On Monday we made the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2021, and we laid them before Parliament on Tuesday. We have taken that important step because women and girls are still unable to access high-quality abortion and post-abortion care in Northern Ireland, in all the circumstances that they are entitled to under the law made by Parliament in the absence of the Northern Ireland Executive, and reconfirmed in the regulations laid last March.
This is about ensuring compliance with the legal duties that Parliament imposed on me in mid-2019. The legal duties on me as Secretary of State are clear: I must ensure that the recommendations in a specific report by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women are implemented in Northern Ireland. We are not seeking to open the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020, which were approved by a significant majority in Parliament last year. Those regulations delivered a CEDAW-compliant legal framework, ensuring that the health and safety of women and girls, and clarity and certainty for the healthcare profession, remains paramount, while also remaining sensitive to the circumstances in Northern Ireland.
This is not about new laws; this is about ensuring that the existing law is acted on and delivered. As I am sure many right hon. and hon. Members will agree, at the heart of this matter are women and girls who have been, and continue to be, denied the same rights as women in the rest of the UK. Women and girls are entitled to safe, local healthcare. Indeed, during the pandemic, that has been even more crucial. The law changed more than a year ago, and abortion services should now be available as a healthcare service in Northern Ireland, so that women and girls can safely access local services. This is not a new issue or a surprise for the Executive.
Following the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 receiving Royal Assent and section 9 duties coming into effect, we engaged with all Northern Ireland parties on this matter, and we continue to engage. We have always sought to deliver in a way that respects the devolution settlement, by putting in place a legal framework, and recognising that healthcare is devolved and therefore service provision should be delivered and overseen locally by the Department of Health, as well as by health bodies with the relevant legal powers, policy and operational expertise to do so.
We are disappointed by the continuing failure of the Department of Health and the Executive to commission abortion services that are consistent with the regulations, despite having extensively engaged on this issue for more than a year. I recognise that local interim service provision has been established from April last year, resulting in more than 1,100 procedures being accessed locally. I put on record my thanks to those medical professionals who have done what they can to ensure that women and girls have had some local access to services in Northern Ireland to date, and to those organisations that have supported that work. Looking ahead, I want to be clear: our strong preference is, and remains, for the Minister of Health and his Department to take responsibility for upholding these rights, commissioning services, and delivering on what the law now clearly allows.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. Will the Secretary of State confirm to the House that paragraphs 85 and 86 of the CEDAW report are not legally binding on the United Kingdom, and do not constitute international obligations, as confirmed in the explanatory notes to the 2021 regulations, therefore undermining the whole premise for forcing a change in Northern Ireland’s abortion law in 2019? Can the Secretary of State also confirm that according to the devolution settlement established by the Belfast agreement, access to abortion services is a devolved issue and this action represents a breach of the Belfast agreement? Furthermore, can he confirm that his sole legal basis for intervention in this area is section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, and that during the passage of that Bill, which was opposed by every Northern Ireland MP who took their seat, it was made clear that the only reason Parliament was interfering in this issue was that there was no sitting Assembly at that time?
Will the Secretary of State explain why he has chosen to take action to use his powers in relation to abortion under section 9 but has failed to act in his duties in relation to the Executive’s failure to introduce payments for victims, under section 10 of the same Act? I know that the Secretary of State shares my support for the Union, but does he not understand that at the heart of the devolution settlement must be a respect for areas that have been determined to be for the devolved authorities? There is still time for him to think again before he takes action that will undermine and further destabilise the devolved institutions. It is time for the Government to recognise the error of their ways, repeal section 9 and restore Northern Ireland’s life-affirming laws.
I recognise the hon. Lady’s consistent position on this, the strength of feeling on this issue and the contributions she has made in previous debates and conversations in this House, and indeed in the conversations she has had with me and with the Minister of State, my hon. Friend Mr Walker.
It is important to be clear that Parliament stepped in. Parliament placed me under this legal obligation during a period of no functioning devolved Government in Northern Ireland. Even though the Executive and the Assembly have now been in place for more than a year, those legal duties do not fall, and have not fallen, away.
