Blood Donations:  Ban on Gay Men

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:30 pm on 5th November 2013.

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Debate resumed on motion:

That this Assembly notes the ruling of the High Court on the decision to ban blood donations from gay men; further notes with concern that the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety's decision was found to be 'irrational', and to have been taken 'in breach of the Ministerial Code'; and calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to lift the ban and outline what steps he will take to build public confidence in relation to statutory equality duties.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I beg to move amendment No 1:

After second "ban" insert:

"from gay men who have been sexually inactive for more than 12 months"

I wish to indicate why the amendment is important.  We want to ensure that we have a safe blood supply available to anyone who needs it, but, when you look carefully at the wording of the amendment, you see that it is not replicating the decision of the relevant English authority, the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs (SaBTO). 

In the motion, the availability of blood is opened up much wider than is agreed elsewhere, and that introduces additional risks.  The purpose of my amendment is to reflect the decisions that were made by the independent committee that looks after the provision a safe blood supply to the United Kingdom and to reflect its wishes accurately about what should happen in Northern Ireland.  It is important that we take scientific advice on such matters rather than an individual's point of view.  I wish to go with that independent advice and with all the experts, scientists and related groups that have been involved.

In 2011, client groups — that is, those who regularly require blood transfusions — were involved, and it is important to reflect their wishes.  The motion as it stands would remove all restrictions on homosexual men giving blood, but that is not approved elsewhere.  What is approved is that those who have abstained from sexual activity for at least 12 months should be able to give blood if it is deemed safe to do so.  I move the amendment for that reason.

It is important that we maintain public confidence in the safety of our blood supply.  A range of factors restrict those who give blood, which involves short-term and longer-term issues.  People on medication may be banned for a matter of days or weeks until, for example, an antibiotic course is completed and cleared from their body so that it is not transferred to someone who might require a blood transfusion.  There are other practical issues, and there are bans related to travel.  People travelling to the West Nile region in Africa can be exposed to the West Nile virus.  There are also additional risks in parts of South America, and, for that reason, bans are imposed for a period of time.  If someone travels to an area in which malaria is prevalent, there is a ban period to minimise any risk from exposure.

Other areas have lifetime bans.  People who have been involved in prostitution or have ever injected drugs, even bodybuilding drugs as opposed to heroin, which might be more atypical in people's minds, are banned.  When one is exposed to such lifestyles, there are considerable additional risks, and science has deemed that there should be lifetime bans in such cases to protect the public.

Some areas require a shorter safety period to protect the public.  As I see it, that list of areas has some common sense.  The list includes people who have been, or who think that they may have been, sexually active in parts of the world, such as certain parts of Africa, in which HIV and AIDS are prevalent.  If a partner has ever injected or been injected with drugs, there is a 12-month ban.  There are additional risks if someone has a partner who has received money for drugs or sex.  If you think that a partner has HIV, hepatitis B or hepatitis C, that is another issue from which real medical issues and risks would flow.  For that reason, a 12-month ban is in place.

There have been developments in technology and testing, and it is deemed safe to use blood from a wide range of donors, provided appropriate periods are recognised.  Science has determined that it is now safe to receive blood from gay men who have abstained from gay sex for 12 months or more.  If that risk is deemed to be acceptable by scientists, along with the other risks that I listed, who are we to say no to that.  A wide range of risks exists when blood is donated and received.  However, there is also a big risk if there is a shortage of blood being donated and made available.  I think that we have to go with the best science and information on this, rather than someone's individual viewpoint.

We have to reflect the fact that Northern Ireland cannot survive as a stand-alone unit for the provision of blood.  There are so many blood types and many different blood products, which could cause difficulties and shortages, particularly if there was an emergency, as has happened from time to time, when blood supplies do have to be received in Northern Ireland from other parts of the United Kingdom.

As reflected in the court judgement, it has been deemed irrational to apply different standards to this part of the United Kingdom than those in other parts of the United Kingdom, particularly when we are willing to accept blood donated from other parts of the United Kingdom.  As such, I ask Members to support my amendment to protect the public and sustain the public's confidence in the safety of our blood supply.  I ask that we reflect on what has happened but, ultimately, respect the judgement of the independent Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs, which contains a wide range of scientific experts and has come to a scientific decision as to what is safe.  I ask Members to support my amendment.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

I beg to move Amendment No 2:

At end insert:

"or resign if he feels unable to do so."

As MLAs, we have the privilege of being able to articulate our views to quite a wide audience.  However, with that comes a responsibility to ensure that we are mindful of the impact that our words have on the wider community.

Those in the Government have an even greater responsibility to ensure that their actions are taken in such a way that serves the common good.  There will be occasions when that will require Ministers to put their personal views aside and act in accordance with the best evidence as to what is for the good of society.  For example, the previous Environment Minister, on a number of occasions, stated that he did not agree with the proposed 11-council model in the reform of local government.  However, as Minister, he acknowledged his responsibility as a member of the Executive, accepted the agreed way forward and progressed the reform of local government.  I anticipate that his successor will do the same.  That is responsible governance.  That is mature governance.  That is sound governance.  However, that is not what we have seen from our current Health Minister.

Edwin Poots appears to have been on a personal crusade to do all that he can to prevent people who are homosexual being treated equally to those who are heterosexual, whether it be in marriage equality, those in civil partnerships adopting or gay men donating blood.  To be fair, on equal marriage, he spoke as a Back Bencher and articulated his views from the point of view of a Minister who does not have responsibility in that area.  He had a democratic right to do that and a right to dissent from those who campaign for equal marriage.  However, his campaigns against gay men donating blood and against those in civil partnerships adopting have been done in his role as Minister.  He must reflect on his equality responsibilities.  I contend that his positions and actions to date have caused unacceptable harm.

3.45 pm

He causes harm to those children who seek adoptive parents.  He does harm to those couples who wish to provide an adoptive, loving home to such children.  Although I agree that no one has the right to adopt, we all have the right not to be discriminated against due to an irrational prejudice.  I include myself in that as an unmarried man in a stable, long-term relationship.  Should I and my partner seek to adopt, I would wish for us to be judged on whether we can provide a loving home and improve the outcomes for a child or young person, not to be discriminated against due to someone’s values.

Harm is also caused in this instance by —

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

If I have time, I will come back to the Member.

Harm is also caused by the Minister’s refusal to lift the permanent ban and, indeed to bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK on gay men donating blood.  No statistically significant increase is achieved by allowing men who have not had sex with other men in the past year to give blood.

This is in the context of the Minister himself having warned that, at times, there is a risk of a shortage in the supply of blood.  David Scoffield QC stated in the High Court:

"Working that figure into the increased risk of one infected donation per billion, we estimate the Minister is concerned about an additional infected donation being made roughly every 50,000 years."

So, in taking his position, the Minister is causing risk.  He is preventing a wider pool of blood donations when there is a risk to the health of those who need blood.  I believe that that causes unacceptable harm.

The Minister’s case becomes preposterous when we take into account Northern Ireland’s position in the UK.  There is no rational basis for a unilateral ban in Northern Ireland when we receive blood from the rest of GB.  Indeed, Justice Treacy described the Minister’s position as "irrational".  The decision in the UK was taken based on the best and most sound scientific evidence available, and I contend that the Minister’s decision has been based on neither evidence nor reason.

