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Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 20 June 2000 (continued)

Ms Gildernew:

Go raibh maith agat. I also support the motion. Like my Colleague, Gerry McHugh, I am appalled by the steps taken by the British Government to have welfare benefits paid into bank accounts. The only people who will benefit from this are the banks, as everyone will now need a bank account in order to access their money. I am concerned about exorbitant fees, including charges for every transaction made. Furthermore, how do the Government hope to get round the fact that a person getting less than £80 may be able to access only £60? Many cash dispensers only pay out £20 notes. It is not acceptable to have difficulty in accessing a quarter of one's weekly benefit. It will cause additional hardship to many people who are already on or under the breadline. Those who are disadvantaged, in both urban and rural society, should not be denied the choice of how to access their money. Is this how we target social need? It will have a tremendous impact on rural communities.

In the village of the Moy in my constituency, there is a vibrant post office, which is open six days a week and a small bank that is open only one morning a week. The Bill will create havoc for the elderly and the mobility-impaired community in the village and its rural hinterlands. In one morning, could that little bank serve hundreds of pensioners, disabled people, the unemployed and parents collecting family allowance? I do not think so. By the time all those people are queued into the Moy, it will be more like the Red Square than the Moy Square.

The situation gets worse. At least the Moy has a bank, albeit for half a day. What about the hundreds of villages across the North with no bank, when the journey for people to the nearest town to access their money is the equivalent of a three-day camel ride on the joke that is rural public transport. Do the civil servants in Whitehall who come up with these stupid proposals have any idea how difficult it is to get from A to B in rural areas, especially with a walking frame, in a wheelchair, or with a pushchair and two or three children?

The Bill will also have an enormous detrimental effect on shops in small villages which depend on customers who use post offices coming into their shops. Who, after travelling 10 miles to the nearest town, with perhaps up to eight hours to wait for the next bus back, will return to their village and spend their money, when they can shop for bargains in the supermarket beside the bank in town? This will take more money away from small businesses and lead to the demise of the rural community. We cannot allow the urbanisation of our rural communities.

Once again, policy that has been dreamed up in London is forced on us. The measure is totally unacceptable to a rural community under siege from the curse of rationalisation. If it is successful, we shall continue to see school and hospital closures, and the further streamlining of services. Sinn Féin therefore supports the motion. We oppose that aspect of the Postal Services Bill.

Mr Bradley:

How often have we heard about the rural crisis? Every Minister, from the Minister with direct responsibility for rural affairs to those with peripheral interests, has had ample opportunity to express concerns and fears for rural life. The Ulster Farmers' Union, the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers' Association, every rural correspondent of every agricultural magazine and newspaper, and our rural district councils, have spent hours, weeks, months - probably now years - discussing the unacceptable state of the rural economy, and trying to regenerate our rural heartlands. The Assembly is the combined voice of all the aforementioned organisations and groups, and we have heard the support for the motion from right across the political divide, from both rural and urban representatives. The proposed closure of rural post offices is a strategy that was planned in plush offices in London, without considering rural residents who depend on the service.

We have all seen the advertisement "Send a letter today", but what does it mean to someone in the Mournes, the Sperrins, the Glens and other rural areas? It will mean taking a taxi at a fare of £8 return, taking two hours off - three if you are elderly - and making your way through traffic, towns and villages to send your letter today. I do not think that the post office can run with that advertisement. In my area of South Down, two post offices, at Ballinran and Annacloy, are closing because nobody wants the franchise. Why is that? Because of the uncertainty. The whole issue is up in the air and no one is prepared to take on the risk involved - a risk that is not lessened by these proposals. It is a case of profits versus people, and it our duty to support the people, especially the rural people who sent many of us to the Assembly. I support the motion and I thank my Colleague, John Dallat, for bringing it to the House. Rural people will be grateful for any success that the Assembly may have in amending the proposed legislation from Westminster.

Rev Dr William McCrea:

This debate is very important, and I thank the Member for bringing it to the House. It certainly affects the constituencies of many Members. Indeed, a Member for North Belfast acknowledged the fact earlier that there is an important relationship involved in this issue whether it be in Belfast or in a rural community. It is certainly with anger and frustration that the community is forced to witness, and is expected to witness, the destruction and demolition of what was, I suppose, a national institution - the local post office network.

Local post offices have served the community with extreme professionalism and dedication, and their destruction would be a retrograde step. In fact, it could be regarded as a criminal act by the Government, a Government that have overthrown principle. When the Labour Party went to the people, the one matter that they did not present to the electorate across the United Kingdom was the mutilation of the postal services. Had it done so, it certainly would not have received a mandate for such action. Many people in the rural communities are going to reap the fruits of this New Labour practice and policy, and they will find them very hard to swallow. We are putting down a marker today that that is totally unacceptable.

The present situation acknowledges that this Administration is divorced from the community. Mr Blair and his Cabinet seem to be divorcing themselves from the community more and more. It was clearly evident when he thought he would use the conference of the Women's Institute for his own political ends. He found that the ladies gave him something more than he deserved - probably what he did deserve - due recognition for what he was doing. The Government seem to be totally insensitive to the needs of ordinary people, because this situation will impact upon the elderly, the disabled, and the many low-income families that find it impossible, with so little affordable transport available, to get to post offices in the major towns.

Therefore it is important for Members to raise their voices today on behalf of the post office service because it has rendered, and is rendering, a very valuable service to the community. For many people, the post office is more than just a post office. It is, as other Members have mentioned, a centre for advice, a banking facility, and a centre for social life. It is where many elderly people go to meet folk. We cannot expect them to stand in a queue in a bank. One stands in the queue in the bank waiting to hear "Next, please", and the person in front is practically ordered out. It comes down to financial benefit rather than anything else.

