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Abortion Services

Volume 687: debated on Wednesday 20 January 2021

What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of the provision of abortion services in Northern Ireland under section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019. (910931)

I recognise the hon. Lady’s work on this important issue and appreciate the engagement that we have had on it to date. Regulations have been in place to make provision for safe and lawful access to abortions since 31 March 2020. Some service provision has been available since last April, with over 719 women and girls having been able to access services locally by mid-October last year. We take our moral and legal duties on this matter very seriously and remain disappointed that full abortion services remain to be commissioned by the Department of Health, which would be the most appropriate way to progress the matter. We continue to monitor the situation closely.

It is a very familiar situation. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and a vulnerable woman have been left with no option but to take the UK Government to court to ensure access to abortion at home—except we are in a different situation, because this House voted to require the Secretary of State to uphold these women’s rights and ensure that they could access abortion at home. With clear evidence that over 100 women have been refused abortions and that they are buying pills online again, will the Secretary of State and Ministers confirm that they will act to uphold UK legislation, save the UK taxpayer court costs and act to intervene now?

I can confirm to the hon. Lady that we continue to engage with the Minister of Health and his Department on commissioning full services, and have been since the regulations came into effect. We remain of the view that this is the most appropriate way to progress the matter. I am pleased that the Northern Health and Social Care Trust was able to resume services early this year, and I am hopeful that the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust will soon be able to do so as well. The Government continue to fund access to services in England, particularly where local access may not be available; even in the current circumstances, some women and girls have availed themselves of those services. We continue to monitor the situation closely and will consider further legislative action at Westminster at the appropriate time, should it be required.

Members across this House, and indeed the country, will be shocked that women are still not able to fully access these services, and that the services are still not being commissioned. It is unconscionable that women are travelling, against Government advice, during a pandemic because of a lack of service. I hear what the Minister says. I welcome his work on this issue, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) said, we seem to be back here again. Every day is a tragedy for women in Northern Ireland who have to travel. Will the Minister expand on his comments? What will he consider doing and, crucially, how soon will he act?

I recognise the strength of feeling behind what the hon. Lady says. It is the right of women and girls in Northern Ireland to access healthcare, including high-quality abortion care, in the full range of circumstances set out in regulations. I believe, as I think she does, that those rights should be the same across the United Kingdom. We continue to engage with the Minister of Health and the Executive on this, and we believe that this is best progressed by the Executive. However, I reiterate that we will closely monitor the situation, and we will absolutely consider whether further legislation is required by this House.

I am grateful to the Minister for his recent correspondence on this issue. There is considerable support in Northern Ireland for the change in the law, but unfortunately political games are being played. While local action is better, will the Minister confirm that he will not let this issue slip indefinitely, and that he will act within a matter of months if no action is taken by the Northern Ireland Executive?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s comments. He is one of those who has pressed hard on this issue. We recognise the urgency of this matter, but we also recognise the huge challenges facing the Executive, and indeed every part of Government, relating to the covid situation. We want progress on this issue. We would prefer that to be delivered by the devolved institutions, but as I said, we stand ready to act if that progress is not made.

It is still a matter of deep regret that the overwhelming view of the people of Northern Ireland, in wanting to protect life, was and is still disregarded by those in this place. I take a contrary view to the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry). On implementing what the Government term adequate abortion provision in Northern Ireland, is the Minister concerned that under Northern Ireland’s abortion regulations, sex-selective abortion is permitted? The regulations permit abortion for any reason up to 12 weeks, within which time it is possible to determine the sex of the foetus. What measures will he take to address this matter of deep concern?

I recognise that the hon. Lady has taken a consistent and firm position on this issue. The Government take this issue seriously. It is about protecting the rights of women and girls. The regulations in Northern Ireland, as she will recognise, do not make any reference to sex-selective abortion. They follow the same approach as those in the rest of the UK on this issue. The Government publish an annual analysis of the male-female birth ratio for England and Wales to see whether any evidence of this issue arises. The latest reports show no evidence that this is an issue in England and Wales. We will continue to report on the sex birth ratio, and will work with the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency to consider including Northern Ireland in this analysis in future years. In the meantime, we will continue to monitor the implementation of the regulations, and urge the Executive to move forward with commissioning.