Further, we have to question the continued challenges that the Minister has engaged in to not just Justice Treacy’s ruling but the Information Commissioner’s ruling that the Minister should provide to the public the legal advice that he has received on this issue.  When the Minister continually takes spurious legal cases — I will document some of them later — and continually loses them, we have to call into question the advice that he is getting.  Is it a question of him receiving poor advice, or is it a question of him receiving advice from the Attorney General that he is not taking?  I think that it is in the public interest to know that.  The Information Commissioner has ruled that it is in the public interest for that information to be published.  Yet again, the Minister and the Attorney General are challenging that decision.  Again, I believe that that is unjustifiable.

I also have to call into question the Minister’s understanding of the courts' positions.  On 15 January, in response to a supplementary question on civil partners adopting, the Minister stated:

"we need to be very clear about this.  When it comes to these issues, the House will make the laws, and the courts will interpret them; not the other way around." — [Official Report, Vol 80, No 6, p25, col 1].

I think that that has been found to be a very naive and ignorant statement, given some of the recent court rulings.  Although it is right that this legislature makes laws, we do so in the context of existing local, regional, national and European laws that have been shaped over generations through amendment and precedent in the courts.  We must take that into consideration every time that we legislate in this House.  We cannot simply ignore the positions of the courts.  I, for one, am thankful that the authority of the court has been applied in the case of some of the Minister’s decisions. 

 

I would prefer to see the Minister spend less time and, indeed, less public money on spurious legal challenges and focus on his role as Health Minister in improving our health service.

I will list some of the expense from the public purse.  Since the financial year beginning April 2011, the Minister's Department has spent £328,521 on legal costs.  That is the most recent figure that I have received in response to questions for written answer.  Of that, £40,000 was spent defending his position on unmarried couples and those in civil partnerships adopting; £29,990 was spent as a result of the Minister's non-appointment of a trade unionist to the Northern Ireland Social Care Council; and £37,112 was spent on defending his stance on gay men donating blood.  That waste of public money is intolerable, and it is continuing.  Those are my most recent figures, but I believe that the costs have since gone up.

I said that I would give way to Mr Givan if I got the chance, so I will quickly give way.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

I appreciate the Member giving way.  He is usually generous in that regard.

He spoke about the Minister's personal values impinging on his ability to take decisions.  I do not read anywhere in Justice Treacy's judgement that personal view was ever taken into account.  Can he cite one example of where the Minister's personal views have impinged on his duties to carry out his job as Minister on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland?

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

I asked the Minister on a number of occasions, in questions for oral and written answer, to provide evidence of his position that adoption by unmarried couples and civil partners would do harm to the children that they would adopt.  That evidence was never provided, so I have concluded that his decision was irrational, as the courts concluded his decision on the gay blood ban was, and that his decisions are prejudiced, when you consider the scope of the Minister's decision across equality rights.

I ask the House to support the motion and my amendment, and I ask the Minister, if he cannot meet his equality duties, to resign.

Photo of Gordon Dunne Gordon Dunne DUP

It is imperative that public safety always be kept to the fore across the Department of Health, including in the realm of blood donation.  The Northern Ireland Blood Transfusion Service recognises that, and its website states that blood safety is crucial within its service.  Its website also states:

"Quality is regarded as of paramount importance at the Northern Ireland Blood Transfusion Service.  This commitment is demonstrated by the development of a quality management system which will ensure the provision of safe, efficacious and timely blood products and services for both patients and donors."

Safety and quality are, quite rightly, at the top of the agenda for our blood transfusion service as well as for our Health Minister, Edwin Poots.  It is quite right and proper that criteria be put in place to ensure adequate quality and a safe product.  The Health Minister, quite rightly, puts public safety to the fore and takes all precautions to ensure that the highest quality of blood is available for those who require it.

Locally, donors are asked a series of questions, covering health, travel and lifestyle.  That is all to ensure blood safety.  The Northern Ireland Blood Transfusion Service also states on its website:

"You should not donate if you have had a tattoo, ear or body piercing ... within the last 12 months."

That is an example of ensuring that quality standards are maintained.  It is right and proper that the risk of contaminating blood be minimised and public confidence maximised.  I was turned down some years ago from giving blood as I was deemed to have low blood pressure.  I recognise that that was in the interest of blood safety and of my health and that of any potential receiver.  It was not some form of discrimination.

The same legislation that applies across many developed countries, including the United States of America, Canada, Germany, Belgium, Sweden, Norway and the Republic of Ireland, is designed to ensure the highest possible standard of blood for those who need it.

The much publicised recent judicial decision states in paragraph 131 that blood donated from men who have been sexually active with other men increases the risk of acquiring blood-borne disease.  We would fail our communities if we did not ensure that all possible risks were reduced.

We are fortunate in Northern Ireland that we have relatively high levels of blood donation and are almost self-sufficient.  That is to be welcomed.  It is important that the goodwill in our communities when it comes to giving blood is recognised and not lost in some of the hysteria in this debate.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Gordon Dunne Gordon Dunne DUP

No, thank you.

We must continue to do all we can to improve the health service and maintain high levels of service and confidence for our public, whom we represent.

Photo of Fearghal McKinney Fearghal McKinney Social Democratic and Labour Party

While many of the headlines around the debate are about equality, fundamentalist views and irrationality, it is our view that primarily this is an issue of medical safety and medical science.  Many of us remember several horrific policy mistakes in the area of blood products, most notably in France — issues that go back some 30 years — and in the Republic of Ireland just 10 years ago.  Those led to strict rules limiting who could donate blood.  The premise was that what had happened before would not happen again; in other words, it would be "Safety first".

There are equality issues that arise in relation to the central safety issue, but "Safety first" means that the equality issues were and are secondary.  It is clear that the whole world is divided on the issue.  For example, there is no unequivocal international best practice.  Many jurisdictions with excellent equality records maintain lifetime bans on blood products from those involved in MSM relations, and it is worth highlighting some of them.  They include the USA, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Switzerland and the Republic of Ireland.  In all countries, there are many categories of people who may not or should not donate blood.  In every case, we have to look at risk factors first and equality implications thereafter. 

Giving blood is a good thing that should be encouraged, but it is not a human right.  Given the known and proven risk factors, the needs of those who receive blood products must always take precedence over those of the donors.  I encourage more people to consider giving blood, praise those who do so and praise the work of the Blood Transfusion Service.  Our job, though, as legislators, is to find the best way forward for those in dire need of a low-risk blood supply.  In dealing with real problems in real life, it is generally wise to avoid absolutist arguments about rights and wrongs and look to the greatest good.  All the bands and categories of donor are designed to reduce risk at the start of the supply chain.  That was the main option open to those who took the decisions in the wake of the blood supply controversies.  Real life is seldom black and white, and certainties change, which is demonstrably true in the case of blood transfusion and donation.  New science towards the end of the blood supply chain now allows us to see risk reduced to minuscule levels, and that is the game-changer in this discussion.  Scientific experts can now safely say that screening means that those minuscule levels can be reduced to as little as one case in 4·4 million getting through the screening process.  That applies across the board here and in the other regions of the UK that have changed their determination on who can now donate.

It is important to put some context to the judge's description of the Minister's decision as irrational.  That description referred only to the fact that there was an inherent contradiction in taking blood products from Britain, which includes blood from the MSM category, while rejecting that option here.  It is, of course, irrational, but it is also a red herring.  The irrational argument could easily be turned on its head if the source that allowed the MSM category blood was stopped.  Such an action, while possible, would not be sensible and, against the backdrop of new higher screening levels, would itself be potentially irrational, though, as I said, for that different reason.  So, we need harmony with the new English, Welsh and Scottish approach.

