Scottish Parliament to be given powers over abortion laws

image captionDavid Mundell said an amendment would be made to the Scotland Bill allowing the devolution of abortion powers to Holyrood

The Scottish Parliament is to be given control over abortion laws, the UK government has confirmed.

The move had been considered by the cross-party Smith Commission on further devolution.

But it was not included in the commission's final report, or in the subsequent Scotland Bill.

The SNP, Lib Dems, Scottish Greens and Conservatives have all previously backed the devolution of abortion law, but it has been opposed by Labour.

There had been discussions between the UK and Scottish governments on the issue.

And Scottish Secretary David Mundell told the Scottish Affairs Committee at Westminster that an amendment would be made to the Scotland Bill allowing the move.

Speaking to MPs, he said: "I understand that abortion law and whether it should be controlled by Holyrood are matters that many people feel very strongly about. I respect that. The subject was debated very passionately in the House during the passage of the original Scotland Bill in 1998 and again during Committee stage of the Scotland Bill in July.

"The government has reflected very carefully on the points that have been made and I can today inform the committee that we will bring forward an amendment to the Scotland Bill so that abortion law can be devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

"Holyrood already has responsibility for dealing with end of life issues. It has responsibility for the NHS and for criminal justice in Scotland. I do not see a convincing constitutional reason for why abortion law should not be devolved and that is what has led me to this decision."

Scotland's First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, welcomed the move but said her government had no plans to change the existing regulations.

'Serious consideration'

The Smith Commission report had said that political parties were "strongly of the view to recommend the devolution of abortion and regard it as an anomalous health reservation."

It added: "They agree that further serious consideration should be given to its devolution and a process should be established immediately to consider the matter further."

The option of devolving control of abortion law was considered ahead of the Scottish Parliament being reconvened in 1999.

But Donald Dewar, who was to become the country's inaugural first minister, took the view that it would be better to reserve the issue to Westminster in order to prevent the new parliament coming under heavy pressure to change the law on terminations.

Labour has continued to oppose the move, with the party's equalities spokeswoman, Jenny Marra, claiming the decision had been taken "behind closed doors without any consultation with women's groups across Scotland."

She added: "The Smith Commission promised a process to consider this, but that seems to have only meant a process that involved ministers of the UK and Scottish governments, and not women across Scotland.

"Scottish Labour firmly believes that the safest way to protect the current legal framework around abortion is for it to remain at UK level where there is a strong consensus around the current time limits.

"Leading human rights and women's groups have said that devolving abortion law could undermine the right of women to make their own decisions."

The Christian charity Care for Scotland welcomed Mr Mundell's announcement, and called for MSPs to debate the issue for the first time in the Scottish Parliament.

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