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This statement is issued in accordance with section 4 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 (‘the NIEFEF Act’). Section 4 of the Act requires that I, as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, report on a quarterly basis on guidance issued under that section of the Act. It also requires me to report on how I plan to address the impact of the absence of Northern Ireland Ministers on human rights obligations within three months of the day the Act was passed.
The Act received Royal Assent on 1 November 2018. Following careful consideration of the sensitive issues section 4 deals with, and in consultation with the Northern Ireland Civil Service, guidance under section 4 was published on 17 December 2018.
The guidance made clear that it could not be used to change the law on abortion or same sex marriage in Northern Ireland. The guidance also provided that all relevant Northern Ireland departments should continue to have regard to all of their legal obligations, including the Human Rights Act 1998 and sections 24 and 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, in exercising any relevant functions in relation to abortion and same sex marriage.
Three reports required under section 4 have been published as Written Ministerial Statements to date, on 30 January 2019, 1 May 2019 and 4 September 2019.
Since the NIEFEF Act passed, the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 (NI EF Act) has also passed, placing duties on the Government to make regulations to provide for same-sex marriages and opposite sex civil partnerships in Northern Ireland by 13 January 2020, and to change Northern Ireland’s abortion law (with regulations providing for a new regime to be in place by 31 March 2020). The relevant provisions came into force on 22 October 2019 given that the Northern Ireland Executive was not restored by 21 October 2019.
In respect of abortion, the coming into force of section 9(2) of the NI EF Act has meant that sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 have now been repealed in respect of Northern Ireland. A moratorium on all investigations and prosecutions brought under those sections has also come into effect, regardless of the date on which any offences took place, under section 9(3) of the NI EF Act. Therefore the incompatibility with human rights identified in section 4(1)(a) of the NIEFEF Act no longer exists. The new legal framework for abortion in Northern Ireland will be set out in regulations to come into force by 31 March 2020.
The Government launched the consultation on the proposed new framework for post-31 March 2020, A legal framework for abortion services in Northern Ireland, on 4 November 2019. The consultation will run for six weeks - closing on Monday 16 December 2019.
The Government will keep its position on the initial guidance published under section 4 of the NIEFEF Act under review, in light of the legal duties under sections 8 and 9 NIEF Act, and work towards making the regulations which will come into force by 13 January 2020 for same sex marriage and opposite sex civil partnerships and 31 March 2020 for abortion.