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Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019: Section 3(5) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:40 pm on 17th October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 5:40 pm, 17th October 2019

My Lords, on 9 October reports were published providing an update on progress on executive formation, the transparency of political donations, higher education and a Derry university, the presumption of non-prosecution, Troubles prosecution guidance and the abortion law review. Today’s report is a further update, in line with the obligations under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019.

First, I take the opportunity to welcome the inclusion in the Queen’s Speech of the Bill on historical institutional abuse. I look forward to working with colleagues across the House to get that Bill passed so that we can begin to see redress for the victims in Northern Ireland. The people of Northern Ireland have gone for over 1,000 days without an Executive and Assembly. While efforts are being made to bring the parties back into that Executive, the current period for executive formation expires on Monday 21 October.

With regard to the obligations set out in the executive formation Act, should no Executive be formed before 21 October, this Government will be under a statutory duty to change the law in Northern Ireland on access to abortion services, same-sex marriage and opposite-sex civil partnerships and to introduce a new victims’ payment scheme. While every effort is being made to restore an Executive, appropriate steps are being taken to ensure that the Government will meet our obligations under the executive formation Act. In furtherance of that, an awareness campaign was launched last week to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland know how these changes to the law may affect them. Further information will continue to be provided in the coming weeks.

In the absence of a restored Assembly and Executive, the Northern Ireland Office has taken steps to ensure that the Government will fulfil our obligations on abortion. As part of the information campaign, on 7 October my department, working closely with the Department of Health in Northern Ireland, published guidance for healthcare professionals to provide clarity over the new state of the law and their duties and responsibilities. The guidance sets out the changes in law in this area from 22 October 2019 until a new regulatory framework is in place by the end of March 2020.

The immediate changes from 22 October, if the duty comes into effect, will be the repeal of Sections 58 and 59 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861 in Northern Ireland, meaning that no criminal charges can be brought under that Act against females who have an abortion or against qualified—I stress “qualified” —healthcare professionals or others who provide or assist in an abortion. There will also be a moratorium on current and future criminal investigations and prosecutions in this area.

The Government will introduce a new legal framework for abortion to come into force by 31 March 2020. It is worth noting that during this interim period, from 22 October 2019 until the new legal framework is in place, all other relevant laws relating to the termination of pregnancy will remain in place. This includes Section 25(1) of the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945, which makes it a criminal offence for anyone “in good faith” to assist or wilfully act to,

“destroy the life of a child then capable of being born alive”,

except where the purpose is to preserve the life of the mother.

From 22 October, women resident in Northern Ireland can continue to access services in England and will now have all of the costs of the procedure, including their travel and, where needed, accommodation costs, met by the UK Government. Healthcare professionals will be lawfully able to refer patients to services in England by providing the details of the central booking service or directing them to information available on the GOV.UK website.

It is anticipated that access to abortion services will not be routinely available in Northern Ireland until the new legal framework is in place by 31 March 2020. The guidance notes that if healthcare professionals choose to offer an abortion service to women during the interim period within the bounds of the relevant laws, they should do so in line with their professional competence and guidance from their professional body.

The guidance that we have issued also notes the state of play relating to conscientious objection, and what to do in cases where patients have purchased abortion pills online. Copies of that guidance will be lodged in the Library, and I am happy to provide further information or any updated versions as we go forward. To be clear, we will take forward all the work necessary to implement the new regulations by 31 March 2020.

In addition to changing the law on access to abortion services if the Northern Ireland Executive are not restored by 21 October, Parliament has an obligation to extend same-sex marriage and opposite-sex civil partnerships to Northern Ireland by 13 January 2020, and to introduce a system of victims’ payments by the end of January 2020, to be in force by the end of May 2020. I beg to move.