I appreciate the points the hon. Lady made about comparisons with payments to victims, but I should point out that that matter is being progressed by the Executive; it is being delivered on, that scheme will open shortly and victims will be paid. I share the frustration of a number of Members in this House that the Department of Finance and the Executive have not yet allocated the moneys that the Department of Justice needs to move forward with that, and I hope that they will move on with that. However, that scheme is actually being progressed by the Executive, and the victims will be able to apply shortly.
We have been clear, and we have conveyed the message to the Health Minister and his Department throughout, that it is crucial that abortion, as a fundamental healthcare service, is delivered and overseen locally by the Department of Health. That ensures that it is delivered in a sustainable way and becomes embedded in the health and social care system in Northern Ireland in the long term.
I fully appreciate that abortion is an extremely emotive subject, but we must not lose sight of the women and girls in Northern Ireland who are absolutely at the heart of this matter. It is unacceptable that there are women and girls in part of the UK who cannot access these fundamental rights, as they can elsewhere in the UK. Even though the law was changed some 12 months ago, services have not been commissioned yet, and that leaves many women and girls in vulnerable positions.
I have spoken to many women and healthcare professionals in Northern Ireland, and some of their experiences are truly harrowing. Too many women and girls are still having to travel to other parts of the UK—to mainland Great Britain—to access this care. One story was of a much-wanted pregnancy where, sadly, doctors informed the mother that the baby would not survive outside the womb. This woman had to travel to London, without her network of family support, to access healthcare. She described to me a harrowing ordeal, where she was unable to travel back on a flight to her home because of complications and bleeding. She was stranded in London, alone, grieving and in pain. I have been informed of two other women who have attempted suicide in the past year after their flights were cancelled and so they were unable to travel to England for proper care.
The distress and unacceptable circumstances that women and girls continue to face at a time when local access should be readily available, given that the law changed more than a year ago, is unacceptable. It is only right that women and girls in Northern Ireland are able to make individual informed decisions with proper patient care, the provision of information and support from medical professionals, based on their own health and wider circumstances—similar to women and girls living elsewhere in the United Kingdom. We have used every opportunity and avenue to encourage progress and offer our support over the past year. That is why I am so disappointed that we have reached this impasse.
We take this step now to further demonstrate our commitment to ensuring that women and girls can safely access services in Northern Ireland. Our priority is to ensure that the Department of Health takes responsibility for commissioning full services, consistent with the conditions set out in the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020. That is why we are moving forward in this way. While Parliament considers the regulations, we will continue to engage with the Minister of Health and the Executive to try to find a way forward over the coming weeks before any direction is given.
Carla Lockhart has done the House a service by raising this issue. Her predecessor gave the House his advice on relationships before he left.
The choice is between compassion and politics. I put it to the Secretary of State that the key point is this: if there is going to be an abortion, it should be legal, safe, early and local. There has been too much delay. Let us put first the interests of women and girls. Going south or coming east is not the answer. Let us get on with it. I hope he understands he will have support from most people in Northern Ireland.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have to make sure that people are getting access to the right healthcare. It is a legal obligation on us following the Parliament vote, but he is right that we need to make sure people get the right healthcare at the right time and in the right way, and do not have to go through the challenges they face at the moment.
I thank Carla Lockhart for raising this important issue. We respect the dearly held convictions of all those who make their case today, but it is important to remember how we reached this point. The existing laws, according to the United Nations, amounted to a “grave and systematic” violation of women’s rights in Northern Ireland. This Parliament had and still has a duty to act to uphold those rights.
The amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Stella Creasy gave women in Northern Ireland a right to a safe, local abortion. Parliament made its will clear. No longer will we ask women to use unsafe, unregulated services or to make a heartbreaking journey across the Irish sea to seek an abortion in Britain. That was why the vote on that amendment tabled by my hon. Friend passed overwhelmingly. It was the clear will of this House.
Nineteen months on from that vote, it is extraordinary that women and girls are still being denied safe, local services. We know of more than 100 women who have been denied access to services, leaving them in the desperate situation of travelling alone across the Irish sea or accessing unregulated medicine online. The cycle of inaction must end, so I urge Ministers in Northern Ireland to commission these vital services.
The cross-party letter supporting the Secretary of State’s decision to step in demonstrates the continued strength of feeling across the House. The Government will have our full support when the regulations come before the House for a vote, but I would be grateful if the Secretary of State could provide a date for when that is likely to be. Can he also outline the deadline for when he intends to use the powers contained within the regulations if services have not been commissioned in Northern Ireland? Will it be before the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission takes him to court in May?
