I thank the Member for her question. First, it is important to state that Informing Choices Northern Ireland, formerly the Family Planning Association of Northern Ireland, receives substantial public funding from my Department and the Public Health Agency of approximately £137,000 each year to support the provision of free sexual health advice and counselling. That service includes phone- and web-based non-directive advice, counselling and literature on a range of issues for people who are often young, vulnerable or in crisis. That includes contraception, STIs and pregnancy choices, as well as sexual health and relationship education for people with learning disabilities. Last year, I awarded a further £15,000 grant to Informing Choices as part of an uplift to all core-funded bodies in recognition of the financial challenges faced by the voluntary and community sector during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I can confirm that my Department is considering a request for further funding from Informing Choices to support its decision to provide a central access point into the early medical abortion (EMA) services that trusts began to provide from April 2020 in line with their statutory responsibilities under law. That remains under consideration, and I have not received final advice on that yet. My officials are engaging with Informing Choices and carrying out the usual due diligence checks in relation to that request, as you would expect.
In light of the extreme funding pressures facing my Department at present, I have written to the Northern Ireland Office Minister of State, Robin Walker, to request additional funding to support those services because, as yet, the Westminster Government have not provided any additional funding to my Department since introducing the abortion regulations in March 2020. Last week, Minister Walker again confirmed that the funding support that I have requested will not be forthcoming.
I would like to declare an interest as a board member of Informing Choices NI. While the Minister may think that the funding it receives from his Department is substantial, I can assure him that it is not sufficient to cover the demand for the services that it offers.
Minister, this was being discussed last week on BBC Radio 4's 'Woman's Hour'. At the end of the discussion, they read out a response that had been passed to it from your Department about the provision in the Western Health and Social Care Trust. The response stated that the services for EMA had been temporarily paused due to staffing resource issues since April 2021, and that your Department was monitoring ongoing efforts by the trust to roll out services.
Minister, given that your Department has not implemented, has not funded and has not established any services at all, what do you mean by "temporarily paused due to staffing resource issues"?
I thank the Member for her question. She has raised this issue numerous times. I will refer her to the position that has been confirmed: this issue is cross-cutting and controversial and is not a decision for me and my Department to take but is actually one for the Executive to take.
At this point, it is not known how long services will be paused in the Western Trust. It is my understanding that efforts are ongoing to put additional staff in place as soon as possible to resume the provision of an EMA service with minimum disruption. My Department continues to monitor that situation. In the meantime, and in the event of a prolonged pause, it is likely that women residing in the Western Trust area will be referred to the central contact point, which remains available to women from Northern Ireland and is managed by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.
Minister, you referred to the letter of 16 June that you wrote to the Health Committee, in which you advised that you were working to develop a service specification for commissioning. It has been 14 months since the abortion regulations were made. When will you complete that work, and when will that service be delivered?
I refer the Member back to the point that my Department has resumed planning work to deliver a service-commissioning specification. That work will consider setting in place the most appropriate access arrangements for women seeking abortion. However, as I have stated previously, under the ministerial code, I am required to bring any matter that is significant or controversial, and is clearly outside the scope of the Programme for Government, to the Executive for consideration and agreement. It is not possible at present to provide a precise timescale for the introduction of a fully commissioned abortion service. However, it is estimated that the work will take approximately nine to 12 months to complete.