Also, we must bear in mind that many elderly people have never used banks and have a fear of using banks. There is a cost in using practically any service in a bank. When one opens an account, all these costs can be seen. For many elderly people, it would not even be financially feasible. Instead of assisting them in getting their money, it would make them pay to get the money due to them. They get little enough money. The increase in pensions was miserable and miserly - it was Scrooge at his worst.

I believe that the postal service is vital to the whole community. This House would do the community a great service by ensuring that our voices are raised in demanding that the many post offices in little villages and scattered across the rural community be kept open. The Government must insure that they are able to survive. Therefore, I have great pleasure in supporting the resolution before the House today.

Ms Morrice:

I support the motion and want to reinforce all that has been said about the value of post offices. There is no doubt that we all know and love the post offices.

Whether they are in rural or urban areas, I think they are a valuable part of our community, and they are very much needed, particularly in rural areas.


With the reduction of banking services in rural areas we must look to rely on the post offices. Why should post offices not pick up the work in cases where banking services are being reduced. Post offices are very well placed to do such work, and people find post offices easier, more comfortable places to meet and do business. A post office is not just a post office. It is a place where people meet, where there are banking services and a shop. Post offices keep in touch with the people, and I think that is the important message which should go out from here today. We must back the Post Office; we must not allow the service to be reduced. We are very concerned that this is a first step towards privatisation.

The Post Office has been referred to as the working person's bank. There are many areas - in rural Scotland, for example - where the Post Office has aligned itself with the transport service and offers transport services to people living in remote and rural areas. These are new, innovative ideas that we could feed into the whole debate on the Post Office. It is important that the Assembly has discussed this issue this morning, and we should make sure that the message goes out to London, to Belfast, to the Post Office and everywhere that we are backing the service, and we want to keep it.

Mr M Robinson:

Along with many other Members I support the motion. Small post offices are undoubtedly being threatened by Government plans contained in the Postal Services Bill that was presented in House of Commons on 17 January 2000. The main thrust of this plan was to switch benefit payments from over-the-counter cash payments to automated payments into bank accounts. According to the Government's own figures this will deprive 40% of post offices of 40% of their income, so large-scale closures will be inevitable. Ironically, such a move would almost certainly lead people down a blind alley, since rural bank branches are disappearing at such a rapid rate that it will become more and more impractical for people to be able to access their benefits from them.

I am sure that Members do not need to be reminded of the recent outcry following the large-scale closures of rural banks by Barclays Bank - a fact that has already been referred to by the Member for North Belfast. This policy is being pushed through without any plausible alternatives being offered to help post offices remain open. The Cabinet Office's performance and innovation unit was tasked to report, by the end of February, on the future of post offices and to identify ways in which the lost business could be replaced. To my knowledge, no such report has yet been forthcoming. If the Government do not come up with a convincing plan to secure the future of post offices, then the Assembly should send the message out that in order to defend their local post office, rural people must reject automated credit transfer and insist on cash payments for pensions and benefits.

The Government's plans for benefit payments will thereby be unworkable. Far from eroding the role and usefulness of rural post offices, the Government should think creatively and radically to find ways, through greater deregulation if necessary, to empower them further. This should start with safeguarding the role of post offices which are able to provide local people with the convenience of benefit payments in cash in their own locality, instead of their having to visit a bank branch miles away in the nearest town.

In addition, the commercial viability of post offices could be boosted by enabling them to offer additional income-earning facilities and administrative services such as equipping them with Internet technology to provide direct access to Government information regarding jobs, social benefits and health. In this way the Government could help rural post offices become a one-stop shop and ensure they remain a social pivot for local communities.

The Countryside Alliance is a national organisation which has campaigned vigorously for the retention of post offices because of their vital role in the viability of rural communities. Last year it asked key rural business and community groups about the Government's performance on rural issues, and the findings were interesting: only 3% said that the Government had done "a very good job", while 17% said that they had "performed very badly". When asked how well or badly the Government understand the value of the village post office to the community, 58% said "very badly"; and only 18% said "well" or "very well". Finally, 66% of rural postmasters believed that the Government understand the problems of the countryside "very badly", and a mere 13% thought that the Government understand them "well" or "fairly well".

The performance and innovations unit's report on the rural economy, which was published in December 1999, barely mentioned post offices and showed no understanding of their vital role as a rural service or social centre. We therefore have no reason to believe that the Government have any ideas on protecting these condemned post offices from the effects of their policy.

The Postal Services Bill will lead to the closure of rural post offices which, in many cases, are the social and economic centre of rural communities. That is why I support the motion.

Mr Hussey:

I support the motion and agree with the comments that have been made. Most Members will remember when British Telecom was an integral part of the Post Office. For financial reasons, it was decided to remove that responsibility from the Post Office and flog it off to provide cash for use elsewhere. The Postal Services Bill is part of the same process. To adopt an expression that has been used in different circumstances, it is "salami-slicing" the financially viable elements of an excellent service, thereby rendering the service less capable of survival on its own. The community, especially the rural community, cannot afford not to have postal services in all areas.

It has been said, rightly, that it is a matter not only of the postal service, but the ethos that goes with it. In many cases, a local post office is the element that maintains the viability of the local village shop or small shop in a rural community.

I support the motion and all the sentiments that have been expressed in the House today. I have no doubt that this motion will be agreed. Since this is a reserved matter, perhaps at some stage the Assembly should lobby Westminster.