It is not the only irrational aspect of the discussion.  For those who are not allowed to donate blood, it would appear wholly irrational to deny someone who is in a long-term monogamous MSM relationship the option to give blood while allowing someone who is heterosexual and engaging in a range of sexual relationships to do so.  I suggest that there would be a greater risk in the latter.  That serves to underscore our central point:  the focus of the debate should be on the new science.  Embracing the new science removes the focus on all but the most high-risk categories.  It means that the lifetime ban on donations from men in the MSM category is no longer an effective additional defence.  While there may have been a bias on the part of the Minister, it is clear that the new science weakens that position considerably, and, while there may have been equality issues, it is the new science that changes and strengthens that dynamic.  In light of that new science, it is the view of the SDLP that it is safe to lift the ban and, in doing so, to address the secondary equality implications.  In our view, the Minister should do so.  If he feels unable to do so, perhaps he should hand the decision to his permanent secretary.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

The Member's time is almost gone.

Photo of Fearghal McKinney Fearghal McKinney Social Democratic and Labour Party

If he further feels unable, then perhaps he should consider his position.

Photo of Anna Lo Anna Lo Alliance

The Alliance Party supports the main motion and both of the amendments.  This is a serious debate and an opportunity for the Assembly to demonstrate that it is in line with public opinion on the issue.  It also provides a challenge to the Minister to demonstrate that he accepts the judgement of the courts on the matter and is now willing to do his duty and to move to a situation on blood donations from men who have had sex with men that is in line with the rest of the UK.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Anna Lo Anna Lo Alliance

No, I am sorry. 

Alliance believes that the current position of the Minister is irrational.  It is irrational in the sense that it does not follow scientific evidence around what is safe and what is unacceptably risky.  In 2012, the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs reviewed donor criteria and recommended that the lifetime ban on men who have sex with men was no longer required and that a 12-month deferral period was perfectly safe.  That is now the position in the rest of the UK but, regrettably, not in Northern Ireland.  As a consequence, there is a loss of dignity for some of our citizens who want to fulfil their civic duty through donating blood and are unreasonably prevented from doing so.  There is also a cost to society in a diminished blood supply.

The blood donation ban is also irrational in the sense that men who have had sex with men but have had no subsequent activity for a full year can donate blood in other parts of the UK.  Given that blood is regularly imported into Northern Ireland from other parts of the UK, local supplies collected under one set of protocols can be used alongside other supplies of blood that were collected on other terms.  No doubt, the Minister will argue that this is now a matter for the UK Health Minister, Jeremy Hunt.  That may be the case, but it is a cop-out from our Minister in that he retains the authority and capacity to bring the Northern Ireland situation into line with the rest of the UK.  The Minister also has a challenge to prove that he operates and takes decisions on the basis of objectivity, particularly when it comes to the rights of members of the LGBT society and other social issues.

The judgement from the courts on blood donation comes in the wake of other judgements against the position of the Minister on the potential ability for same-sex couples and unmarried heterosexual couples to adopt and the requirement to produce revised guidelines on the termination of pregnancy.  It remains to be seen what the Minister will do on the blood ban and on the matter of adoption.  Already, the revised guidelines on abortion from the Department are unravelling.  All of those are cited, as a pattern is emerging.  While the Minister insists that he has not acted out of prejudice, the burden of proof very much lies with him to demonstrate that he is acting rationally and objectively.

We support the first amendment in that it clarifies that, for now, we are talking about a consistent regime across the UK.  Ultimately, we should look to a situation where blood donation is regulated only on the basis of risk, independent of the sexual orientation and partners of donors.  In other words, all other things being equal, there should be no difference in eligibility to donate between men who have sex with other men and men who have sex with women.  To an extent, the second amendment is self-evident.  It is not a direct call for the Minister to resign; rather, it is a recognition that it would not be sustainable for the Minister to remain in office if he or she is not prepared to act in accordance with the law.  That is a core element of the ministerial code.

Photo of Pam Brown Pam Brown DUP

As a member of the Health Committee, I rise to speak against the motion. 

Yesterday, in the Chamber, we debated mental health.  Whilst opinions on the way forward may have differed, there was consensus that mental health affects a huge number of our population.  Sadly, the motion today is, perhaps, bringing us backwards in that it is opportunistic and has little to offer other than to score a political point or two.  Were we to vote on every ministerial decision taken in this place on these grounds, there would be few Ministers left standing.  It is worth noting that other parties here have not shown the same willingness to resign their Ministers when courts found against them. 

The nature of ministerial decisions is such that many go unnoticed and are routine, but some become controversial for one reason or another, and each Minister must defend his or her decisions.  It is a Minister's right to make decisions and the Assembly's right to challenge and hold to account.  I accept that.  Such is the nature of government.

In respect of the subject matter of the motion, the Minister takes the view that he is acting on grounds of safety and not of prejudice or bias.  I accept his good faith on that.  Whatever the arguments or political spin by rivals, I believe that he is a Minister who has the interests of the people at heart and is quite capable of displaying compassion and integrity.  His decisions may not please everyone, but that does not make them wrong.

I accept that others hold a different view on the rights of individuals to donate blood, whatever their orientation and background.  I respect that.  Perhaps, in time, the situation may change, but for now the Minister has chosen to move forward cautiously, and I really do not think that he can be criticised for that, particularly given the vast majority of countries that choose to keep a ban in place and show no signs of changing.

There will be many reasons why someone offering to give blood will have their blood refused.  Such reasons include current health conditions and even simply what medications they are using at the time.  We do not and should not talk about all those people being discriminated against or there being some issue of equality.  It is good to take all precautions to ensure that our blood —

Photo of Pam Brown Pam Brown DUP

No, thank you.

It is good to take all precautions to ensure that our blood supply is and remains safe.  Without wishing to sound disrespectful to those affected by it, the ban affects not just gay men but heterosexual women, those who have had sexual relationships in countries with high levels of HIV and those with hepatitis, amongst others.  There are more pressing matters —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Pam Brown Pam Brown DUP

No, thank you.

There are more pressing matters in the provision of healthcare to which we should devote our time and resources. 

Blood donation is a wonderful gift to those who need it.  I know that as a past recipient of donated blood, and I encourage all those who are able to donate to do so.

Photo of Mickey Brady Mickey Brady Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.  I support the motion.  I apologise for missing the beginning of the debate, as I was in a meeting with the Social Development Minister.

The recommendation from the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs was accepted in 2011 in England, Scotland and Wales.  The change of policy from a lifetime ban to a one-year deferral period for MSM came into effect there in November 2011, but the North did not follow suit.  The Rainbow Project states that 424 people, fewer than half of them men, access HIV specialist care in the North.  The figure in England is 1·23 people per 1,000; in Scotland, it is 0·59 people per 1,000; and it is 0·4 per 1,000 in Wales.  Taking those figures together, 1·12 people per 1,000 of the population in England, Scotland and Wales are in that category; in the North, it is 0·24 per 1,000.

