Pro-life MPs to devolve abortion issue to Holyrood

A CROSS party group of Westminster’s leading pro-Life MPs have made a bid to devolve abortion to Holyrood in the hope that Scotland will “lead the way” on changing the 1967 law

Pro Life demonstrators outside the Scottish Parliament. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Lib Dem John Pugh, who chaired the all-party pro-Life group that opposes abortion, Tory MP Fiona Bruce who is originally from Wick, and Labour MP Robert Flello are to put down an amendment to the Scotland Bill to allow Holyrood to decide on a separate abortion policy north of the Border.

Abortion was deliberately kept out of the original devolution settlement in 1999 out of fear Scotland would have a more conservative law or even ban it.

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It was then dropped from the Smith Commission proposals at the last minute during negotiations late last year.

It means that the 1967 Act, brought in as a private member’s bill by former Liberal leader Sir David Steel, remains unchanged on the books for the whole of the UK.

Mr Pugh told Scotland on Sunday that while he and the other two MPs “come from a pro-Life perspective” the aim of the amendment is to try to change the debate in the UK which he claims has become “too polarised” in Westminster.

He said: “The tone of the debate in Westminster is bonkers. As soon as the subject is raised the two sides immediately become entrenched.”

He went on: “It means we have not been able to even update the 1967 law or bring in sensible changes.

“For example when some of us tried to stop abortions being carried out on grounds of gender it was considered as a bridge too far by those on one side of the debate.”

He pointed out that the assisted suicide and euthanasia are devolved issues “so there is no reason why abortion should not be devolved as well.”

He said: “The tone of the Scottish Parliament’s debate on assisted suicide was excellent and it showed that it can discuss these issues in a more balanced and calmer way than Westminster.”

He added: “I hope if we can devolve abortion the Scottish Parliament can lead the way in both the tone of the debate and in changing the law.”

The power was originally going to be in the Smith Commission recommendations until it was dropped at the last minute after a piece of brinkmanship by former Scottish Labour MP and party negotiator Gregg McClymont after serious objections were raised by the then Deputy Leader Harriet Harman and other women MPs.

At the time it was claimed that SNP Deputy First Minister John Swinney, who led his party’s negotiations on the Smith Commission, was also lukewarm to the proposal which was pressed by the Scottish Greens and Lib Dems.

Mr Swinney is said to have come up with the compromise to put the issue into the long grass by keeping it out of the recommendations and current Scotland Bill, and instead make it the subject of talks between the UK and Scottish Governments.

Labour’s negotiating team also claimed that an indirect approach was made to them by people in the SNp group asking them to find a way of blocking the proposal.

While the SNP have “categorically denied” Mr Swinney was part of efforts to stop the devolution of abortion privately some members have acknowledged the issue would be difficult because it would put the Scottish Government under pressure by party members from both sides of the debate to change the law particularly after the SNP wooed the Roman Catholic vote.

One senior figure said that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon “really doesn’t want” pressure for a vote on a more conservative abortion law in Holyrood.

Scottish Secretary David Mundell has told Scotland on Sunday that the UK Government will not accept the amendment which means it will need to go to a vote.

However, because abortion has been traditionally treated as a conscience issue in Westminster there will be pressure for a free vote.

A senior Labour figure told Scotland on Sunday that “a decision will be made next week on whether to allow a free vote on the amendment” which is likely to split all the two main parties among those in favour and against abortion.

An SNP spokesman said: “As the Smith Commission reported, the parties were ‘strongly of the view’ that responsibility for abortion should be devolved, given that health as a whole is devolved, therefore our MPs would intend to vote for the amendment.

“We have no proposals to change the existing legal position, and indeed any vote to do so in future - whether at Westminster or Holyrood - would be a free vote for parliamentarians.”

The amendment will be laid down next week and debated the following week on the final day of the committee stage of the Scotland Bill.