July 24, 2007

Draft Legislative Programme: Women

Speaking on issues concerning women in particular, John Bercow raises concerns about disparity in the provision of abortion services across the country and calls for the simplification in the laws on equality by the introduction of a single equality Bill.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz). I shall focus my remarks tonight on issues that will be of particular concern to more than half the population—to women.

It is thoroughly timely that the House should have the opportunity, thanks to the legislative programme, to review the arrangements for assisted reproduction and embryo research. That opportunity will be provided by the Human Tissue and Embryos Bill. That is good news. There will be different opinions, as properly there should be, and those opinions should be given expression in the debates in the House.

I make no secret of the fact that I have always been on the side of what I call the progressives, in the sense that I reject the notion of a doctrinal opposition to embryo research. I take a pragmatic view, an instrumental view, an empiricist view, that if benefits can flow from such research, the effect of which can be to mitigate the effects of congenital diseases or disorders or to remove them altogether, we should welcome that. In the deliberations that lie ahead on the Bill, I hope that the Government and right hon. and hon. Members will be significantly influenced and informed in their consideration by the body of expert scientific and in some cases medical evidence that will be presented.

However, it is an open secret that there are many people who believe that the Human Tissue and Embryos Bill is an appropriate vehicle for another review by the House—a review of the law relating to abortion. I am not a lawyer—I say that as a matter of some considerable pride—and I am certainly not a Government lawyer, but my understanding is that the Government lawyers have advised Ministers that they would not be able safely to resist amendments on the subject of abortion in the context of the Bill. To seek to remove them or prevent their discussion or debate on grounds of scope would almost certainly fail in legal terms.

I have heard it floated that the Government are prepared to consider such matters, and that they recognise that legally they would not be able, in parliamentary terms, to resist the discussion of such matters. What I have not heard is a confirmation of that highly salient point on the Floor of the House. If the Leader of the House—or the Deputy Leader of the House—can confirm when she winds up the debate, that what I have read in the popular prints is correct, I would greatly welcome that. There are differences of opinion on the matter, but it is right that if there is a legislative vehicle in the programme, an opportunity to consider these issues should be provided.

For my own part, I believe that the vast disparity in the availability of abortion services across the country between one area and another is a source of concern and an occasion for protest. In the latest year for which reliable figures are available, 2001, there appears to have been something of a lottery in terms both of the funding of abortion and of the waiting times to secure it. In 2001 in Coventry, 96 per cent. of abortions were funded by the national health service—lucky people in need of or making a request for an abortion in that part of the west midlands. If, however, a woman were so relatively unfortunate as to live in Kingston or Richmond, the chance of securing a publicly funded abortion in that year would have been only 50 per cent.

If we are to have a national health service, despite the avowed religion of localism that seems too frequently to be professed by members of all parties these days, I hope it would be conceded and, indeed, proudly proclaimed that there should be a commonality of provision across the country. Either we believe in the availability of an abortion service to women, on certain terms and conditions, or we do not. If we believe in it, as I confess that I passionately do and always have done, these marked differences—this postcode lottery, in effect—should not exist. I want that state of affairs to change.

I referred to the differential in funding, but there are also marked differences in how long people have to wait to secure an abortion. In 2001, someone who lived in north-east Lincolnshire might be quite impressed by the figures, because in that part of the country 79 per cent. of abortions were undertaken before 10 weeks had elapsed, whereas someone who lived in Great Yarmouth might be considerably disappointed, not to say horrified, by the fact that the figure was as low as 26 per cent. That simply is not right. We must make a public policy judgment in this House of Commons as to what we think appropriate.

I am not, as the House will be relieved to learn and you will be pleased to discover, Mr. Deputy Speaker, inclined to dilate tonight on all the issues relating to the potential amendment of the law on abortion. That titillating opportunity will doubtless present itself at a later stage in the course of the consideration of the Human Tissue and Embryos Bill. I would, however, like to say something specifically about a crucial challenge for the Government and the House concerning early abortion.

The vast majority of abortions in this country are, and should be, undertaken early, but we need to do a great deal more to improve access to early and safe abortion for women who have decided that that is what they want. I put it to the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House that it is vital, in terms of the scope of the Bill and the time allowed for debate on potential amendments when it is forthcoming, that we should have a chance to consider all the germane issues.

For example, I cannot for the life of me see any justification, in 2007, for the arcane‚Äîdare I say it, almost antediluvian‚Äîrequirement that a woman who seeks an abortion should have to obtain the signatures of two doctors. That might sound like a prosaic requirement that can be easily fulfilled, but that is often not so. Doctors will sometimes say, “No, you’d better go elsewhere; it’ not convenient for me to see you at the moment,” or “There’ quite a long waiting list in this area.” All sorts of difficulties can arise. If the basic will of Parliament is that women should be able to access abortion, they should not be put in the invidious position of having to traipse around, possibly in a condition of considerable personal and even physical distress, to access what should be their legal entitlement and what is certainly‚ÄîI believe that right hon. and hon. Members would judge‚Äîtheir moral due. The “two doctors” requirement should be removed, and we should at least have a chance to table, debate and vote on an amendment to that effect when the legislation is considered.

