In March this year, the Government made the Abortion (Northern Ireland) (No. 2) Regulations 2020, which set out the new law on access to abortion services in Northern Ireland. Since then, we have been dealing with the response to covid-19. However, I am pleased that some service provision has commenced on the ground in Northern Ireland through existing sexual and reproductive health clinics across all the health and social care trusts. I hope that longer-term services can be commissioned as soon as possible so that access is available locally in all cases set out in the regulations. The Government stand ready to provide whatever support we can to Northern Ireland’s Minister of Health and his Department to assist them in this regard.
We all know that the time for debate about the need for abortion services for the women of Northern Ireland is long gone. These women deserve equality of access to these vital services without having to travel to the mainland. What discussions has the Minister had on the funding needed for the UK Government to commission and sustain new abortion services for the women of Northern Ireland?
The regulations deliver equivalent outcomes, in practice, to the rest of the UK so that women and girls can enjoy similar rights in accessing abortion services in Northern Ireland going forward. We are in constant dialogue with the Executive about their overall funding settlement. As the hon. Lady will recognise, there have been substantial increases in their funding, thanks to the Barnett consequentials of funding across the UK, including in health.
I listened very carefully to the Minister’s answer. In this pandemic, it is even more important that women do not make risky journeys. Despite the clear indication of this Parliament, women’s rights are still being denied in Northern Ireland because of the difficult local politics—which we understand. What discussions is he having about specific funding for wider abortion services, and is he considering a legal duty to provide?
I think that we all recognise the importance of this issue. I understand that sexual and reproductive health clinics are providing some services consistent with the regulations. I am pleased that an interim solution has been reached on the ground in Northern Ireland so that the health and safety of women and girls can be protected by accessing services locally. We all want the Executive to be able to move forward with formal commissioning of further services, and we will continue to support them in doing that.
The Minister will be aware that tomorrow marks the commencement of Down’s Syndrome Awareness Month, when we celebrate Down’s syndrome, raise awareness and promote inclusivity within our society. With that in mind, what assessment has he made of the impact of the Government’s decision to allow for termination to birth for diagnosis of Down’s syndrome in Northern Ireland? Does he agree that many people see this as disability discrimination within the womb that would otherwise be illegal outside of the womb?
Let me first join the hon. Lady in supporting all those living with and supporting people with Down’s syndrome. There is absolutely no intention whatsoever for any form of discrimination. As I repeatedly made clear in the debate on the regulations, they do not list specific conditions but rather ensure that we have complied with what CEDAW—the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women—requires. These are complex decisions. It is only right that women can make individual, informed decisions, following medical assessments, clear provision of information and proper support from medical professionals. That support should be there in cases where they choose to take their pregnancies to term even in cases of severe foetal impairment. We will continue to support the Department of Health and the Executive to deliver on this issue.