanley, L.
Hunter of Newington, L.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

9.40 p.m.

[Amendments Nos. 3 to 7 not moved.]

Clause 1 agreed to.

Clause 2 agreed to.

Clause 3 [Short title, commencement and extent]:

Lord Houghton of Sowerby moved Amendment No. 8: Page 2, leave out line 21 and insert— ("(3) The principal Act and this Act shall extend to Northern Ireland.

The noble Lord said: I shall not press an amendment of this importance at this hour. Indeed I have no mandate to speak for Northern Ireland. But I am aware of the distress in Northern Ireland caused by exclusion from the benefits of the Abortion Act 1967. We so easily say "this Act shall not apply to Northern Ireland". We overlook that it is part of the United Kingdom and that unless there is very good reason to the contrary it should have the benefit of the laws that apply to the United Kingdom.

I have before me a whole book about the problems in Northern Ireland. It is time that its problems were ventilated. I remind the Committee that 15,500 foreigners come to Britain for an abortion. Of those 35 per cent, come from Ireland; 1,800 from Northern Ireland and nearly 4,000 from the Republic of Ireland. The Republic of Ireland and Belgium are the only two countries in Europe without abortion laws. Belgium is in the course of changing its position of completely banning all abortions. The Republic of Ireland is not. It has written an anti-abortion clause into its constitution. But Northern Ireland receives a kind of reflex action from the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland is a country of one God and two faiths; and a nice mess it all is.

It is deplorable that 1,800 women from Northern Ireland have to go to the expense of coming here, paying their fares and paying for accommodation when they get here. Many of them no doubt go into private clinics because they cannot be here long enough to go into National Health Service hospitals. This burden is put upon women who are in great distress, or they would not undertake this kind of hardship. I believe that Parliament should take rather more notice of the consequences of the abolition of a degree of self-government in Northern Ireland and government by regulation with no democratic processes. We all know about the difficulties there.

However, I am somewhat encouraged by correspondence which has taken place between the Department of Health and a friend of mine. It seems that if there is a significant shift in public opinion in Northern Ireland, the Government would respond to that. It may be that there are difficulties in public opinion expressing itself in Northern Ireland on this matter.

By this brief reference to Northern Ireland I believe that we should encourage those who feel that a change should be made to lift up their voices and impress upon the authorities that some alteration in their plight should take place. I shall not distress the Committee or take up further time by going into the details about the position in Northern Ireland. Members of the Committee know the situation as well as I do, and know of the conflicts, bigotry and all the sad occurrences which we so deplore and which have been going on for such a long time and for which there seems to be little prospect of an end in sight. It is quite shocking that we must have that as part of the United Kingdom and exclude from Northern Ireland benefits which have been given elsewhere.

That is all I have to say. There is a hope that the Minister is waiting for sufficient signs of desire for change to try and set that in motion. Therefore, I hope that this brief reference to Northern Ireland will encourage women's organisations there to speak up and let their views be known. On the other hand, I believe that the Government should be ready with an outstretched hand to take advantage of overtures to debate the matter, or to try to resolve it without waiting for pressure to build up elsewhere on this subject.

Therefore, I beg to move this amendment only for the purpose of ventilating this little plea on behalf of the women in Northern Ireland. I hope that the Minister will make a sufficiently favourable reply to enable me to withdraw the amendment. I beg to move.

9.45 p.m.

Lord Monson

I am very happy to support this amendment. I believe that the closer Northern Ireland is integrated into the rest of the United Kingdom, the better for all concerned. Quite apart from that, it goes without saying that no woman, in consequence of amendment being agreed to, will be forced into having an abortion against her will. Those, whatever their religious faith may be, who oppose abortion in principle will continue to spurn abortions no matter what the law might be, as is their privilege.

On the other hand, those who happen to feel a greater affinity with the more liberal ethos prevailing on the British mainland would at last be in a position to avail themselves of an abortion in the unhappy event of medical or other circumstances making that desirable.

Lord Henley

Perhaps I may intervene in this debate—I am not sure whether it is the beginning or the end. For the record, the Abortion Act 1967 which legalised abortion under certain circumstances does not, as the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, said, extend to Northern Ireland. The provisions of that Act were not originally introduced in Northern Ireland because the Government considered the reform of social law in the Province to be a matter for the devolved Government at Stormont where views on these matters sometimes differed from those of Members of Parliament at Westminster. I am advised that no elected Northern Ireland politician has ever called for changes in the Northern Ireland abortion law.

Successive governments have taken the view that any legislation on abortion in Northern Ireland should be determined only after full consultation with the people of Northern Ireland themselves. If necessary, such consultation would be likely to take the form of the issue of a consultative document containing proposals for legislative change to political parties, other bodies representing the public (such as the local district councils), the main churches, relevant medical, nursing and professional bodies and all known interested organisations and groups in Northern Ireland. Under the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973, the issue of health matters is available for legislation by a devolved administration. Imposing Great Britain's legislation in this field on Northern Ireland, especially without any local consultation, would be most unusual.

Earl Russell

My noble kinsman made a very powerful case. I listened to it with a great deal of interest. I take the point about no Northern Ireland politician having called for this, but my noble kinsman has imposed a very exhaustive process of consultation, slightly more exhaustive, if I may say so, than has usually been asked for by the Government. Perhaps I may ask my noble kinsman this: if the elected representatives of Northern Ireland at Westminster were to ask him for change, would he consider the possibility of accepting what they ask?

Lord Henley

On the spur of the moment I am not sure how I should answer that question. I am sure that if the elected representatives of Northern Ireland raised this matter it would be taken into consideration by Her Majesty's Government.

Lord Monson

Does the issue rest entirely with elected representatives? Will the Government on their own initiative start a process of consulting public opinion? That is what matters.

Lord Henley

I am not sure that it would be for the Government to start the process of consultation, but if one felt that this was the view of the Northern Ireland people, the Northern Ireland elected representatives and all the other bodies I mentioned, certainly it would be something to be taken into consideration.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

I did not expect very much more than we got. I fully understand that we could do with a little more eruption in Northern Ireland on this question and then notice will be taken of it. Why so much liberal opinion in Northern Ireland is suppressed is difficult to understand, but there is an ethos about Northern Ireland which I am sure would be very unpleasant for many of us, and they are probably suffering from it in matters of this kind.

I agree that it is very difficult for the Government in present circumstances to impose, as it were, the abortion law on Northern Ireland if there is strong resistance to it. I must admit also that in such opportunities as there have been for wider representation on this subject, the results have been extraordinarily poor from the woman's point of view. We can only conclude, therefore, that there is something very peculiar about Northern Ireland. We shall have to wait until it becomes a little more rational and a little more open minded on this matter.

Very shortly the Republic of Ireland will be the only member of the EC without an abortion law and Northern Ireland will have the disadvantage of being next-door neighbours and will presumably be an oddity in European affairs. It will be part of a member of the EC not having any abortion facilities, the other part having fairly civilised schemes. However, I can do no more than beg leave to withdraw the amendment and hope that this starts a little spark of fresh activity somewhere which may bear fruit in due course.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment.

House adjourned at five minutes before ten o'clock.