As a Welsh Member of Parliament, I fully understand the sensitivities around the devolution settlement. The United Kingdom is at its best when we work together to uphold fundamental rights, and those obligations lie with this Parliament and with the UK Government. Labour has always been clear that where those rights are being denied, there is a moral and legal duty for the Government to act. That is happening now in Northern Ireland. Quality healthcare is a basic human right. The time to act has long come and gone. For the sake of women and girls in Northern Ireland, it is vital that access to these services is commissioned immediately.
The hon. Lady has strongly and powerfully outlined the importance of why we all hope that the Minister of Health in the Northern Ireland Executive will move forward and commission services in a way that is right and appropriate in Northern Ireland, using that local knowledge and expertise and making it, as I said in my opening remarks, sustainable. She has strongly outlined the cross-party support for that, and I know that colleagues on the Government Benches have argued strongly for this in the past as well. The House showed, through the size of the vote last year, a strong will to see this healthcare properly provided, as it rightly should be across the UK so that people can get the support and care that they need close to home and locally. I appreciate her comments and her support for that.
May I ask my right hon. Friend how many women and girls, during the pandemic, have had to make that awful journey across to England, Wales or Scotland to have an abortion?
My right hon. Friend highlights the point that the simple answer is too many. To be frank, any single case is one too many, particularly if we think about the circumstances through the pandemic, and I outlined a couple of harrowing examples a few moments ago. Having to travel across to mainland Great Britain without the network of family support that one would normally hope to have when going through this kind of procedure with medical support is just a harrowing thought, and some of the stories are just too emotive to do justice to or to outline here today. We have to ensure that that does not continue and that people can get the support they need close to home, locally in Northern Ireland.
I thank the Secretary of State for his efforts to uphold the human rights of all women in the United Kingdom. The Department of Health in Northern Ireland has said that, because this is a new service, it will need additional funding to provide it. Will the Secretary of State confirm that his officials have spoken to the Department of Health and that the funding will be provided, so cost will not be a barrier to ensuring that the women and girls of Northern Ireland can access abortion should they wish to do so?
We are talking to the Department of Health all the time, and we will obviously continue to—I myself have spoken to the Minister of Health consistently. This is something that the Department has the funding for. There is a substantial block grant for the Executive to make their decisions, and we got that £900 million uplift in the spending review just last year. The Department of Finance outlined just a few weeks ago the underspend on last year, so there is no issue with money. At the moment, there is obviously a substantial cost for people who are having to travel from Northern Ireland to mainland Great Britain, in a way that is financially inappropriate, let alone unjustifiable morally and in healthcare terms.
So this is something that the Northern Ireland Executive can provide and that the Department of Health should be moving on with. We will continue to work with them to ensure that that is done, giving them whatever support we can, but, ultimately, I think we would all much rather see this being provided and worked through by the Department of Health locally in Northern Ireland than this Parliament having to take the action we are taking now.
Does the Minister agree that if this House is to help preserve the Union and respect the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland, we should refrain from imposing unwanted primary legislation on this part of the UK? After all, poll after poll shows that Northern Irish voters are against the liberalisation of abortion laws.
On this occasion, Parliament stepped in on human rights grounds to ensure that women and girls have equal treatment and equal access to important healthcare services available to women and girls living in other parts of the United Kingdom. We also need to be clear that this is not something we have unilaterally imposed on Northern Ireland. We undertook a public consultation on the regulations in late 2019, which included engagement with, and carefully listening to the views of, the Northern Ireland political parties, medical professionals, women’s groups, civil society, religious organisations, service providers and women with lived experience. It is now crucial that the Department of Health in Northern Ireland takes responsibility for commissioning abortion services in line with the legislative framework that is in place.
This week, the all-party parliamentary group on sexual and reproductive health, which I co-chair, along with the president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the president of the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare and the chair of the Northern Ireland regional FSRH, wrote a letter supporting the Secretary of State’s actions. Clinicians are frustrated by the continued failure to commission abortion services in Northern Ireland and cannot see any legitimate reason for the delay in commissioning services, which are governed by regulations. What message does the Secretary of State want to send today to clinicians in Northern Ireland?