The Minister stated that there were normally fewer than 1,000 units of imported blood per year.  Justice Treacy, in his judgement, stated:

"Importing blood from other places which do accept MSM donors, even in limited quantities, leaves the door open for MSM blood to do just that. There is clearly a defect in reason here. If there is a genuine concern about the safety of MSM donated blood such that the blood stock must be protected absolutely from such blood then the security of that blood must actually be maintained absolutely.  Applying a different standard to imported blood defeats the whole purpose of permanent deferral of MSM donors."

So there is irrationality in this.  It is interesting to note that, in an e-mail dated 9 June 2011, a senior medical officer in the Department confirmed that the Blood Transfusion Service had no particular issues with the suggested changes to the lifetime ban.

The designation of MSM blood as high-risk has a disproportionate effect on gay men and is, therefore, indirectly discriminatory.  The policy is also contrary to the EU principle of non-discrimination and to article 21 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.  The Minister says that the policy is not discriminatory on the basis of sexual orientation but makes provision for legitimate differences in treatment on the basis of behaviour.  However, as blood is being brought in from elsewhere, that, surely, is irrational. 

This is a controversial and cross-cutting issue.  It takes in equality issues and deals with the implementation of an EU directive.  The Minister should pay absolute attention to it.  In my view, it appears that the Minister is practising a form of what might be described as "à la carte unionism", because the ban in not in place in Britain.  His colleague Mr Givan, commenting recently on the National Crime Agency, stated that the North deserved equality with the rest of the UK.  Obviously, that does not work in reverse.  Mr Storey mentioned welfare reform during Question Time earlier.  Constantly, we in the Committee for Social Development are advised by our colleagues from the DUP that parity is paramount, so I will conclude on that.

Photo of David McIlveen David McIlveen DUP

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion.  There are certain things in life that you feel that you will never live to see.  I have to say that I have witnessed one today, in that we had a Sinn Féin Member vociferous in his desire to break parity on an all-island basis and have the powers taken over and devolved to the UK.  That must be a first.  I hope that it is a picture of things to come.

In all seriousness, we have to deal with some of the smokescreens thrown up in the debate.  This is not an equality issue or one that focuses entirely on those who fall within the MSM category.  It falls entirely on those who are involved in high-risk sexual activity.  It does not pinpoint a particular group.  A number of groups fall into the category that would be deemed high-risk.  Therefore, trying to cover it up as an issue of equality really takes us down a road that, I believe, has no merit whatsoever.

Photo of David McIlveen David McIlveen DUP

Not just at the moment.  If I have time, I will let the Member for North Down in.

It is not a morality issue either.  Trying to bring that smokescreen into the question is also erroneous. 

This is an issue of public safety and of a flawed judgement.  What astonishes me and what I find irrational in the debate is that every party in the House is not questioning that judgement.  It very clearly states that, even though the Health Minister is part of the Executive in the Northern Ireland Assembly, he is unable to make this decision now without the consent of the Health Minister in Westminster.  That is entirely anti-devolution.  So what astonishes me today is that single party in the House is not questioning the judgement.  Forget about its content:  on the premise of pure legality, we should all be alarmed by this and call it seriously into question.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP 4:15 pm, 5th November 2013

I thank the Member for giving way.  He makes a valid point about the legality of all this.  The motion calls on the Minister to act illegally by lifting the ban, which is a decision, as the Member has rightly indicated, that is now the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Health in England.  Therefore, Members of the House are calling on this Minister to break the law.

Photo of David McIlveen David McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for his intervention

If the issue were medically straightforward, we would not be having this debate.  The House must be fully aware that, to describe this country, as some have sought to do, as some sort of backwater because of the decision that has been taken is, quite frankly, shameful.  In many countries, a ban has been retained or maintained either by state or federal Governments.  The United States of America is a perfect example, and all but two of the European Union countries still have a ban.  A ban is in place across Asia and throughout the Middle East.  Legislators have been at one in raising their concerns about the issue.  Why do they raise those concerns?  If a person is in the MSM category, the blood that is donated carries a nine times higher-risk than that of heterosexual people.  That is medical scientific fact. 

The safety of the people we are elected to represent should be absolutely paramount in every decision that we take.  As a House, we owe it to our constituents not to expose them to any proportion of risk, particularly in health-related matters.  We should be committed to that without being swayed by prejudice or deflected by a media frenzy that, in certain cases, seeks to discredit those who have a genuine desire to safeguard their communities from adding unnecessary fears to an already anxious time for patients and families.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

The Member has used up the added minute to his time.

Photo of David McIlveen David McIlveen DUP

The basis of the motion is fundamentally flawed, as are the amendments.  I do not support them.

Photo of Colum Eastwood Colum Eastwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

Over the past number of weeks, a phrase has been used that needs to be put to one side:  "gay blood".  I am no doctor, but I am pretty sure that there is no category called "gay blood". [Interruption.] Well, it is a phrase that has been used in the media in the past number of weeks. [Interruption.]

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order.  We must not have debate across the Chamber.

Photo of Colum Eastwood Colum Eastwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

This debate, this issue and this failure by the Minister have added to a long list of things that say to the community and to people from an LGBT background that the Assembly is out of touch with you, has no empathy with you and has no real interest in your issues.  That is a sad indictment of this place, whether the issue is equal marriage or the fact that, until very recently, gay couples would not have been allowed to adopt in this part of the world.  How many children who are living in very difficult conditions would love to have been adopted by any couple who met all the rigorous tests of their suitability?  Does anyone really think that those kids should have been left in homes or in care instead of being taken and adopted by loving parents, even if those parents are two men or two women?  I do not understand the logic of that.  It all feeds into the theme, not just from this Minister but from the House in a number of debates, that right-wing religious fervour takes precedence over the needs of our community.  It strikes me that there is a crusade around some of this stuff.

It does not matter how promiscuous you are if you are a straight person.  You can sleep with 100 people, and it will be all right for us to take your blood.  However, if you are a gay person and have been in a loving relationship for 20 years with one partner, we do not want your blood.  Never mind —

Photo of Colum Eastwood Colum Eastwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

It is not rubbish.  I am sure that we have all posed for photographs when giving blood to try to encourage people to do the same.  We know that if we are knocked down or are in a car accident and are very seriously injured, we will not particularly care whether the blood that saves our lives comes from a straight person who lives in Derry or a gay man who lives in Manchester, because it is possible that you will get that blood.  It is not a good message for the Assembly to send out.

I think that today will see a bit of change, because I think that the motion will pass.  That is a good thing.  It is about time that this place started to send out the message to gay people and especially young gay people — there is a very high rate of suicide among young gay men in particular — that we care about them, they are part of our society, and we will not discriminate against them because of their sexuality.

My colleague Mr McKinney and other Members illustrated the issues of risk and science very well.  The publication from the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs on the risk of HIV transmission shows that, with a lifetime exclusion, there is a risk of one infection in every 4·41 million donations, with a five-year time limit, there is a risk of one infection in every 4·39 million donations, and with a one-year time limit, there is a risk of one infection in every 4·38 million donations.  Where is the significant risk difference between a one-year ban and a lifetime ban?  There is virtually none.  The screening has improved so much that the risk has been all but eliminated.

The ban is irrational.  By the way, I did not need a judge to tell me that it is irrational.  I have known for a long time that it is irrational, and the community knows that it is irrational.  The point has been made, but what is also irrational is the fact that the DUP

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

The Member's time is almost gone.

