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

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.