I appreciate all the right hon. Lady’s comments. There are two clear messages. First, I thank all those medical professionals for the work they have been endeavouring to deliver; as I say, there has been some provision on the ground since April last year, with around 1,100 women and girls looked after. Secondly, however, we recognise the need to ensure that, while Parliament considers these regulations, we work with the Department of Health in Northern Ireland to commission these services in the way that it should have been doing in the first place, rather than our having to take action here in this Parliament.
Yesterday, the Women and Equalities Committee heard from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission on this subject. We heard harrowing stories, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has pointed out, including of women forced to take overnight ferries to the United Kingdom for a termination having to return the same day, because of course, during the pandemic, no hotels were open for them to stay in. I know he takes this duty seriously and that we are discussing this today because of the failure to commission safe services locally. I thank him for the action he is taking, but also ask that he uses every endeavour to make sure that services are commissioned swiftly, so no more women have to make those journeys.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I give her my assurance that we will continue to work with the Department of Health to ensure that it commissions these services as quickly as possible. Obviously, the principle of these regulations, which are subject to the affirmative procedure here in the House, means that we will have the power to direct should we need to do so. I hope that, in the next few weeks, while Parliament debates and discusses this issue, the Department of Health, which we stand ready to support and work with, is able to commission these services locally, so that, as she outlined, women and girls in Northern Ireland can get good, appropriate healthcare, in the way that anyone across the United Kingdom can, locally in Northern Ireland. That is what should happen, and I hope that it will, but we must make sure it does.
We of course want women in Northern Ireland to have access to the best healthcare, but we also believe passionately in protecting the life of the unborn child in Northern Ireland. That view is shared right across our society and is the view of a majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Government seek not only to impose abortion regulations on Northern Ireland but to direct the Northern Ireland Executive to implement regulations that they never signed up to. Surely it should be left to local Ministers to decide what services to commission and not for Westminster to impose its view, in breach of the devolution settlement.
As I said earlier, I absolutely recognise the sensitivity and the strength of feeling of people across the House, in some cases, and as the right hon. Gentleman outlines, in Northern Ireland. First of all, this is about ensuring that we follow through on the legal obligations that Parliament put on me. It is also only right that women and girls in Northern Ireland are able to make those individual, informed decisions, with the right medical support and advice provided locally, based on their own health and wider circumstances, in the way that women and girls living elsewhere in the United Kingdom can. I absolutely fervently hope that the Department of Health in Northern Ireland and the Minister for Health in Northern Ireland will take this forward and deal with it locally, so that Parliament does not need to take further action.
I thank the Secretary of State not only for taking this action but for using the power of the Dispatch Box to tell harrowing tales of what women and girls have had to suffer. I went to Northern Ireland some years back and heard those same tales, and I vowed that I would do what I could to bring about this change. Equally, I have respect for those across the divide who have a very different view. Does he agree that views are now irrelevant, and that what is relevant is the law? The law is clear and has been passed by Parliament—a view has been expressed by Parliament. If that were not the case, does he agree that another of those unfortunate victims in Northern Ireland would have to go through the court process and compel him to act?
My hon. Friend has been a powerful voice on this issue, along with other colleagues, over the last period. I know that a number of people appreciate the support he has given and everything he has done to make sure that women and girls in Northern Ireland get the right support and care. He is absolutely right: we really should not be in a position where people have to bring this matter to court individually in order to get the right healthcare. Parliament has put a legal obligation on us. There is now a legal requirement and a legal duty. I hope the Department of Health in Northern Ireland will take this forward itself, but we obviously have a legal and moral obligation in this House to follow through on the legal obligations that were put in place in 2019.
I thank the Secretary of State for his robust defence of the human rights of women in Northern Ireland. I wonder whether he is aware of the troubling reports of women being wilfully misled by anti-abortion organisations, which encourage them towards anti-choice clinics, disguising themselves as abortion services. These clinics then string the women along until they are over 10 weeks, so ensuring that they cannot access early medical abortions in Northern Ireland.
That is happening because of a failure to commission services as there is not a clear pathway to abortion services. Have the Government made an assessment of how many women have been prevented from accessing early medical abortion services because they are being directed to these clinics?
