[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]
Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when not speaking in the debate, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. Members are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the estate. This can be done either at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please give one another and staff members space when seated and when entering or leaving the room.
In addition, I wish to make a short statement about the sub judice resolution. I have been advised that there are active legal proceedings in the High Court in Belfast between the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children—SPUC Pro-Life Ltd—and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Minister for Health. I am exercising the discretion given to the Chair in respect of the resolution on matters of sub judice to allow full reference to those proceedings, as they concern issues of national importance.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the commissioning of abortion services in Northern Ireland.
As ever, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Pritchard. I am particularly pleased to lead this debate on a topic that is close to my heart. Members may be aware that I recently left my role as shadow Minister for Northern Ireland to join the shadow Digital, Culture, Media and Sport team. The issues on the ground in Northern Ireland are complex, but this topic was always the one that spoke to me the most during my time in the shadow Northern Ireland team. My successor, my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi), will be an equally loud voice for women’s rights, and I wish her well in her new role. I look forward to hearing her comments.
Abortion in Northern Ireland is, as I hope we all recognise, an extremely sensitive and emotive issue that engenders passionate views on both sides. While I always look forward to a good debate, and I would expect nothing less on a topic such as abortion, I hope that Members will be respectful in their contributions. I politely remind colleagues that the focus of this debate should remain the commissioning and delivery of abortion services.
My personal opinion on abortion is clear: it is important that anyone considering an abortion, regardless of where they live, receives impartial, non-directive and clinical information on pregnancy in order to make an informed choice. While some argue that abortion is a devolved matter for Northern Ireland, especially now that the Northern Ireland Executive is able to legislate on this issue, the conformity of the whole UK with the European convention on human rights is a matter for Westminster, not Stormont. The UK Government ultimately have a responsibility for ensuring that all our nations across the UK abide by our international and domestic legal obligations, and that is what brings us to this place today.
We must remember that Northern Ireland has a pro-choice majority when it comes to abortion. A number of Members, including the hon. Members for Foyle (Colum Eastwood), for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) and for North Down (Stephen Farry), and others who represent constituencies in Northern Ireland, are committed to upholding that majority.
I must place on record my gratitude to the many individuals and organisations who have laid the groundwork for today’s debate. The right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) and for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), as well as my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) have spoken on this topic at length. I hope my contribution will do their work some justice. I have also been supported by the team at MSI Reproductive Choices and Women’s Aid Northern Ireland—long may their fantastic work continue.
The changes to abortion laws, which extended abortion rights to the women of Northern Ireland, were made in line with the recommendations made by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Affording women in Northern Ireland these rights was a pivotal step in finally aligning abortion policy across all nations in the United Kingdom, and in my view it was a very welcome move. The legal framework for abortion services in Northern Ireland required under law came into effect in March last year, following an extensive consultation period. The circumstances around the legislation of abortions were clear. During that time, officials engaged with stakeholders, including the Northern Ireland Department of Health, healthcare professionals, the all-Ireland Church Leaders Group, abortion service providers and individuals with personal experience.
The initial regulations were replaced by the Abortion (Northern Ireland) (No. 2) Regulations 2020, which came into effect in May. The regulations, approved by both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, as required by the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, will remain in force in Northern Ireland. These regulations outline the legislation on abortion under any circumstances by a registered doctor, nurse or midwife up to 12 weeks and up to 24 weeks where there is a risk to physical or mental health in the opinion of two registered medical professionals. Thanks to this change, abortions with no gestational limit are also now legal in Northern Ireland, where there is an immediate necessity to save a life or to prevent a grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of a pregnant woman, or in the case of severe foetal impairment or fatal foetal abnormality.
I had the great privilege of responding to those regulations on behalf of the Opposition in Committee earlier this year. At that time, I and a number of other colleagues spoke about the heartbreaking challenges that many women and girls requiring abortions face thanks to the delays in delivering safe and local abortion services. It would be remiss of me not to pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow —my good friend—who has led the way in her commitment to women and girls in Northern Ireland. It is only thanks to her amendment to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019—I must add that the amendment was passed overwhelmingly by the House —that the situation changed, in theory, for women and girls. Finally, women and girls would no longer be required to use unsafe, unregulated services or to make the heartbreaking journey across the Irish sea to seek an abortion in Britain. Those changes were a very welcome move and a critical step for women’s rights and, ultimately, equality across Northern Ireland. However, years down the line, these women and girls are still waiting.
I fully recognise concerns around the devolution settlement, especially as a Welsh MP, and I am sure colleagues will want to raise such concerns today. Put simply, however, in the prolonged absence of a functioning Executive in Northern Ireland, it was right that the law was amended to reflect the UK’s human rights obligations. Despite the legislative progress that has been made, we all know that the reality for women seeking abortions in Northern Ireland is fundamentally unchanged. The law simply is not being properly implemented. The Department of Health in Northern Ireland has not commissioned or funded termination services for the purposes of implementing the abortion regulations across Northern Ireland.
According to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the Department has also failed to issue any guidance to health and social care trusts on the provision of abortion services, including when and in what circumstances medical staff may exercise their freedom of conscience when delivering a service. These are basic asks, and ultimately the Executive must abide by their responsibilities around abortion services, especially since they are now enshrined in law.
When it comes to service delivery, the five health and social care trusts across Northern Ireland simply do not have the resources to uphold their responsibilities. Earlier this year, the health and social care trusts collectively applied for additional funding to meet the new legislative requirements for abortion services, but frustratingly, the Health and Social Care Board did not consider that. Across the trusts, abortions were offered within existing services and only where resources allowed. Staff were transferred from other sexual and reproductive services that were on hold as a consequence of coronavirus. A simple glance at the reality of the situation suggests that that short-term plan is completely inadequate.