Similarly, there should not be long delays. If we are to have targets in other fields, why not in this case? I would suggest a target of 72 hours from the time that the woman makes the approach to request the abortion to the time that the procedure is undertaken. At the very least, it should not be more than a week. We should not in a modern, decent, civilised democratic society entertain the idea that women faced with a very difficult situation, and possibly having to make a harrowing decision, should then have to wait for week after week, and possibly longer, before they can give effect to the decision that they have made perfectly properly, honourably and in all good conscience.

There are other oddities about the current fusty law, one of which is the requirement that the procedure take place in rather prescriptively specified locations. I believe that modern law should be rather more flexible than that. The principle that should govern the amendment of the law to localise provision and provide for a range of community settings in which abortion can take place should simply be this: clinical governance and quality assurance procedures should be comparable to those that apply to any other medical procedure that an individual might undertake within the national health service. I do not see why abortion should be set as a class apart—much more difficult to obtain than other operations and far more difficult to access, logistically or possibly even geographically.

Such considerations must be looked at in the context of the law, as should the suggestion, which I think is sound, that we widen the range of people who can undertake the procedure. I see no good reason why qualified nurses who are perfectly capable of undertaking the abortion procedure should not be empowered to do so in law.

Whatever hon. or right hon. Members listening to this debate think about my views on the subject, I hope that people feel it right that the House of Commons should consider such matters—a very long time after it last did so. I have been in the House since May 1997. To my knowledge, there have been no debates on substantive legislation on this subject during the 10 years and two months I have been here. There have been ten-minute rule motions put forward on the issue, but that is a wholly unsatisfactory basis on which to seek to determine the future of public policy on this subject.

I hope that the Government will be open-minded on the matter. They might not want to whip their own side; I rather imagine that on the Conservative Benches there will be a free vote. As far as I am concerned, all votes are free and I tend to do what I want anyway. I am not overly preoccupied with what any Whip might think about these matters. I hope, however, that there will be votes, and an opportunity for decent debate leading up to them.

Secondly, and very much more briefly, I did not expect a single equality Bill in the draft legislative programme, but I confess that I think that there is a compelling case for one. After all, we have had the discrimination law review, and we have a single equality body. Many people—not all—think that a logical corollary of the creation of a single equality body is the creation of a single equality Act, the purpose and effect of which would be to simplify, synthesise and distil all other anti-discrimination legislation into a single corpus of law that would be easier for citizens to access and more readily understandable by the public and private agencies responsible for adhering to it.

Simon Hughes: I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that we need to do much better at consolidating law, not just in the equality field. One of the remaining problems is that we do not have a codified system of laws, and often people have to look in lots of places in order to find information, whether it is about equality or any other range of similar issues.

John Bercow: The hon. Gentleman and I can join forces in a campaign for simplification. I say three cheers to that.

Let me make it clear that a duty on the private sector to attack the principal causes of the pay gap between men and women would be a good feature of the Bill for which I am calling. I have pontificated on that issue many a time and oft during the past few years in debates in Westminster Hall and in questions to the Minister for Women. A duty has been placed on public authorities, and that is important, but we cannot ignore the fact that there is persistent and, in some cases, severe discrimination in the private sector as well. Of course, we have to be careful not to overload the system, not to achieve a counter-productive result and not to frighten business, but if we know that there is serious discrimination, we have a responsibility to face up to it and be prepared to do something about it.

That discrimination takes several forms: in pay; on the ground of pregnancy; through occupational segregation; and—whether deliberate or inadvertent—against people who have caring responsibilities. The insertion in such a Bill of a positive duty on the private sector, suitably calibrated to take account of what private companies can bear in the short, medium and long term, would make a great deal of sense and create equality between the public and private sectors.

The final issue that I wish to consider—simplification—will again warm the cockles of the heart of the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). The Government have championed their employment simplification Bill. My understanding is that at least part of its purpose is to bolster the machinery for enforcing the national minimum wage. I said at the outset that I wanted to focus on subjects of particular interest to women. Let us not forget that, in 2006, 870,000 women benefited from the increase in the national minimum wage. Nevertheless, it is striking and salutary that no fewer than 202,000 women did not get the national minimum wage to which they were entitled. That is profoundly unsatisfactory. It is not only unfair to those women but corrodes the principle of the rule of law and the effect of the will of Parliament. In 2004, approximately 1,798 cases demonstrated that people did not get their entitlement, but only 62 enforcement notices and no penalty notices were issued. It is important that several criteria be fulfilled if the employment simplification Bill is to deliver effectively for women.

First, we need to publicise much more widely people’ exact entitlements. Many people, especially those who operate in the twilight zone of low-paid and high-pressure jobs, will not know what is their due. Secondly, there needs to be a much more proactive enforcement policy if people are to get their due rather than be denied it. Thirdly, we need a robust regime of penalties to discourage rogue employers and encourage good practice.

All the matters that I have mentioned are potentially valuable, on an industrial scale, to more than half the population of this country. I reserve judgment on the last item, because I do not know whether the employment simplification Bill will work as the Government intend, and as I hope that it would operate. If they take account of the sort of points that I am making, I hope that the measure will command support from all parties, because it would make a great difference to the lives of many highly vulnerable people in this country.

The three issues are important and I hope that they will be tackled to the benefit of the country.

9.38 pm

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