The hon. Lady makes a very important point. Even putting aside the legal and moral obligations of this House to ensure that the right healthcare is being provided in Northern Ireland, doing nothing, as some people may make a case for—I understand the sensitivities behind this—does not actually mean that nothing is happening. Doing nothing actually means that people are at risk of the kind of problems and misleading guidance and advice that the hon. Lady has rightly outlined.
There is also a risk that people turn to unofficial, shall we say, healthcare—inappropriate healthcare—that does not give them the right sort of healthcare. Actions and procedures then end up being performed illegally and in back-door areas in a way that means that people are not getting the right sort of support and healthcare. That leads to other complications and problems.
As the hon. Lady has said and others have referred to, as I did earlier, there are too many harrowing examples of people who have not been able to get access to healthcare in the right way. Whatever our views on these matters and the sensitivities, we need to ensure that women and girls in Northern Ireland, like those in the rest of the United Kingdom, have access to good quality advice and good quality, proper, official well advised healthcare that takes into account their own individual needs.
Given what the Secretary of State has just said about people being misled, will he be clear that the assertion that Northern Ireland is violating human rights obligations is simply untrue? CEDAW reports are not binding in law and the CEDAW convention, which is, does not even mention abortion.
Surely the Secretary of State must know that the imposition of this measure, against the express democratic wishes of the people of Northern Ireland, is not only unjust and unwelcome, but rooted in an entirely invalid assertion?
I say to my right hon. Friend that this is a matter of domestic law; I have been clear about that. It is about the legal obligation taken forward from this House in 2019. It requires us and the Northern Ireland Executive to ensure that they have an offer and services that are CEDAW-compliant. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that the implication and obligation of that are in domestic law; it is not an international law issue. But it is a domestic law.
These regulations are not actually about opening up the abortion laws themselves; they are about applying the laws in place that mean that Northern Ireland women and girls will have access to care in the same way as they would elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
Polling by Amnesty and others has consistently shown that Northern Ireland is pro-choice. I have had the great privilege of meeting Sarah Ewart and Denise Phelan—two women who have campaigned tirelessly for abortion rights and human rights in Northern Ireland. They both suffered the most traumatic and devastating of losses: fatal foetal abnormalities that meant that they needed an abortion. But they could not even access the most basic of healthcare in Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State make sure that their suffering and trauma and their bravery in speaking out and campaigning are not in vain? Does he agree that wherever in the world a woman is, she should have the right to choose and to have her dignity and human rights upheld?
The short answer is absolutely yes; the hon. Lady is absolutely right. I would go further. She has outlined a couple of specific cases. I did not name people, for a particular reason that she will appreciate. This is not a criticism of what she said at all. She is absolutely right and I know the individuals concerned. It is not just the poor access to healthcare and the harrowing examples that I outlined—the hon. Lady gave an example of a couple of people who have been through dreadful situations—but the bravery of those women in having the strength to stand up and highlight the issues so that others can understand. I also fully understand the abuse that they have had to withstand for speaking out and being clear about their own experience. That is unacceptable and we should all be calling it out.
Will the Secretary of State be honest and open with the House? He quotes section 9 of the 2019 Act. This House took the fact that the Assembly was not sitting as an excuse to impose its views on Northern Ireland. The Assembly is now sitting. The abortion industry talks about the right to choose; what about the right to choose of the people of Northern Ireland? What would happen if they tried to impose their views on us? The fact of the matter is that Northern Ireland can run its own Government as long as they keep doing things that we do not disagree with. This is not democracy. Whatever our views on abortion, the Secretary of State is putting the Union at risk. The fact is that the overwhelming majority of the people of Northern Ireland believe in the sanctity of life. They oppose abortion. They have their own devolved Administration. They should be allowed to run their own affairs.
My right hon. Friend makes a strong point about devolution. It is absolutely right that the devolved Administrations have the ability to move on and deliver on their own affairs, and I absolutely hope that the Northern Ireland Department of Health will do that. This is not about us stepping in on a devolved matter, although I appreciate that others have made that case; it is about us ensuring compliance with the legal duties that Parliament imposed on us in mid-2019. Those duties are such that I am under an obligation to ensure that all the recommendations in the CEDAW report are implemented in Northern Ireland. The fact that the Northern Ireland Executive are back—that is a very good thing, and I hope they will take this forward; of course, they have been able to take it forward themselves with any amendments they like—does not remove the legal obligation on the Government to take forward what was voted on in this House in 2019.