Mr Dallat:

I am grateful for all of the positive contributions. The Assembly should take pride in its morning's work. In a show of common interest, we have expressed the views of people in the community who are deeply concerned about the proposals that are currently going through Westminster.

The point was well made that the Post Office needs commercial freedom to compete, but not at the expense of ending a universal service to all areas, including rural areas. The Bill is about more than Post Office Counters. As has been said, it is a complex Bill, and I have no problem in saying that I do not want to sell the Crown jewels. The Post Office is a reserved matter, but the Assembly will be asked for representation on the body Post Office Users' National Council (POUNC), which meets in London. It does not have a representative body in Northern Ireland, which illustrates the contempt in which we are held.

The point about tendering has been well made, and it was a major concern made to me by our friends in the Republic. They have managed to fight off tendering so far, but they accept that eventually they may lose. So the post office, as we know it, could well disappear.

There were some very positive suggestions, particularly in relation to electronic transfer opportunities and how they can be developed for the special use of rural dwellers. I look forward to tomorrow and the suggestions that might be made by the Government in that respect.

The farming community was also mentioned. They are the backbone of the rural community, and their backs are against the walls. The last thing they need is for their post offices to be taken away.

Several Members referred to economic regeneration and described the post office as the main artery - indeed, the heart - of the local community. I could not agree more.

The Bill was described as a struggle between the private sector and public service. The point was well made that the role of the Government is not to be involved in the private sector but to provide the universal services which people require - particularly the most vulnerable in our community, among whom I include the elderly.

It was pointed out that, under another arrangement, a letter to the rural community would cost 87p, and I was horrified to find that it would cost me £10 if I were to write to someone on Rathlin Island. Those figures help to illustrate people's concerns.

Centralist thinking is an issue. People making these decisions, as I said in my opening remarks, have been influenced too much by 'The Archers', rather than by the real people who live in our world. The rural post office is not the little hut at the top of the mountain - it could well be located in sizeable towns. I believe that a head of steam is building up because the Bill could affect a lot of people.

The Assembly has done a good morning's work, and the good thing is that we did it together, with every Member's contribution well researched and equally important. I was touched by the fact that everyone spoke with genuine feeling and with deeply held emotion. The only variance we have had - and I do not think that it was serious - was the rural verses the urban argument. I take on board everything that Billy Hutchinson said. The only real difference between a rural dweller and an urban dweller in Northern Ireland is that one may have a garden while the other has a window box. We are all rural people at heart, and I can assure my city friends that there is total and absolute solidarity.

Many of the people most affected by the changes could well come from the side streets of Belfast, whether north, south, east or west. The Assembly should be very proud of its work today. I want to sum up by thanking everyone for taking part in the debate, for researching the material so well, and for illustrating to the outside world that the Assembly does have a function, which is to articulate the common views of all the people in Northern Ireland.

Question put and agreed to.


This Assembly is seriously concerned by proposals drawn up under the Postal Service Bill, which will undermine economic prosperity and regeneration in rural areas.

The sitting was suspended at 12.14 pm.

On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) -



2.00 pm

Mr Speaker:

Given the substantial number of Members who want to participate in the debate this afternoon, I have had to introduce some time limits. Mr Wells will have 15 minutes to move the motion, and 15 minutes at the end to wind up.

There is one amendment on the Marshalled List which I have accepted for debate. Ms McWilliams will have 10 minutes to move the amendment and 10 minutes to wind up at the end. All other Members will have seven minutes, and we will have as many contributors as possible. The House will adjourn at 6.00 pm in any case.

Mr Wells:

I beg to move

That this Assembly is opposed to the extension of the Abortion Act 1967 to Northern Ireland.

Tuesday 20 June will be a very bad day for 530 unborn children in Great Britain because, today, their lives will be aborted.

Every 24 hours in hospitals in England, Scotland and Wales an average of 530 human beings are legally killed and disposed of under powers granted by the 1967 Abortion Act. By the time this debate concludes at 6.00 pm, another 88 children will have been killed through abortion. In hospitals throughout Britain, teams of surgeons will be trying to save the lives of unborn children in one ward, while down the corridor in the same hospitals, other teams will be destroying the lives of unborn children. Since the 1967 Act became law, 5·3 million abortions have been carried out in Great Britain - more than the populations of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic combined, and almost the same number as the number of Jews who were murdered in Hitler's death camps.

The main purpose of my motion is to ensure that this legalised carnage is not permitted in Northern Ireland by way of an extension of the 1967 Act to this part of the United Kingdom, and I am moving it today in support of the right to life of the unborn child, knowing that both communities are perhaps more united on this issue than on any other.

On leaving Northern Ireland, Dr Mo Mowlam said that her biggest regret was that she had failed to find an appropriate time to extend the Abortion Act here. It is my hope that her wish will never be granted. Human development is a continuous process, which starts at the moment of conception, when a unique human being is created. Within two weeks of conception a child's head is distinct, and he has the basic functions of liver, brain and lungs. After 50 days he has fingers and toes, and by 11 weeks he can make facial expressions and even smile. By 20 weeks he has well-developed eyelids and fingernails, and 75% of the babies born between that time and 25 weeks survive. The chilling fact under the 1967 Abortion Act is that any of these babies can be killed, and legally. I said earlier that there have been 5·3 million abortions in Great Britain since 1967. The sad reality is that 98·6% of these children were perfectly healthy human beings carried by perfectly healthy mothers.