Photo of Colum Eastwood Colum Eastwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

— is very prepared to break parity on this issue and issues like it but not on other matters.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

Like other colleagues, I support the motion and will speak in favour of it.  I also support the amendments.  The Ulster Unionist Party's amendment rightly brings the issue into line with what is happening in the rest of the country.

I listened to various speeches.  We need to condense the issue down into the simplest terms.  What is the risk?  Mr McKinney, Mr Eastwood, Mr Agnew and Mr Beggs all asked what this is about.  Is it purely about safety, and, if it is, where do we get the evidence and advice from?  We get it from a national body in England that advises, researches and looks at all the evidence not only from the UK but from around the world and makes an assessment.  Government should follow that.  Listening to some of the speeches from Members of the DUP, I think that the obvious conclusion to draw is that they think that the UK Government, the Scottish Government and the Welsh Assembly Government are putting people in Great Britain at risk.  That is the logical outworking of their position.

Mr McIlveen said that the party's position was nothing to do with the DUP but was purely about protecting the citizens of Northern Ireland.  It would be easier to believe that it was not a solid DUP position if it was not set against the backdrop of endless failures when it goes to court on adoption and a blood ban across the board.  Who is the Minister getting his legal advice from?  He really ought to think about changing them.  He really ought to think about advising whoever he has on retainer to, perhaps, go off and deal with wills, conveyancing or something, because he is not getting good advice or he would not keep losing case after case after case.  Effectively, the court is doing the job that the Minister should be doing in tackling some of the inequalities that he seems keen to preside over.

It is very funny that Lord Morrow added a contribution from a sedentary position.  It is strange that, when it was against Minister Durkan and the Planning Bill, they were all for publishing legal advice and for adhering in strict compliance to the ministerial code.  However, when it comes to Minister Poots, the ministerial code is just another piece of paper that nobody seems to have to worry too much about.  It is just something more that Members from larger parties can ignore. 

The Minister happily admits that he unwillingly, or unwittingly, which I think was the word he used, breached the ministerial code.  However, the judge did not say that.  The judge also said that the Minister's acceptance of blood from Great Britain was irrational.  Like Mr Eastwood, I find that quite easy to believe.  I would not have needed a judge to say that it was irrational, illogical, or whatever phrase you want to use.  It just did not stack up when you looked at the evidence.

Look at the ban on adoption.  We have delayed a Bill now for a number of years.  How many children have we left literally rotting in our care system — in a failed care system — because we have not got on with speeding up an adoption process?  How many?  That is a blight on the Assembly and the Minister.

Ms Brown spoke about the debate yesterday and about the House coming together and speaking passionately about mental health.  Mr Eastwood touched on that.  I agree wholeheartedly with this point:  you cannot come to the House and speak about mental health and have other colleagues going out and talking about homosexuality being an abomination.  You cannot do it, Mr Speaker.  You cannot have that, and you cannot sit and talk and pretend that you care about suicide and self-harm and use language like that.  We, as political leaders — all of us —

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

The Member's time is almost gone.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

— have a responsibility to act and behave responsibly when dealing with the lives of each and every citizen out there. [Interruption.]

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

This is a judgement that has drawn a lot of comment; some of it, I have to say, is quite ill-informed.  It is a judgement at first instance.  Maybe we will hear from the Minister whether the matter is going to rest there or whether it will be tested further, because it is but a first-instance decision and one that, I have to say, surprises me in its methodology of argument and in some of its conclusions.

It is a judgement that contains some key findings of a constitutional nature.  One that I think is most troubling, in a devolutionary arrangement, is the finding that although it would not have been Wednesbury unreasonable for the Minister to find, as he did, that MSM donors are in the high risk — that is not unreasonable — it is unlawful for him to make the decision, under an EU competence, on a devolved matter.  I must say that I struggle to follow the logic of the judge in that regard.  There is quite an important constitutional issue that I feel should certainly be tested further as to whether Mr Justice Treacy is right in his finding about the EU competency point that flows from the directive.  That is an important matter.

It is quite clear to me that the Minister was right to contest the case.  He did not bring the case.  Mr Agnew talked about wasting funds.  The Minister did not bring the case.  This case was brought as a challenge that the Minister quite properly defended.  I suspect that it would have been a dereliction of his duty not to defend it, and he would be perfectly entitled to challenge it further.  So, let us be quite clear about that.

Let us also be clear that this judgement does not find that the Minister acted with Wednesbury unreasonableness in deciding that MSM donors are in the high-risk category.  It found irrationality only because of the Minister's liberality in admitting GB blood.  That is the sole basis on which there was any finding of irrationality.  It did not find that it was discriminatory. 

I wonder how many Members have read the judgement?  If you read paragraph 141 of the judgement, you will discover that it states the finding that it is "unlikely" to be discriminatory if the decision had been rational on that one issue.  It expressly makes no finding of bias, yet we have heard people talk today about all sorts of imaginations of right-wing religious views etc.  There was no finding of bias.  If there are extreme right-wing religious views on this, is that why half the countries in the modern world have the current ban that the Minister adheres to?  Is that why most countries in the EU have the current high-risk ban?  Are they the product of right-wing religious extremism?  I think not, and I think that those who seek to make such a point show the shallowness of their own argument.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP 4:30 pm, 5th November 2013

Does the Member agree with me that, for those who are making the argument that if individuals in the House happen to go to church, they are somehow not fit to be in politics, they reveal their prejudice against those of faith?

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

The Member has a minute added to his time.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I think that it shows a sadly increasing incidence in our community of intolerance of those who dare to have any faith or religious belief.  That is manifested, of course, by those who are very quick to canvass outside certain religious places of worship on a Sunday come election time.  They are very quick to do that, but when it comes to one daring to have a religious view about anything, that is where discrimination has to kick in, and it kicks in very vigorously.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

If I have time, I will give way in a moment. 

I come back to the point that I really struggle with:  the judgement that it is not competent in a devolution scenario for a devolved Minister to set a higher standard for his part of the United Kingdom.  If that power is devolved, why can he not do that?  It is, as Mr McIlveen said, a contradiction of devolution in itself.  That is the key issue that needs to be further tested constitutionally. 

I will vote against the motion and the second amendment.  I am not a political ally of the Minister, as some might have observed from time to time, but I think that he did right on this issue.  He did right to defend this, and I think that he would do right to challenge it further.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Is it not remarkable today that, when the public are talking about issues other than gay blood, such as the disappeared or a court case involving the cover-up of sex abuse involving the leader of the party that tabled the motion, we are discussing — what? — an issue about MSM blood, when we use 53,000 units of blood each year and when we have imported an average of 73 units over the past three years?  Is this the big issue of today that the House should be talking about?  I do not think so.  Clearly, the party opposite, which is the party that brought this forward, is more interested in covering up for its paedophile-protecting president than in serving the needs of the community.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

I would like the Minister to withdraw that comment, please.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order. [Interruption.] Order.  I ask Members — [Interruption.] Order.  I remind all Members, especially the Minister, to be careful of their language in the House.  There is a standard of debate that everybody expects in the House, even from Ministers.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I accept the Speaker's ruling.  There is a standard in life that people expect, and when people are aware of paedophile activities taking place, they should report them.

Some Members:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The leader and president of Sinn Féin was aware of and believed it but did not report it.  Therefore, do not come to me seeking withdrawals, because you will not get any withdrawals from me on that issue.