As a Northern Ireland MP, I strongly support what the Secretary of State is doing, and I stress that there is large-scale support in Northern Ireland for these actions. It is simply not tenable to have a right on paper but not in practice, and for different reproductive rights to exist across the UK. Will he give a timeframe in which he may potentially use these powers, and an assurance that he will not allow the Northern Ireland Executive to drag this issue out indefinitely?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will see that our laying these regulations now is a clear indication that we are not in a position where we think it is appropriate for this to be dragged on much further. Obviously, there is a process through this House; the regulations are subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, so the House will discuss and debate them. I passionately hope that, in the next few weeks, while this House is doing that, there is still time for the Department of Health and the Northern Ireland Executive to take this on board and take it forward in a way that is right and appropriate for them, with the expertise that they have locally, and to do so driven by the Department of Health in Northern Ireland. However, we are taking this power as a clear indication that that cannot go on indefinitely and they do need to take action.
Is it not true that this legislation was based on an incorrect assumption that Northern Ireland was in violation of human rights obligations? Repeated assertions were made—they have been made even today in this place—that this is a matter of human rights law. Those were based originally, as I understand it, on the work of a small working group of CEDAW. May I ask the Secretary of State again: is it not correct that that CEDAW report is not binding in international law and that this Parliament chose to treat certain assertions in it as binding? Surely, that is no answer to the unwarranted and unwanted imposition of this legislation on Northern Ireland’s people now that their Assembly is back up and running.
As I have outlined, these regulations are about the UK Government fulfilling our legal obligations imposed by Parliament in 2019, and it is about ensuring that women and girls in Northern Ireland have access to the same quality and kind of healthcare that they would have anywhere else in the United Kingdom. As Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, it is right that people in Northern Ireland have access to healthcare in the same way they would if they were on mainland Great Britain.
The Secretary of State on a number of occasions has talked about healthcare for women and girls, and we concur—it is important to look after expectant mothers and young pregnant woman—but the one thing he has not mentioned and the one person he has not mentioned is the right of the unborn child. If Parliament is seeking to overlook the devolutionary settlement in that regard and he is seeking to do that, who will look after the rights of the unborn child?
The hon. Gentleman has outlined the strength of feeling, and as I said earlier, I appreciate that there are strong feelings on this issue. It is a sensitive issue across the United Kingdom—we refer to Northern Ireland, but I know that people have strong views on this across the House and across the country. He has also outlined, I would argue, why it is right that we ensure and the Department of Health ensures that women and girls have access to proper quality, qualified healthcare and support in Northern Ireland, as they would elsewhere in the United Kingdom, to ensure that they are not being treated unofficially, potentially by people who are not properly qualified to assess the genuine individual needs of any given case. A medical professional is, and that is why it is right that this is done in the way that it is elsewhere in the UK and they get the proper support that they should be and are entitled to.
There is nothing more important than the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but this relationship needs to be built on mutual respect, not coercion. These abortion regulations are a democratic and constitutional assault on Northern Ireland. Can my right hon. Friend explain why he has taken on new powers to enforce measures on abortion that were predicated on the continued absence of a sitting Assembly, when that Assembly has now been in situ for over 14 months and has voted against the first section 9 regulations?
As I have said, the legal duties imposed by a significant majority of Parliament in mid-2019 are such that I have an ongoing role legally in this issue, and that duty did not fall away with the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland. My clear preference is and has always been that the Department of Health takes responsibility for delivering this healthcare, and to that end, we have given every opportunity and offered support to the Minister of Health and his Department to take this forward for more than a year now, but no progress has been made. While Parliament considers these regulations, we will continue to engage with the Minister of Health and the Executive to try to find a way forward over the coming weeks before any direction is considered to be given.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s clear reference to the duty on him and welcome his personal work to learn of these harrowing cases; I totally agree that one journey made, particularly in an epidemic, is far too much. Does he agree that the United Kingdom seeks to be a beacon across the world for the rights of women and girls and supports many countries in access to healthcare, including abortions, and that the continued lack of this service within the United Kingdom is a stain on our reputation? I know that, as a strong Unionist, he is keen to assert that. Does he agree that getting this sorted now and working with Northern Ireland is critical to the future of the United Kingdom and the role that we want to play in the world?
