Abortion in Northern Ireland

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:25 am on 25th March 2021.

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Photo of Brandon Lewis Brandon Lewis The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 11:25 am, 25th March 2021

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.