Over the past number of weeks, I have received personal abuse of the most vitriolic, vile and invective type.  That has been aimed not just at me but at my family, including those who have never played any active part in politics, by so-called liberals.  Those are the people who, on the other hand, say that I have some sort of prejudice or bias and do not look after equality or address discrimination.  If I were to show or describe some of the abuse to Members, they would see that it is of the most appalling nature.

The motion before us today is about a ban on gay men giving blood.  I have never introduced any such policy nor, indeed, has anybody previously.  Therefore, the motion is wrong.  The motion also asks me to act outside my legal competence, because, whether I like it or not, Justice Treacy's ruling has standing in law.  Justice Treacy's ruling, for the Members who clearly do not understand it or have not read it, indicates that the person to make the decision is the English Minister, Jeremy Hunt, in the Department of Health.  Clearly the motion has been drawn up by incompetents, because it is not politically competent.  It is very interesting that Sinn Féin wants to take the decision on this out of Northern Ireland and send it back to England.  That is an interesting case for a party that supports a united Ireland.

To deal with the issue, over the decade from 2000, there was a 300% rise in HIV in Northern Ireland.  SaBTO identified in its report — for those who do not tend to read such things, it is on page 68 at appendix 5 — that, since 2008, undiagnosed HIV in the MSM community was 900% greater than it was in the heterosexual community.  In paragraph 132 of the judge's ruling, he identifies that HIV prevalence in gay men ranges from 8·6% to 13·7%.

I accept that blood screening is good, but it is not good enough if I have a chesty cough or a sore throat, in which case, I cannot give blood.  It also is not good enough if I have had hepatitis or jaundice in the past 12 months, or acupuncture or a tattoo in the previous four months, or if any member of my family has had CJD or received growth hormones, or if I have travelled abroad to certain countries in the previous six months.  Indeed, if I had ever injected drugs, I could not give blood — ever.  If I were a commercial sex worker, I could not give blood — ever — in spite of the fact that there is less incidence of HIV in that community than there is in the MSM community.  If I had syphilis, I could not give blood — ever.  People say, "Oh, screening is brilliant.  That is where the science lies", but if it is purely down to screening, why do we have all those exclusions?  Those same people say, "Just forget about the exclusions, and we will do it all by screening".  That is the logic of the argument, and it is, I might say, an illogical argument.

The review group that advised SaBTO included representation from Stonewall, Gay Men Fighting AIDS, the National AIDS Trust and the Terrence Higgins Trust.  Was there any prejudice or bias in that decision-making, given that four groups representing people from MSM communities were on the advisory group?  Where were the representatives of the commercial sex worker community, which has less incidence of HIV than the MSM community?

By the way, Spain and Italy are the only two countries in Europe where the lifetime ban has been lifted.  Therefore, if I am the irrational, prejudiced and biased one, I am in the company of an awful lot of Ministers in very stable countries right across Europe, North America and most of the world.  The UK is the first country in Europe to remove the lifetime ban for MSM, with the exception of Italy and Spain. 

Our colleagues over here claim to desire a united Ireland, but I sometimes wonder.  I wrote to the Minister for Health in the Republic of Ireland, and this is his Government's position:

"The Irish Blood Transfusion Service has a responsibility to ensure that there is a sufficient supply of safe blood to meet the needs of patients.  In order to supply blood for transfusion all decisions on donation criteria are based on a review of the evidence bearing in mind the desire of individuals to donate, the safety of the recipient, and the tolerance of society in general of any transfusion related infection occurring.  The exclusion of men who have/or had sex with other men from donation is based not only on risk factors for HIV but on other blood borne agents known to be associated with MSM".

They are not changing.  For me, public safety will always supersede political correctness.

We almost get the impression that, if a judge says it, it must be right.  It can never be wrong if a judge says it.  Well, I am sorry, but that is not the view of our public prosecutor.  Over the past year, our public prosecutor has referred no fewer than 14 cases back to the courts.  Why?  Because he thought that the judgements were wrong.  In seven of those cases that have been heard, they decided that the previous judge was wrong.  Members in this House say that we have to go with this judge because he has made the decision and he must be right.  Well, judges are not always right.  The conversation amongst lawyers is that the judgement itself is irrational.  We use something like 53,000 units of blood in Northern Ireland and have maximised safety, and he recognises that.  He suggests that, because we have been importing an average of 73 units of blood over the past three years, that would somehow make it so unsafe that it becomes irrational.  I suspect that the decision itself is irrational.

Let us look at some other aspects of the decision.  He has gone against the mode of devolution.  He wants to put powers back in the hands of the national Government and, in this instance, the Department of Health in England.  However, never mind this instance, given that it affects EU directives, I suspect that the Minister most affected by this judgement will be Mark H Durkan in the Department of the Environment because many of his decisions would have to be taken by the Environment Department and the Environment Minister in England.  It is really good to see that the Members opposite are so keen to accept this judgement because it gets at this Minister that they cannot see the problems that it causes for them and their Ministers.  It demonstrates their ineptitude in reading this, understanding it and making a rational argument.  The judge indicated that I should have referred the matter to the Executive.  Just a minute here.  How can I refer the matter to the Department of Health in England on one hand and to the Northern Ireland Executive on the other?  Which is it?  I suspect that the learned judge has got it wholly and completely wrong. 

The question is this:  will I appeal it?  I am very reluctant to appeal it.  Number one, it gives the larger parties in the Executive considerably more power.  Number two, it refers a lot of governance back to the national Parliament and, as a unionist, should I be that concerned about that?  Number three, do I believe that I would get fairness in the Court of Appeal or would there be a circling of the wagons?  I am concerned that that may not be the case.

People have made suggestions about my own moral views and so forth, and, although there has been no bias found — because there is no bias to find — it is interesting to see that just last week in England Sir James Munby outlined that secularism rules in courts now and there is no place for religious beliefs.  He had to be rebuked by the former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey who said that we are now living in:

"An age when all faiths are equal - except Christianity".

When I was at the Department of the Environment, I was asked a question by a BBC journalist as to whether I was fit to be a Minister and a Christian.  What a shameful, despicable question, particularly when there are people in this Government who have engaged in terrorism and have been convicted of terrorist activities.  It is all right for them to be in Government, but, if you embrace Christian values, you should not be there.  That was the substance of the question.

There is a continual battering of Christian principles, and I have to say this:  shame on the courts, for going down the route of constantly attacking Christian principles, Christian ethics and Christian morals, on which this society was based and which have given us a very good foundation.  It is a shame that George Carey had to respond in the way that he did to a judge in GB who made such a statement.  It appears that our judges are rushing headlong in behind them.

Therefore, I am not sure that I would get a fair hearing.  Mr Allister is quite right.  I did not take any of these cases; they were all supported by legal aid, the Human Rights Commission and so forth.  However what I have witnessed in the last number of judgements is a degree of judicial activism.  For the unlearned amongst us, and there seems to be quite a few of them, that essentially means that judges are making laws as opposed to Parliament or, in this instance, the devolved Administration making them. 

I do not believe that it was in the least appropriate, when the Assembly was conducting work on adoption legislation, for the courts to rule in advance of its completion.  That should never have happened until after the Assembly had ruled on it.  It should not have been reviewed, in that respect.  And as to this issue of blood safety, I was well within my rights to ask why we should rush into this, if every other country in Europe except two, every country in North America and most of the western world maintains a lifetime ban?  Why do we have four groups from the MSM lobby on the advisory group?