The hon. Lady makes an important and powerful point, which does not surprise me, because I know that she has worked hard on this issue and been a strong proponent of it for some time, including in her previous role as shadow Minister for Northern Ireland. I commend her for the work she has done, particularly with the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office. I know that she has always been a fulsome supporter of ensuring that women and girls in Northern Ireland get access to the same quality healthcare that they would elsewhere in the United Kingdom. She is quite right that that allows the United Kingdom to continue to lead globally in making the case for ensuring that women and girls around the world get the good-quality healthcare that they rightly deserve.
My right hon. Friend has rightly referred to the sensitivities around abortion not only in the United Kingdom but across the world. However, the situation here is that we in this House imposed on Northern Ireland rules when the Assembly was not sitting. The Assembly is now sitting and considering what is appropriate for Northern Ireland. Would he not consider stepping back and saying, “Let us hear from the Executive and the Assembly,” and then dropping the powers that we imposed in the emergency?
I recognise that Parliament stepped in at the time it did in the way it did and imposed this duty on me on human rights grounds. However, the duty to implement the CEDAW recommendations in this context, as I have said, is a matter now of domestic law, with that legal obligation. We as a Government take our responsibility and our obligations in this regard very seriously and have always engaged constructively with the UN treaty body processes. It is only right that women and girls in Northern Ireland now are able to access safe local healthcare similar to that available to women and girls living elsewhere in the United Kingdom. I fervently hope, as I have outlined already this afternoon, that this is something the Department of Health and the Executive, even in these next few weeks, will find a way to be able to take forward in the way they feel is most appropriate for Northern Ireland, and to do so in a positive way for women and girls in Northern Ireland, therefore avoiding us as a Government or as a Parliament having to take any further action.
The Secretary of State tells the House that he is under a duty to invoke a piece of law that has been overtaken by another piece of law. The actual law on standing today is the devolved settlement, which is very clear that abortion is a devolved matter and services arising from that are a devolved matter.
The Secretary of State speaks very emotively and emotionally from the Dispatch Box today saying that he speaks for women and children—“for women and girls”, I think was his phrase—and that he has a moral obligation to do that. Where is his moral obligation to stand at that Dispatch Box and defend the most vulnerable of lives—the unborn life? When is someone from the Government going to actually do that and defend that vulnerability, or is the unborn life an unfortunate commodity that can be disposed of so lightly? That is the point that is being made.
The carefully balanced New Decade, New Approach agreement, which the Secretary of State is signed up to, is being upset by the Secretary of State. Indeed, today’s report, the “Review of UK Government Union Capability”, says:
“A core principle underpinning…devolution…is…respect”.
Where is the respect for the Government of Northern Ireland, for the people of Northern Ireland and for the unborn lives in Northern Ireland?
I do recognise the point the hon. Gentleman has made, and it is a point he has made to me directly on a number of occasions, about the unborn child. I have to say and I appreciate that this is an area where we do not have a similar view. There are many where we do, but not on this one. I do actually think that the situation of an unborn child is a hugely important issue, and it is something that we do need to ensure is properly respected and understood. The best way to do that is to make sure that proper, qualified, official health officials are able to give the right care, advice and support to women and girls in Northern Ireland. Part of the danger of the situation at the moment is that there are too many cases of women and girls, as was outlined by Members earlier this afternoon, who are sadly taking advice from the wrong quarters, making bad decisions and suffering badly—and, potentially, unborn children suffering badly—through bad healthcare that is not properly provided. I would argue that that is also a reason why this should be taken forward.
I do agree that I would like to see this being taken forward in the most appropriate way for Northern Ireland by the Northern Ireland Executive. They have not been able to do that over the last year, and there is still—even after the New Decade, New Approach deal, which we are all working to ensure is delivered, even in the difficult times of covid—a legal duty on me, as per the Act of Parliament in 2019, to make sure that these services are provided. I will continue to work with the Department of Health to make sure we do everything we can to make sure this is taken forward locally in Northern Ireland, but this does need to be taken forward.