The vast majority of abortions have been carried out on the grounds of a perceived risk to the physical and mental health of the woman. However, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has said

"there is no such danger in the majority of these cases, as the reason for termination is purely a social one".

When David Steel introduced his Bill in 1966 he claimed

"It was not the intention of the promoters of the Bill to leave a wide open door for abortion on request".

It was claimed that the Bill would merely clarify the law, enabling doctors to abort in borderline or difficult cases without the fear of prosecution. What has happened under the Abortion Act 1967 in the rest of the United Kingdom has in effect been abortion on demand. A Gallup opinion poll carried out in 1988 involved the interviewing of 746 gynaecologists - 40% of those practising at the time - and found that 85% had either worked or were working in NHS hospitals where abortion on demand was practised. As private clinics were opened, staffed by doctors prepared to operate on anyone ready to pay the fee, Britain became the abortion capital of the world.

Fortunately, the situation in Northern Ireland is quite different. The Abortion Act 1967 was never introduced here, and we do not have abortion on demand in the Province. Our law is a combination of statute - including the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and the Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 1945 - and the 1939 case involving Dr Bourne. In Northern Ireland an abortion can take place only if one of the following conditions is satisfied: first, where the continuation of the pregnancy would lead to serious medical or psychological problems which would jeopardise the woman's life; secondly, where there is mental subnormality in the case of the mother; thirdly, where there is proven contact with rubella or, as it is generally known, German measles; or, fourthly, where there is a substantial genetic risk of having a mentally handicapped child.

As a result of this more restrictive legislation in Northern Ireland, the number of abortions carried out in the Province is quite low. There were, for instance, 77 in the year 1997-98. In addition to this, women can travel from Northern Ireland to England for an abortion. The total number carrying out this journey peaked in 1990, when 1,855 women went to Liverpool or London. This declined substantially to 1,572 in 1997. It is estimated that, in total, 45,000 women from Northern Ireland have had abortions in Britain since the passing of the Abortion Act 1967. What is quite clear from these figures is that the number of Northern Ireland women having abortions since the passing of the Act is much lower because it has not been enacted here.

If the Abortion Act 1967 had been introduced in the Province 33 years ago we could have expected some 140,000 abortions, yet the number is less than a third of that. We have quite detailed information on the reasons for women from Northern Ireland travelling to the rest of the United Kingdom for abortions. In a parliamentary written answer to a Mr Blunt, a Conservative Member of Parliament, Miss Hewitt, Director of the Office of National Statistics, gave details of the abortions carried out on women from Northern Ireland in the period 1993-97. The total number of abortions in that period was exactly 8,000, and for 7,725 of those the reason given was the threat to the physical or mental health of the woman.

In the rest of the United Kingdom that is generally regarded as abortion on demand. There were few genuine medical reasons for those abortions; they were carried out for social reasons. Undoubtedly there will be those who highlight the difficult cases. Using the small number of difficult cases as examples, they will argue that it is right to have abortion on demand for any woman in Northern Ireland.

Time does not permit me to deal with all the issues at this point, though I hope, by means of intervention and summation, to deal with as many as I can. The point that will always be raised in this type of debate is that abortion may be required to save the life of the mother. As I pointed out earlier, the law in Northern Ireland currently allows abortion in those situations. I must emphasise that this is an extremely rare occurrence. There have been 5·3 million abortions in Great Britain since 1967. In just over 200 of those cases - 0·004% - the abortion was carried out to save the life of the mother. That is a tiny fraction.

In the Irish Republic a study was carried out on 21 deaths which occurred among 74,000 pregnant women in the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin. It was found that not one of those 21 mothers' lives would have been saved by abortion.

There are those who will argue that the introduction of the 1967 Act will prevent what are known as backstreet abortions. The evidence indicates that that is not correct. From 1968 until 1988 the police in Great Britain recorded 968 offences of the procurement of an illegal abortion. The corresponding figure for Northern Ireland, where the 1967 Act did not apply, was five. In the Irish Republic, where there is no abortion on demand, the equivalent figure was two.

Claims with regard to the number of people dying from illegal abortions have been widely exaggerated by the pro-choice campaign. In 1982, for instance, in Portugal, it was claimed that 2,000 people had died as a result of illegal abortions. Yet when the statistics were examined more closely they revealed that the number of women aged between 15 and 45 who died from any cause in Portugal that year was 1,887. Clearly those statistics were absolute nonsense.

There are those who will argue that it is important to have abortion in order to allow for the termination of a pregnancy should there be a likelihood of a handicapped child being born. In those situations, I believe, abortion is an attack on the most vulnerable. I do not believe that those children are inferior, or of any less value, than the able-bodied.

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending a reception that Assembly Member Roy Beggs organised for Mencap. Anyone who attended will, I am sure, agree that the highlight of the event was a speech made by Hilary Gammon, a young lady with learning difficulties. Anyone who listened to her contribution could not fail to be impressed by what she said. Hilary works for North Down Borough Council and lives a very full and fulfilled life. Many people who have disabled children or children with learning difficulties will testify to the fact that, as a result of having those children, their lives have been enriched. I have very little time for those who say that, because a child is likely to be born handicapped, he or she should automatically be aborted.

The pro-choice lobby would say that every child should be a wanted child, and there are many who would agree with that, but the evidence indicates that abortion on demand does not achieve that. A study carried out in southern California discovered that 91% of battered children referred to clinics were the result of planned or wanted pregnancies. A study of the child protection register carried out by the NSPCC from 1973 until 1990 showed a three fold increase in child abuse during that period. If abortion on demand meant that every child was a wanted child, why has there been a trebling in the number of abused children in the United Kingdom? Why is that happening? Abortion does not seem to be working in that case.