Remember this:  someone told Margaret Thatcher at one stage that it was all right to allow bonemeal to be fed back to ruminant animals.  The consequence of that was BSE, CJD, dead people and billions of pounds lost.  If we have a system that works, has demonstrated safety and does not require huge amounts of blood to be imported, why should I take any element of risk?

A lot of Members have spoken.  All of those who have spoken from the DUP have given blood.  I would love to know whether those who have jumped up on the Benches opposite and have been exercised about the issue have given blood.  When they came here, many years ago and long before I was Health Minister, only three of us turned up to give blood.  I hear a lot of Assembly Members who are very exercised about this issue, but they do not appear to be sufficiently exercised to give blood themselves.

I want to do what is right, and I will do so.  I will challenge the judiciary when I believe that it has got it wrong and, in this instance, it has very clearly got it wrong.  Will it have the guts to admit it?  I suspect not.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green 4:45 pm, 5th November 2013

First, yes, I have given blood, Minister, and will do so again.

I must say at the outset that I regret and condemn any threat or intimidation that has been made to members of the Poots family in response to the Minister's views.  I think that that is wholly unacceptable.  As I mentioned earlier, his position has been articulated, and he has the right to dissent from views different to his.

On his point about whether this is an issue that we should bring to the House on this day, I have to say that the Minister may not consider equality to be a big issue worthy of the House, but the Green Party does.  He might not consider the waste of public money to be a big enough issue for the House, but the Green Party does.  He may not consider it to be important that we seek to uphold the judgements of the courts in the House, but the Green Party does.  He might not consider it to be a big issue that Members of the House seek to ensure that government policy is based on the best available evidence about the common good for the public, but the Green Party thinks that that is an extremely important issue.

We have seen gut discrimination, particularly from the Minister's party.  It was mentioned by Mr McCallister, I think, in relation to mental health.  The discrimination that has been vocalised by members of the DUP is politics of the gut, and it is sheer gutter politics.  It does only harm to our society. 

Mr McKinney rightly said that this issue should be about safety first.  The irrational decision of the Minister to have Northern Ireland out of step with the rest of the UK shows that it was not based on the best available evidence and that it was not about safety.  The equality implications that Mr McKinney referred to were central to the Minister's position.  It has been stated by those defending the Minister that the court has not found bias in the Minister's decision.  However, time and again, he has failed to produce evidence to justify his decision.  In the absence of evidence, what other explanation could there be?

I agree with Ms Lo:  the burden of proof is on the Minister, because the public perception is very clearly that he has acted on his personal opinion rather than on the best available evidence or in the best interests of the health and safety of the public.  That public perception has been demonstrated by the 8,898 signatories to the petition online — [Interruption.]

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order, Members.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

— that calls on the Health Minister to resign or be removed from office.

I come back to Mr Allister and Mr Givan's point about whether this is a persecution of religious belief.  It is certainly not that, but I hope that it is not being suggested that, when a decision is taken on the basis of religious belief, the House should not challenge it, or that, somehow, challenging values is not appropriate in the House.  It is the job of the Assembly to ensure that decisions are made on the basis of the common good and public interest.  We must ensure that, whatever the motivation of a decision, we interrogate it and seek the best possible evidence.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

If the Member is going to give us a lecture on what ought to be ethics, will he tell us what the basis of common good is?  What would be the place where you would look for a definition of what is good and what is wrong if you do not have it on a faith basis?

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

The Member has a minute added to his time.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

In this case, we look at the health and safety of the population.  Indeed, the Minister [Interruption.]

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

— has warned in the past that, at times, we risk facing insufficient supply of blood.  Therefore, by restricting the numbers of those who can give blood, we do harm to the cause of increasing blood donation.  We risk harming the health and safety of the public.

On behalf of the Green Party and the 8,898 members of the public who called on the Minister to resign, I ask that, if, and only if, his personal beliefs and values prevent him — [Interruption.]

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

— from acting in the best interests of the health and safety of the public, he step aside and resign as Minister.

Photo of Michael Copeland Michael Copeland UUP

Mr Speaker, I want to reiterate publicly the apology that I gave to you for my inability to be present during the greater part of this debate.  At the outset, I should say that I am precluded from giving blood and have been for almost 35 years because of the virus that left me with my distinct limp.  I remember that, when my wife was going through treatment for cancer and needed an operation, she required blood.  My blood would have been suitable, but I could not give it, and I know what that felt like at that stage. 

I welcome the opportunity to wind on the Ulster Unionist Party amendment, the point of which, as explained by Roy Beggs, was to add further factual clarity to the motion. Please let me say that donating blood should not be an issue on which the House divides.  In fact, the act itself should be one that unites us.  Unfortunately, as we have heard, many are unable to get away from the suspicion that the Minister's decision not to lift the total ban is based on ideology and prejudice rather than medical evidence.  That is for the Minister to answer.  The most important question is whether the blood is safe.  We have heard the statistics, and I do not dispute them.  It would be foolish to do so, just as it would be foolish to justify the current ban by using them.

The Minister said something else, and I do disagree with it.  First, let me say that I was concerned to hear that he, his family and others had been the recipients of abuse or anger directed at them.  Although I may and frequently do disagree with the Minister, I have no doubt about his sincerity or faith when he makes such arguments.  However, I feel that the remarks attributed to him on extending the ban to people who may have had sex with somebody in Africa are rather broader than one holding a ministerial position in our Executive should perhaps make. 

Very few things in this world are totally free from risk, and donating blood is no different, regardless of the donor's sexual orientation.  There are a number of restrictions on who can donate blood, as there should be.  Those restricted include people with certain infectious diseases or people with a number of other general health issues, including me.  However, a further swathe is banned simply for ticking a box on a form saying that they have been involved in a homosexual act.  Given the risk that the Minister refers to, why does he have seemingly total confidence that such a form is accurately filled out?  What is to stop a man involved in sexual activity a number of years ago failing to state that on the form and going on to donate blood?  There is nothing to stop that, and his blood would be screened just like everyone else's.  Admittedly, the risk is increased if men have been involved recently in sexual activity. 

My party supports allowing only gay men who have been sexually inactive for 12 months or more to donate blood.  That would put us in line with the rest of the UK and greatly reduce the risk, and yet it would still leave open the option of donating blood to many currently blocked from doing so.  As I said, that policy has already been adopted in England, Scotland and Wales, where the popular medical opinion clearly tallies with the legal opinion here.  The Minister did not mention — perhaps he will clarify this at some stage — any engagement with his English counterpart, whether by phone, letter or e-mail.

In conclusion, at a time when the demand for blood has rarely been higher, it is vital that we do not needlessly turn away potential donors.  Blood is a gift.  It should be cherished and not dragged down into futile political debate.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. [Interruption.]

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order, Members.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

Cuirim fáilte roimh an díospóireacht seo. Ceapaim go bhfuil an comhionannas an-tábhachtach ar fad.  I welcome the debate.  I  believe that equality for all of our citizens — [Interruption.]

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

— is essential.  Sinn Féin tabled the motion because the Minister has been running away from his responsibilities on this and, indeed, many issues affecting the lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered (LGBT) community.  I welcome the constructive debate we have had up to now right across the parties, apart from the party opposite, the DUP.  I think that we have had a very reasoned, logical debate, and I think there is broad consensus right across the House that there should not be discrimination or prejudice against any community.  I also believe that the vast majority of parties in the House understand the difference between the role of Minister, and a Minister using his or her political beliefs when they should be a Minister for all people.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

Has John O'Dowd resigned?

