Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill: Final Stage

Part of Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:45 pm on 24 March 2022.

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Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin 3:45, 24 March 2022

I will make some remarks as Chair of the Committee in relation to this Bill.

I welcome the Final Stage of the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill. I thank the sponsor, Clare Bailey, for introducing the Bill, and I thank all who engaged with the Committee during its consideration of the Bill. This issue was first raised in evidence during the Committee's consideration of the Severe Fetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment) Bill last summer. The Committee sought further information from trusts on the number of incidents and the actions that they had to take in response to the protests. The responses indicated that trusts had to introduce new security measures, and some had to move the location of the services.

All members of the Committee commented that there was no place in our society for the harassment, abuse and intimidation of women and girls accessing health services, and that patients, staff and visitors should be able to access health premises free from harassment, abuse and intimidation. The Committee therefore welcomes the aim of the Bill, which is to establish safe access zones around registered pregnancy advisory bureaux and clinics in order to protect the women and girls who use the clinics, as well as the people who work in them. The Bill will make it a criminal offence to harass people in a safe access zone around clinics and will stop activity directly outside centres that can cause distress to those attending the clinics and to staff.

During consideration of the Bill, the Committee agreed that it would take evidence only from statutory bodies, as the views of organisations and individuals on the Bill were clear from the written submissions that the Committee received. Those written submissions informed members' views on the Bill and were published in the Committee's report on the Bill. During its evidence sessions, the Committee heard examples from the trusts and the PSNI of some of the difficulties that women and staff face when accessing health services. It is fundamentally important that people can safely access health services when they are needed, without the fear of harassment.

During Committee consideration of the clauses and amendments, a majority of members were in support of the Bill and the amendments. I note that the members of the Committee from the DUP did not take part in the formal clause-by-clause scrutiny of the Bill. I thank all Committee members for their consideration of the Bill, and I thank Members for their engagement throughout the progression of the Bill in what was a busy time for the Committee. I also thank the Committee team and the Bill Clerks for their support through the various stages of the Bill. I commend the Bill to the Assembly, and I am sure that any incoming Health Committee will look to the implementation of this Bill to ensure that it is meeting its purpose and protecting people accessing these health services.

As Sinn Féin's health spokesperson, I will just very briefly say that it is surely long past time when women, girls and staff who are attending or working in these clinics are subjected to the harassment and abuse of the levels that we heard about on the Health Committee. Sinn Féin will be supporting the Bill.