2.15 pm

Many will raise the very difficult issue - and I accept that it is a difficult moral issue - of pregnancies caused by rape or incest. The 1938 Bourne judgement permits abortions to be carried out in Northern Ireland in those very difficult circumstances. No one can possibly underestimate the trauma of a pregnancy brought about by rape. However, such a tragedy cannot be undone by the killing of one of the innocent victims of the violent act. When put together, all the difficult cases in Northern Ireland still add up to very few individual children.

The sad reality is that there are far more parents on the register of those seeking adoption than there are those difficult cases. There are homes for these children who would otherwise be aborted. We can all testify to having friends and relatives who have adopted children and have provided excellent homes and very fulfilled upbringings for them, so this idea that you go for abortion in these difficult cases frankly holds no water.

There are other victims associated with abortion beyond the 5·3 million children who have been denied the right to life. There is a psychological impact on the mothers. Ten per cent of those who have had abortions have subsequently had long-term psychological problems. In addition, there are moral problems for many people involved in the Health Service in Northern Ireland who would find it difficult to carry out, or assist in the carrying out of, abortions. Their views also have to be taken into consideration.

Time is rapidly running out. I hope to deal with the Women's Coalition's amendment by means of an intervention at some stage, but I ask the House to give this motion its full support.

Mr Speaker:

The Member will, of course, have the opportunity to deal with all the comments made in the course of the debate, including the debate on the amendment, in his winding-up speech immediately before the vote.

Ms McWilliams:

I beg to move the following amendment: Delete all after "Assembly" and add

"refers the question of the extension of the Abortion Act 1967 and related issues to the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee and requests that the Committee make a report to the Assembly on the matter within six months."

We tabled this amendment today because we do not want a heated, emotional, disturbing debate for the next four hours. We want this discussion to take place with as much access to information and advice as possible.

The situation in Northern Ireland is a mess and desperately needs to be reviewed. Are Members going to address this issue as they would deal with any other issue that comes before the House? Can they in all honesty say that four hours is enough time to come to a considered opinion on what should be happening in Northern Ireland?

I want to deal with the complexities that exist in the area of reproductive health. It clearly needs a comprehensive inquiry. We need a range of advice from gynaecologists and from those working in obstetrics, in public health, in primary and secondary schools, in education and in sex education. We also need the people from both the Alliance for Choice and Pro-Life to come before the Committee. All deserve to have their opinions heard. Many of you will never have heard from that range of professionals, non-governmental organisations and groups. Here is an opportunity to hear from them, to invite them to come, as you do in all other Committees, to answer your questions, ask for clarification and seek information in any hearing. The Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee would be the best one to do that.

It sometimes takes a great deal of courage in Northern Ireland, as it does anywhere, to say that we do not know it all. We do not have all the answers. We did not have them when we were dealing with the constitutional issues. We only got to the agreement after agonising hours and hours and hours of talking and listening to those who even today are against the agreement and for the agreement, as is their democratic right. We should take time to do that with this issue also.

I am asking Members to have the courage to vote for our amendment. Let them say that they do not know it all, that they are prepared to get that information and advice, contrary, challenging and confrontational as it may be to their beliefs. It is important that they take the opportunity to listen.

When the Assembly was set up I believed that we would craft anything we did well and that we would take time to reflect on the realities of life for all the people in Northern Ireland before we formed our policies. We have said many times that we want a responsive democracy, that we want legislation on policies that do not create, in David Trimble's words, "a cold house" in Northern Ireland. We would prefer it to be a welcoming house, which acknowledges our diversity. How many times on this Floor have I heard people talk about the pluralism of Northern Ireland, the diversity of Northern Ireland, the different backgrounds that we come from, our different religious perspectives -

Mr Roche:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is this a debate about the Belfast Agreement or about abortion?

Mr Speaker:

I have to say that some Members have found all sorts of ingenious ways of bringing the Belfast Agreement into debate, as Mr Roche is very well aware.

Ms McWilliams:

All I would say to Mr Roche is that we dealt with a very cold house here on many issues, and it is neither fair nor right to try to exclude people who have different views from him or me on this issue. I was using that as a very pertinent example.

Ethics will come into this debate today. Currently abortion is dealt with as a criminal justice matter, and it is a justice issue - there is no doubt about it. However, it is also a care issue, and the ethic of care is something that we should deal very carefully with.

Let me say something very briefly about the legislation here. Members may think that we are dealing with the Abortion Act 1967, but under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 the 1967 Act is not listed as a reserved matter. There is a reference to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, which amended the previous legislation, so we are really having a debate on outdated legislation. The Northern Ireland Act is very specific as to the legislation to which it refers.

If Members support our amendment asking that the matter be referred to the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee, they will not be promoting abortion. They will be asking for a considered opinion on the situation in Northern Ireland, and most Members probably do not know what that situation is. We are not asking that this matter be referred simply to let the Health Committee end up with all the problems. No one in this Chamber should ever ask for that to happen. We are not relinquishing our responsibility; we are not transferring our responsibility; we are taking our responsibility very seriously.

We will have a debate about the illegality, or the legality, of what we currently have, but that will not lead us to a discussion on the causes. I am delighted that schools have recently taken on board a very, very tough issue for teachers, the issue of sex education. There was a debate in both the Catholic and state schools on how they were going to introduce this to their pupils at the appropriate age. I know that in Catholic schools it is dealt with under the heading 'Education for Love'. Much of this information are facts which those children never had before. It also leads young boys and girls to understand the meaning of a responsible, mature adolescent relationship. As we know, it is the lack of that information in the past which led to the tragedies many of us are discussing.