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

A member of the DUP — Mr Dunne, I believe — started talking about hysteria.  The only hysterical reaction I have heard is from the DUP Members who spoke, particularly the Minister himself, in the way that he began the debate.  He was the only Member of the House — this is particularly worrying, and he can check the Hansard report if he wants to — to use the offensive term "gay blood". [Interruption.]

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

Nobody else did, apart from Colum Eastwood, who was explaining why it should not be used.  It ill behoves the Minister to speak in such a way, and I have to say that it was very disappointing to hear that. 

What we have seen is irrational decision-making.  We have seen recklessness with public money.  Other allies who have fought with the DUP and who sometimes jump in and out of supporting them do not seem to mind about public money being wasted on defending the indefensible, because that is what this is.  This is not just about a ban on blood donations from gay men.  This is about a pattern of discrimination and discriminatory actions.  You can dress it up and you can dance around it, but, at the end of the day, it is discrimination against our LGBT communities.  That is what it is, whether we are talking about equal marriage, the ban on blood donations, or adoption. [Interruption.]

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

Here we have a Minister, rolling his eyes and talking out of the side of his mouth.  He had his chance to make his points.  He did not make them particularly well.  The least he and his party colleagues could do — [Interruption.] — I hear Mr Storey snapping from the background — is listen to the argument. [Interruption.]

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

Maybe they do not want to hear the arguments. [Interruption.]

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order.  The Member is concluding on the motion and it is not in order for Members who have been absent during the debate to come into the Chamber and make a contribution from a sedentary position.  It will not happen.  The Member is winding.  Allow the Member to finish her contribution.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.  Thank you, Mr Speaker.  Today, we heard the Chair of the Health Committee, Maeve McLaughlin, state that the ban is contrary to the EU principle of non-discrimination and to article 21 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights.  We also heard that the Minister has refused to provide the legal advice.  I will give the Floor to the Minister if he will say yes or no.  We are asking you.  Parties in the House are asking you.  Will you provide it?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I thank the Member for giving me the Floor.  I wonder how it is discrimination against the LGBT community when lesbians can give blood.  The Member got that completely wrong.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

You did not answer.  I gave the Floor to the Minister

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

We all note that he did not answer the question. [Interruption.]

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order.  The convention is very clear.  If Members give the Floor to another Member, they should not then interrupt.  The Member may continue.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

I note that the Minister did not answer my question.  He has no answer.  He has refused to provide the legal advice.  He and his colleagues are ignoring scientific advice, citing blood safety as an excuse to justify a blanket ban. 

Maeve and other Members, notably Fearghal McKinney, identified some of the key issues.  What we absolutely need is blood that is safe.  The role of the Department and the Blood Transfusion Service is to manage the safety of blood.  However, you do not blanket discriminate against an entire section of the community in making sure that blood is safe.  If you are the Health Minister, you certainly do not ignore scientific evidence, and you do not place your personal religious beliefs above being Minister and upholding the law for all.

The Minister tried to take us off — [Interruption.]

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

— on a little distraction by pretending that there is discrimination against Christian beliefs.  That is laughable.  That is absolutely laughable. [Interruption.]

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

Every decision that he has made is based on his particular Christian belief.  He should be the Minister for all people.  He has a ministerial code and statutory equality duties, and he has failed in those.  Sinn Féin is not in the business of calling randomly for resignation. [Interruption.]

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

We understand — [Interruption.]

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

— the role of party leaders in nominating a Minister.  A party leader — I note that his party leader is not here today — when nominating, needs to ensure that the person can do the job. [Interruption.]

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

That the person — [Interruption.]

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

— can do the job in the interests of all — [Interruption.]

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

— not based on personal religious belief.  If Minister Poots feels that he cannot do the job, the sensible thing would be to go to his party leader and say, "I have personal Christian beliefs that mean that I have to go against the law and my equality duties, and I really shouldn't be in this position".  If he does feel that, that would be the sensible thing to do. [Interruption.]

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

Let the party leader choose somebody who can carry out the role of Minister and fulfil his or her statutory duties.

Look how quickly parity went out the window.  We had the nonsensical thing of saying, "Sinn Féin is an all-Ireland party, so why is it not sticking with the South in relation to blood?"  Sinn Féin is very clear on that.  If there is bad law somewhere, whether in the South or the North, we will not support it.  The whole idea of a united Ireland is to bring about changes, North and South. [Interruption.] We will continue — [Interruption.]

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

— to do that.

There is a pattern of discrimination by this Minister, whether on adoption rights, marriage equality or equality in blood donation.  There is a very serious side to all this.  One Member spoke about it — I think that it was Steven Agnew:  it feeds homophobic behaviour.  Yesterday, I had somebody in my office who had had 99 attacks on his and his partner's house.  We have a Health Minister who is participating in defending the indefensible, and he is using public money to do so.

I welcome the fact that the Minister said that he is reluctant to appeal.  Whatever his excuse is — we all know what his excuse is — I am glad that he is reluctant to appeal.  I do not want my taxpayer's money used — [Interruption.]

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

— to justify discrimination. [Interruption.]

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

I pay tax. [Interruption.]

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

The Minister tried to detract — [Interruption.]

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order.  Let me say to Members on the right that, should they continue, I will name Members.  I ask Members to behave in a professional manner.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

I am glad that he is reluctant to appeal it.  He needs to get off the hook.  He needs to accept the court's ruling.  He should not detract from the debate.  He asked whether people give blood:  I give blood.  He asked whether people had read the judgement:  I read the judgement as, I have no doubt, did every person participating in the debate.

He really belittles himself.  I also think that his comments in relation to the judgement and the judiciary were not well made — [Interruption.]

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

— in his role as Minister. [Interruption.]

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

I ask that the Speaker examines those comments in relation to the judiciary.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

The Member's time has almost gone. Order.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

In the interests of equality — [Interruption.]

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

— the right decisions need to be made.  It is in the Minister's hands —

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order.  The Member's time has gone.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

On a point of order, Mr Speaker.  Before we move to a vote, I ask you to rule on whether it is within the competence of the House to vote on the motion.  According to Mr Justice Treacy, the motion invites and, indeed, instructs the Minister to take an unlawful act.  In light of the ruling of Mr Justice Treacy, is it within the competence of the House to instruct the Minister to act unlawfully?

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

In taking Mr Allister's point of order, I say that the motion does not instruct the Minister; it asks the Minister.  I can also assure the whole House that I have taken legal advice and other advice on the motion. [Interruption.] Order.  The motion is competent.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker, I wish to indicate that our party will not participate in the vote because there is a very clear call on me to act outside the law.  It is not wise for the Assembly nor any Member of the House to ask a Minister to act outside the law. [Interruption.]

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order.  Before I put the question on amendment No 1, I advise Members that, if amendment No 1 is made, the question on amendment No 2 can still be put. [Interruption.] Order.

Question, That amendment No 1 be made, put and agreed to.

Question, That amendment No 2 be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly notes the ruling of the High Court on the decision to ban blood donations from gay men; further notes with concern that the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety's decision was found to be 'irrational', and to have been taken 'in breach of the Ministerial Code'; and calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to lift the ban from gay men who have been sexually inactive for more than 12 months and outline what steps he will take to build public confidence in relation to statutory equality duties or resign if he feels unable to do so.