Yesterday the Minister of State made the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2021 which are today being laid before Parliament. The regulations have been made because women and girls in Northern Ireland are still unable to access high-quality abortion and post-abortion care in Northern Ireland.
The regulations have been made to ensure, as required by the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, that all of the recommendations in paragraphs 85 and 86 of the 2018 UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) report are implemented in Northern Ireland.
We are disappointed with the continuing failure to commission abortion services that are consistent with the regulations we made almost a year ago. After a year of engaging to see positive progress made, with no success, the legal duties included in section 9 of the NIEF Act are such that I have to act now.
The Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2021 laid in Parliament today give me a power to direct Northern Ireland Ministers and departments or relevant agencies to implement all of the recommendations in paragraphs 85 and 86 of the CEDAW report, consistent with the conditions set out in the Abortion (Northern Ireland) (No.2) Regulations 2020.
We do not take this step lightly. However, the devolution settlement does not absolve us of our responsibility to uphold the rights of women and girls. Our strong preference remains for the Northern Ireland Executive to take responsibility itself for upholding these rights.
It has always been our expectation and preference that the Department of Health would drive forward the commissioning of abortion services. The approach we took was to put in place the legal framework for how abortion services could be accessed and provided, consistent with our legal duties. However, it is crucial that abortion, as a healthcare service, is delivered and overseen locally by the Department of Health and relevant health bodies with the relevant legal powers, policy and operational expertise to do so. This ensures that abortion can be delivered in a sustainable way, and become embedded into the health and social care system in Northern Ireland in the long term.
In March 2020, I wrote to the relevant Northern Ireland Ministers to achieve this, by asking that they work to ensure the implementation of all of the recommendations under paragraphs 85 and 86 of the CEDAW report. We had anticipated this would be acted upon at the earliest opportunity.
Over this past year the Northern Ireland Office has continued to work closely with the Department of Health, and other relevant Northern Ireland departments, trying to progress this work. I, together with the Minister of State, have continued to engage through political channels to encourage positive progress by the devolved Administration.
However, almost one year later, women and girls are still unable to access high-quality abortion and post-abortion care locally in Northern Ireland in all of the circumstances in which they are entitled to under the 2020 regulations.
We understand that managing the covid-19 response has been an immense challenge, and has placed the health and social care system in Northern Ireland under considerable pressure.
I put on record my thanks to the medical professionals who have ensured that women and girls have had some local access to abortion services in Northern Ireland to date, and the organisations that have supported this work, particularly in the current circumstances and wider strains on the health system. This includes the work that Informing Choices Northern Ireland have taken forward on the central access point and counselling service for women and girls since April last year.
However, more needs to be done with respect to formally commissioning abortion services and supporting the rights of women and girls in accessing safe local services and relevant support measures; as well as putting in place clear guidance for medical professionals.
While Parliament considers the regulations, we will continue to engage with the Minister of Health and the Executive to try and find a way forward over the coming weeks before any direction is given.
We have used every opportunity and avenue to encourage progress and offer our support over the past year so we are disappointed that we have reached this impasse. We take this step now to further demonstrate our commitment to ensuring women and girls can safely access abortion services in Northern Ireland.