I will speak briefly about the current legal situation and here I would like to take issue with Mr Wells. Under our law for non-consensual sex, in terms of both rape and incest, termination should be permitted, but that is not the case. Indeed, it may be something that both the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Northern Ireland Bill of Rights have to look at.

Termination is an impossible situation for all mothers. All of us who work with disability groups, Mencap and many others, will always support those groups. In Northern Ireland, doctors making difficult decisions every day about foetal abnormalities are performing illegally. We must consider this fact in our investigations.

We also need to address the question of technology and how it is overtaking us. How will a system based on judicial interpretations of a Victorian statute of 1861 stand in the face of changes in medical technology? Undoubtedly, it is the more recent piece of legislation of 1990 that the Northern Ireland Act refers to. Currently, judicial rulings are based on very hard and tough cases. If we want to leave it with the judges, so be it. The judicial rulings state that where there is a probable risk of an adverse effect to the physical and mental health of pregnant women, terminations are permitted, and so it goes. We are united in confusion. The whole area is shrouded in confusion. To get out of that confusion, it is very clear to me that we need to refer this to the appropriate Committee.

Mr Speaker:

May I remind Members that remarks should be addressed through the Chair rather than directly to other Members. That is especially important in a debate of this kind.

The Chairman of the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee (Dr Hendron): I would like to congratulate Mr Wells on bringing this motion before the Assembly. I have studied the amendment put forward by Prof Monica McWilliams. My Committee will discuss this issue or any other issue that we feel is important. Of that, there is no doubt. This issue will not be resolved today, irrespective of what happens, and I am sure our Committee will have plenty of opportunities to discuss it. I support the motion.

Not long ago an all-party delegation went to see John Major when he was Prime Minister. The DUP was represented by the Rev William McCrea. Seamus Mallon and myself and also the Conservative and Labour parties were represented. We made it clear to the then Prime Minister that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland were implacably opposed to the extension of that Act. Jim Wells made reference to Mo Mowlan, and I agree with what he said. There are of course very deep rooted, social economic and personal reasons why people seek abortion. From my position as a doctor over many years, I am indeed familiar with the massive psychological trauma to a young girl from an unplanned pregnancy. I do understand the many hundreds who go to England from all parts of this island. As has been said, the beginning of life for each human being is fertilisation, when the father's sperm fertilises the mother's egg. It is a momentous event in the beginning of a completely new human being, unique in its own right from fertilisation; 23 chromosomes in the sperm, 23 in the egg, that is 46 chromosomes.

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It is important to remember that the baby is genetically complete at that point. Nothing is added after that, other than nutrition and oxygen. It is genetically complete. Of course, there are major environmental influences, both intrauterine and after birth. Many of the characteristics of the individual are determined at conception, such as colour of hair, eyes and skin, et cetera. Growth is controlled by the child's own genetic code: DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, as you would know, Mr Speaker. A single thread of human DNA contains information equivalent to half-a-million pages of five hundred words each. Between 21 and 25 days, the heart starts to beat. Fingers and toes are formed shortly afterwards.

Consider the methods of abortion that are used. I could go on about vacuum aspiration at 12-14 weeks, where parts of the human body are actually sucked out, but time is running out.

As regards a woman's right to choose, I have nothing but the highest respect and understanding for women and young girls who have unplanned pregnancies. It is not for us, or anyone else, to condemn them. We should try to help them, but abortion violates a human being's right to life. Human rights are universal. Unborn children are the most vulnerable human beings in our society.

As Jim Wells said, all the evidence suggests that providing abortions for people with psychiatric problems does more harm than good. Only five per cent of legal abortions are done on psychiatric grounds. That is a fact of life. Intellectual honesty is important, for the medical profession and beyond.

I will come to my final point. I appreciate that you have given me seven minutes, and my watch tells me I have a little while yet. I refer the Assembly to the Home Secretary's consultation document 'Supporting Families'. A copy of this was given to each member of the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee on Wednesday. This is the first report of its kind issued by any British Government Minister. The Assembly and the Executive would do well to copy it. In my last minute, I will quote from it -

Mr Speaker:

Order. I advise the Member that I allocated seven minutes for each contribution.

Dr Hendron:

Thirty seconds to go. I strongly recommend those interested in teenage pregnancy to read -

Several Members:

Three minutes.

Dr Hendron:

I have three minutes? Do I have time or not?

Mr Speaker:

You have two more minutes, whether or not that is sufficient.

Dr Hendron:

There were a lot of people speaking around me, you understand.

I commend this report to the House. It is fascinating reading and contains many suggestions. The problem lies with teenage parenthood. There is a group in Lurgan and Craigavon that has taken these matters on board:

"Unwanted and under-age pregnancies, whether planned or unplanned, have a high personal, social and economic cost and can blight the life chances of younger teenagers . Many young teenagers show a worrying level of ignorance about the 'facts of life'."

It goes on to talk about contraception - extremely important:

"Under 16 year olds are often very ignorant about sexual matters and this is a crucial risk factor for early teenage pregnancy . Research suggests that boys who become fathers in their early teenage years are likely to have lived with neither or only one of their natural parents."

The most important point of all is that

"because of the links between teenage pregnancy and social exclusion, the Prime Minister has asked the Social Exclusion Unit to work on this as its next priority. Its remit is to devise an integrated strategy to cut rates of teenage parenthood, particularly under-age parenthood, towards the European Union average."