I thank the Secretary of State for the care and sensitivity with which he has approached this matter. He knows that I, as a Unionist, am deeply uncomfortable with the position that we find ourselves in. However, I equally accept that he has a legal duty to act based on amended legislation and votes in this House. Can the Secretary of State confirm that it is possible for the Northern Ireland Assembly to develop its own plans provided that they are CEDAW-compliant, and that it is still the policy of the UK Government that sex-selective abortion is illegal?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I absolutely respect that point and his feelings on the issue. He is right that abortion remains a devolved issue, as others have rightly outlined. The Assembly can therefore seek to amend the regulations in a way that is compliant with convention rights. I absolutely recognise the sensitivities on the issue and take them very seriously, but the regulations, as he has highlighted, do not allow abortions on the grounds of sex selection. We will continue to work with the Department of Health to ensure that the right and proper official healthcare can be provided for women and girls in Northern Ireland on what is a very sensitive issue.
Women in Northern Ireland have waited decades for the same rights as women in the rest of the UK. Since the regulations became law at least 200 women have had to travel to Britain in the middle of a pandemic to access abortion services, and the Northern Ireland abortion and contraception taskforce reports that two women attempted suicide after their flights were cancelled and they were unable to travel for abortion in the absence of safe and legal healthcare in their own area. For those listening today, how long will they now have to wait for abortion services in Northern Ireland to be commissioned? Will the Secretary of State put a deadline on using the powers outlined in the written ministerial statement on Tuesday?
The hon. Lady has outlined some of the harrowing examples that too many of us have heard or read about. We need to ensure that that does not happen to women and girls in the future. That is why we are bringing forward these regulations now. I fervently hope that we will be able to work with the Northern Ireland Executive, and that the Department of Health with the Executive will find a way to take this forward. The timeframe for the regulations is now a matter for this House, as it is an affirmative procedure situation, but it is clear from the fact that we are bringing this forward that the situation described by the hon. Lady will not be allowed to continue. We are putting these regulations in place so that we are able to take this action should we need to; it is a clear indication. If the Northern Ireland Executive are going to sort this out themselves, they need to do so swiftly—otherwise, once the measures have been through Parliament, we will be looking to ensure that these services are provided in Northern Ireland.
Although some people may wish to use this opportunity to reopen the discussion on the abortion regulations themselves, does my right hon. Friend agree that that time has passed and that instead we should be focused on ensuring that the legal right for women and girls to access full abortion services in Northern Ireland is implemented?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are not seeking to reopen the debate on the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020, as they were approved by a significant majority of the House. They delivered a framework that strikes a balance between delivering CEDAW compliance, ensuring the health and safety of women and girls, and giving clarity and certainty to healthcare professionals. I want to put on record my thanks to the medical professionals in Northern Ireland who have been working to deliver and support the rights of women and girls in this regard so far, but it is crucial that the Department of Health in Northern Ireland takes responsibility for delivering these services in line with the regulations.
Madam Deputy Speaker, may I pass on my appreciation to Mr Speaker for allowing this urgent question? In my view, the Secretary of State should have been in the House on Tuesday and he should have brought forward a ministerial statement.
I am pleased with the Secretary of State’s comments in response to the last question, because throughout the course of this urgent question to suggest that this is about applying the law, and offering appropriate and quality healthcare, dismisses entirely the fact that our healthcare professionals are applying the law. The chief medical officer was incredibly clear about that this morning; he has taken it upon himself to advise healthcare professionals of their obligations, and the services are being provided. That has been lost in the course of this urgent question. Can I ask the Secretary of State to be incredibly clear with the House—at any point, even though services are being provided today, has the Health Minister in Northern Ireland suggested that he will not commission those services?
A few points arise from what the hon. Gentleman has just outlined. First, the action we have taken this week was outlined on the Floor of the House during oral questions. We laid a statement on Tuesday. This action is being taken under the affirmative procedure, so it will be a matter for debate and can be properly discussed in this House. It is about our legal obligations as per 2019 to ensure that the services are properly provided.
We are now, as an hon. Friend outlined earlier, some 14 months on from the re-establishment of the Executive and the Department of Health is not at this stage providing the full range of services, although the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that, as I outlined in my opening remarks on this urgent question, some 1,100 individuals—women and girls—have been given services over the last period. I thank the health professionals for doing that, but there are still far too many individuals who are having to travel to mainland Great Britain to get the full range of medical support and services—services that are not available in Northern Ireland which are available elsewhere in the UK. We are under a legal obligation to ensure that that ability to access healthcare for women and girls in Northern Ireland is similar to that across the rest of the United Kingdom.