The Joint Committee of the draft Domestic Abuse Bill has today published its official report on the legislation.
Purpose of the Bill
This piece of legislation is hugely important and aims at improving the response to domestic violence by introducing a statutory definition of domestic abuse, establishing a Domestic Abuse Commissioner, providing new court protections for victims as well as other measures.
There were concerns, however, that pro-choice supporters at Westminster would attempt to hijack the Bill to impose more extreme abortion laws on England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
This suspicion was confirmed when pro-choice MPs openly asked questions in the Commons about using the bill to amend abortion law and when the committee took oral evidence on 2 April, it took evidence from organisations with widely known campaigning goals to see radical abortion laws introduced.
In its report, the joint committee does say that it received a large number of responses arguing the bill should not be used to change abortion law in Northern Ireland and because of this, it was not recommending using the bill to change abortion law in NI.
This is obviously a very welcome outcome and a credit to those from Northern Ireland and elsewhere who took the time to respond to the consultation.
Devolution could still be undermined
However, it is extremely troubling that the committee has recommended what’s known as a ‘sunset’ clause to extend the Bill to Northern Ireland until the Assembly there is back up and running.
This is a technical term, referring to a legislative device whereby the terms of the bill will be extended to NI until or unless the Assembly there enacts its own legislation on domestic abuse.
Clearly, this is very serious because while wanting to extend new measures to combat domestic abuse to Northern Ireland is a worthy aim, if devolution is undermined to accomplish this end, it raises the alarming prospect of devolution being undermined in other areas, including abortion law.
The Domestic Abuse Bill is an extremely important piece of legislation. It's aims are worthy and the measures it will introduce are much needed. In our submission to the Joint Committees' report, we made recommendations aimed at improving the response to domestic violence.
When it comes to Northern Ireland, technically domestic abuse legislation is the responsibility of the NI Assembly. however, the Assembly has not sat since January 2017. In this context, it is understandable that because of the current political situation in Northern Ireland, there are calls for the Domestic Abuse Bill to be extended so NI is included. While well-intentioned, we have grave concerns about the implications this will have for the wider devolution settlement.
There are those at Westminster who will stop at nothing to change NI's life-affirming abortion laws. They do not respect devolution, seemingly viewing it as an inconvenience. If devolution is undermined in one area, this will be interpreted as a green light by some to push ahead with campaigning for MP's to change NI's abortion law. We need clarity as to exactly what the sunset clause will mean and it is now over to the Government to respond. We would urge the UK Government to respect the devolution settlement.
What happens next?
Now the report has been published, the Government must respond to the committee’s report. CARE will be making representations to ensure devolution is properly respected.