In the Family Planning Association document, Mrs Whitaker attacks the DUP for not developing a strategy for reducing unplanned pregnancy. I say to her that it is the Assembly and the Executive that must take action in that regard.

Mr Speaker:

Order. Seven minutes is all we have, but even that was not enough.

Mrs Carson:

For the record, I must state that abortion is not a satisfactory way to avoid unwanted pregnancies. It should never be seen as the way out.

The debate on the controversial issue of abortion and its effects on women in Northern Ireland is of importance to the whole community - women in particular. It is ironic that a man, who will never have to go through childbirth or face the personal consequences of unwanted pregnancy, is proposing the motion.

The 1967 legislation was made by men for women and any future changes need to be made in consultation with the women of Northern Ireland.

The Assembly may pass the motion, but how is this motion going to persuade women that abortion is not an option? Abortion is here whether we agree with it or not. Abortions are already being carried out in Northern Ireland. In 1997-98, 77 medical abortions were carried out and in a survey 11% of GPs stated that they had experience of seeing women who had been involved in an amateur abortion. The morning-after pill is also an issue. How would the proposer of the motion suggest controlling that form of abortion?

The 1967 Act does not give women carte blanche to obtain abortion on demand. The Act clearly states that a lawful abortion can only be obtained when two registered medical practitioners agree that the continuance of a pregnancy would have a detrimental, physical or mental impact on the woman, or that the child, if it were born, would be seriously handicapped.

It is simplistic to say that if the 1967 Abortion Act were introduced all pregnant women would wish to have an abortion. In Holland, where abortion is freely available, only six out of every 1,000 women procure one. That is the lowest abortion rate in the world. Why are such low numbers seeking abortions in Holland when it is freely available? In Holland they promote an ethic of personal responsibility with regard to sexual activity. Dutch teenagers, because of this culture of responsibility, tend to avoid sexual activity until they are older. This makes Dutch teenage pregnancy rates the lowest in Europe with only four pregnancies per 1,000 for women aged 15 to 19.

Compare this to Northern Ireland, which has about 29 pregnancies per 1000 women aged 15 to 19. If a woman from Northern Ireland wishes to have an abortion and she has enough money, all she has to do is look in 'Yellow Pages' where a number of English clinics providing that service are listed.

Almost 2,000 women from Northern Ireland travel to Great Britain every year to use abortion services. One fifth are under 20 years of age. The fact that around 400 girls under the age of 20 are obtaining abortions every year highlights the wider social problems. A large proportion of children under the age of 15 are engaging in sexual activity resulting in unwanted pregnancies. In our schools sexual health must be promoted in a way that encompasses spiritual and emotional health as well as physical health and well-being. There is an obvious need for a sensitive and compassionate programme for sex education that must include parents, teachers and children.

The responsibility for an abortion, or a termination, lies primarily with the woman and not with the state. If the Assembly takes the simple, moral high ground and agrees this motion, it will do nothing to help those 2,000 women who travel to Great Britain every year for an abortion. This attitude will do nothing to tackle the problem of teenage pregnancy. Once again, the real issue, preventing unwanted pregnancies, will be swept under the carpet.

The amendment, if passed, will put pressure on the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee, and a six-month debate in the Committee is not the way to address the abortion problem. In the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee there are problems by the score to be addressed - acute services, children's issues, and mental health to name but a few. I ask all in the Assembly today to consider the wider implications of the necessity for having some form of legalized abortion. Simply passing this motion is to be blind to the wider problems. We must have comprehensive sex education in our schools placing value on loving human relationships. We must make an effort to reduce the number of teenage pregnancies, and we must have a co-ordinated approach by all interested groups, agencies and parties to tackle the problem in a realistic way. I appeal above all for our politicians to have an understanding of those women who have to make a difficult decision. Those women should not have to leave home or have to leave Northern Ireland, and they should not be made to feel like criminals having to hide their identities. Nor should they be ostracised by society.

I cannot support the motion.

Mr McLaughlin:

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Every party approaching this debate will be able to testify to the intensity of emotion and conviction that arises when the issue of abortion is addressed. Elected representatives strive to the limits of their ability and experience to interpret constituency opinion and public will. We all come to it, as the previous Member indicated, with our own attitudes, perceptions and indeed prejudices. For that reason, the amendment is worthy of support. We need a very calm and reflective discussion - we have a collective responsibility. We must attempt to achieve a very difficult balance between the right of any person, man or woman, to have control over what happens to their bodies and those who profess sincerely held convictions on the questions of pro-life or pro-choice.

There can hardly be any dispute that an overwhelming majority of our community are opposed to the concept of abortion on demand and to the current practice in Britain of the creative interpretation of sections of the existing legislation, which achieves the same outcome.

That is one reason for Sinn Féin's being opposed to the extension of this legislation to the North. Sinn Féin is supporting the amendment put forward by the Women's Coalition because it believes that this issue should be addressed in a much more considered and reflective fashion. This is an issue that invites harangues, emotional rants and playing to the gallery. However, we need a much more considered and honest debate that considers all of the issues that arise from this very difficult and complex issue.

We must address the reality that up to 7, 000 women from this island travel to access abortion services elsewhere. Most of us know someone who has had such an abortion. In some cases the person will thank that she made an informed decision. As elected representatives with constituency clinics, we will also have met women who have had an abortion, but who were responding to intolerable personal, social and emotional pressures. For those women, abortion was not a free or informed option - it was not even a preferred option. We will also have become aware of the trauma that is so often a consequence of such situations. Sinn Féin believes that this issue should be addressed in a comprehensive manner, involving a multi-agency response that develops effective services for sexual health and sex education, fuller access to child support provision and specific support for single parents.

