Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 Section 3(2)

Part of European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019 (Rule of Law) – in the House of Commons at 9:55 pm on 9th September 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Draft Domestic Abuse Bill (Joint) Committee 9:55 pm, 9th September 2019

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is absolutely right that the best way to deal with the vast majority of the issues in these reports is through a re-established Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. He is also right that many of the provisions were not penned by this Government, so it is difficult to respond to them all in the way that the Members who tabled them might want. However, there is a particular urgency around dealing with the issues regarding access to abortion. I gently remind the Secretary of State of the report published by my Women and Equalities Committee in April, which made wide-ranging recommendations after having spoken to many people on the ground in Northern Ireland, many political parties and many organisations. Opposition Members are absolutely right to say that there is a huge cross-section of views on the issue in Northern Ireland, which is why it would be better for them to be dealt with locally.

I will make two short points. First, the chief medical officer for Northern Ireland told my Committee directly and in public that doctors are not currently able to fulfil their duty of care to patients in Northern Ireland in cases of fatal foetal abnormality. Not all abortions are connected with fatal foetal abnormality, but we are expecting women in some situations to continue pregnancies when they know that their babies are going to die. I would not want that for any member of my family, for any of my constituents, or for any other resident in the United Kingdom, so that has to change. It cannot be acceptable to the UK Government that a chief medical officer is saying that doctors are unable to fulfil their duty of care. The law has to change, even if just for this particular issue, and, in line with the amendment from Stella Creasy at previous stages of this Bill, a broader amendment would be preferable.

Secondly, this is not just about the legal framework. Abortion has been readily available in Northern Ireland for just a handful of people in recent years, so there has been a significant loss of professional expertise and services on the ground. If the law is to be changed in March next year, as is currently outlined in statute, significant work must be done at all levels of the health service in Northern Ireland to ensure that it can deliver on what will be a coherent law at that stage. I know my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would not allow anything else to happen.

Finally, how will the Secretary of State ensure scrutiny of those who will be developing the services necessary to implement the law as it will stand in March of next year or as it will stand when a Northern Ireland Executive come into place? Of course, if an Executive are in place, the Assembly can scrutinise matters, but if one is not, will my right hon. Friend please think carefully about how to ensure that things work properly? Perhaps the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee here in Westminster could do that scrutiny, or perhaps he could set up a panel of interested parties, but that is not something that he can leave hanging.