It is my party's view that provision in the North is very inconsistent. Emergency contraception, the morning- after pill, for instance, may or may not be prescribed by doctors' surgeries.

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Some doctors prescribe emergency contraception for patients who do not normally use their practice, while others will not prescribe it at all. Accident and emergency departments are not required to provide emergency contraception, and many do not. Inconsistency in the application of resources is an issue that should be addressed. Those of us who are committed to dealing with the matter humanely actively support calls for sex education and resources for childcare and counselling.

It is Sinn Féin's policy to accept the need for abortion if a woman's life or mental health is at risk or in grave danger, and also in cases of rape or sexual abuse. We strongly support the demand for full information and non-directive counselling. Opinion polls in the North have consistently demonstrated support for that position.

The current legal and health provisions enforced in the North should be radically re-examined and structured to deliver a service that will meet those criteria. The Committee on Health, Social Services and Public Safety should be asking whether it has developed policies, within legislative parameters, that adequately respond to the community's needs. Clearly, it has not done so. Abortions are carried out in the North in very limited circumstances. Reference has been made to cases of severe foetal abnormality. The invisible multitudes of women who travel to other countries for abortions are prevented by our culture from discussing their experience. Abortion is very much a part of Irish life, and it is an indictment of our society that so many women from our community choose abortion. However, the issue remains unresolved.

The miserable history of backstreet abortions, and the statistics for those who travel to other countries seeking abortions, tell us plainly that we have not yet responded to the issue in a satisfactory way. I urge the House to support the amendment to the motion.

Mr Close:

There are few issues that will be debated in the House about which I will feel more strongly or passionately than the issue that we are discussing this afternoon. Abortion strikes at the heart of society. It deals with the beginning of human life, but tragically it is also about the snuffing out of human life, even before birth. Abortion kills human beings. Abortion kills the unborn child. It does not matter whether it is six days, six hours, six minutes, or six seconds after conception. In my book, human life begins at conception. That human life which began then - not one hour, two hours, or a week later, but at the moment of conception - is killed by abortion. There is nothing arbitrary about that; it is a fact. It is a fact of life but, tragically, it is also a fact of death.

The tragedy in society today is that abortion has become almost respectable in some people's eyes. It is accepted in many circles and demanded by those who ought to know better. In Northern Ireland we have the crazy situation of people fighting for limited hours of work, shorter working weeks, the right to work, the equality agenda, and so on, but also fighting for the right to abortion. They would deny the greatest right of all - the right of life to the unborn child. They are either misguided or hypocrites. They would not give the unborn child the opportunity of life. They spew forth their murderous arguments without a care in the world for the lives that they would destroy. Worst of all, there are members of the medical profession who advocate and pontificate about this form of killing. They are a disgrace to their profession, a profession that is supposed to cherish life and heal it, not kill it.

Strong and emotional arguments are advanced to justify abortion. There often seem to be strong reasons for such justification, for example, in cases of rape, or when the father is not the husband, when the girl is unmarried or when the parents do not have the emotional, physical or material resources to cope with another child.

I am the first to concede that anyone who has not faced these problems personally cannot begin to appreciate the intensity of the human dilemma that an unwanted pregnancy can generate. However, strong reasons are not necessarily good reasons. Strong reasons could be given to mitigate virtually every crime that is committed, but that does not make the crime right or justify it. In Northern Ireland, terrorists are threatening to go back to their murderous ways, and they advance arguments to justify that, but murder and butchery are always wrong.

No human problem in society, whether in Northern Ireland or anywhere else, can be solved by killing another human being. Abortion is violent. Abortion is negative. It rests on the dangerous principle that the small and the weak are inferior and that some human beings are disposable. In a society that has made great steps in coping with both physically and mentally handicapped people, the demand for abortion runs in parallel.

There is blatant abuse of ultrasonic scanning by the medical profession to pinpoint babies suffering from spina bifida, mongolism and other disorders. Aborted babies are killed before advantage can be taken of the advances made by medical science. Many people in our so-called compassionate society now regard these handicaps as unacceptable. What is the cure? The cure is disposal. The cure is murder. In what other circumstances do doctors prescribe death as the treatment and murder as the cure? It is another tragic example of man's inhumanity to man.

What about the pro-abortion lobby? What are the arguments? How does it justify these demands? The most common argument is that it is the mother's right to choose. The unborn child is, after all, part of her body. However, as Dr Hendron said, that argument fails to recognise that the unborn child is genetically distinct from its mother. It has its own sets of limbs and organs. Its mother's blood does not circulate through the child as it does through her hand, foot, liver or any other part of her body. The mother and the child can die independently of the other. Therefore, the child is not part of her in the strict sense of the word. If the unborn child were part of the mother, the mother would be incomplete before conception and she would be incomplete after the child's birth, which is clearly nonsense.

Simply because the child is defenceless and depends on the mother's womb for security and protection does not make the unborn child any less human. It does not make it any less wrong to kill that unborn child. A woman has as little right to kill an unborn child as she has to kill a one or two-year-old child. No such right exists. She has rights over her own body, but the unborn child is another body.

The pro-abortion lobby argues that an unborn child is not a child but a foetus. That lobby obscures truth and reality with medical terms and fancy language. It avoids calling a spade a spade. A foetus is seen as less human and less real than an "unborn child".


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