Colleagues will be aware of the timeline that various health and social care trusts across Northern Ireland have followed over the last year or so. In October 2020, the Northern Health and Social Care Trust was forced to transfer staff back to other sexual and reproductive healthcare services, meaning that it ceased to take any new referrals for abortion services. At that time, the remaining four trusts were unable to provide abortions for between 10 to 12 weeks, because of the lack of resources.
Just months after the regulations legalising abortion came into effect, barriers were clearly already in place for those requiring support, and that is simply not good enough. It is utterly frustrating that legal action from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission was required before any proper action was taken to fix the problem, which persists today.
Colleagues will be aware that in November 2020, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission initiated legal action against the Secretary of State, the Northern Ireland Executive and the Department of Health for Northern Ireland for failure to commission and fund abortion services in Northern Ireland. The judgment in that case was finally reached in October this year and, as we all know, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) was found by the High Court to have failed to uphold his duties to provide full abortion services in Northern Ireland.
Although it is not ordinarily the Opposition’s role to defend the Government—I hope Members will understand that this is a particularly rare exception for me—the failures of Northern Ireland’s Department of Health must be included in the dialogue. We all know that without funding public, services will undoubtedly suffer. That is a fairly basic linear pattern. Without funding or a commissioned framework, health trusts across Northern Ireland simply cannot provide these much-needed services.
In October, the High Court made its will clear—enough is enough. The Secretary of State must work with the Department of Health in Northern Ireland to push it to act. He must act swiftly if he is to comply with the law and stop those who oppose it from denying people access to the abortion process through bureaucratic channels. I am pleased to see that after the legal proceedings were launched, the Secretary of State formally directed Stormont to commission abortion services before the end of March 2022, but the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission says that the situation has not yet improved. That absolutely must change.
The reality that is often lost in the conversation is that the decision to have an abortion is an emotive one. It is rarely an easy one. The pandemic has undoubtedly had an impact on both the commissioning and the delivery of abortion services in Northern Ireland, and that is understandable to a certain extent. What is not understandable is the cruel effect that delaying the availability of these services is having every day on women and girls in Northern Ireland. Many will have been forced to travel to unfamiliar cities, and at the height of the pandemic they would have had to do so alone, without a consoling hand or a smile to support them during this very difficult time. That is the case thanks to sheer political failure.
My final point, which I am sure other Members will refer to in their remarks, relates to abortion exclusion zones. Freedom of speech and the right to protest is a very important human right, and I know from having spoken on this topic before that there are many Members in this place today who will disagree with my position on abortion. When it comes to exclusion zones, however, I want to highlight the comments made by the Chief Commissioner to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, Alyson Kilpatrick, who said last week that a law to introduce safe access zones outside abortion clinics would not stop pro-life campaigners taking part in public protest.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this timely debate. Does she agree that those who advocate a pro-abortion stance in this debate—which is more appropriately and properly dealt with in the Northern Ireland Assembly —often fail to take account of the plight of the unborn child when they, quite regularly, elucidate and elaborate on the issues affecting women in positions that she has alluded to for the past 10 minutes? Does she understand that there are others involved, such as the unborn child?
I thank the hon. Member for his contribution to the debate. We do disagree in our personal views on abortion. The full consultation process was carried out. Ultimately, at the heart of this issue are the women and girls who need these services, sometimes desperately. They are being denied their fundamental human rights in law to access these services. Abortion is a personal choice for anyone to make, and those women and girls need to be at the heart of this debate.
The commissioner, Alyson Kilpatrick, was briefing Stormont’s Committee for Health on the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission’s position on the private Member’s Bill, which seeks to make it illegal to protest or hold demonstrations inside exclusion zones. She said that protesters
“can use the media. They can use various other platforms. They can campaign and protest outside decision-makers’ premises. In fact, the Bill also allows them to protest relatively near to abortion clinics… What it does not allow is for protesters to invade the space and upset, unnecessarily and disproportionately, people who want to avail themselves of the service. They have absolutely every right to say that they disagree, but they do not have a right to impose that on people who are in the process of accessing the service.”
It is therefore vital when debating the situation with abortion services in Northern Ireland that we bear in mind the difficulties that some women and girls face even when those services are available to them.
The commissioning and indeed availability of abortion services is complex. Put simply, every single day that passes denies women and girls the safe, local service they are entitled to. At any time, that would be deemed unacceptable. In a pandemic, it is morally unjustifiable. While it can be dangerous to draw comparisons, I do often consider how the dialogue around other equalities differs from the conversation around abortion. I consider it my duty as an elected representative to challenge these inequalities at every opportunity.
Let me be clear: as someone representing a devolved area, I understand well the sensitivities around the devolution settlement. The balance of our political system relies on the deep respect for devolved powers. Contrary to what other Members may think, I truly believe that that respect is not a contradiction to my overwhelming belief that the United Kingdom is at its best when we work together to uphold fundamental rights. The obligation to uphold said rights lies with this Parliament and this UK Government. Where those rights are denied, as they currently are, the Government have a moral and legal duty to act.
We all need to be honest here. The Northern Ireland Executive are failing women and girls in their obligation and that cannot continue. Quality healthcare and safe, local abortion services are a basic right, and the time to act has long come and gone. For the sake of women and girls in Northern Ireland, it is vital that access to services is commissioned immediately. It is clear that we cannot rely on the Northern Ireland Executive to do so alone. I, therefore, urge the Minister to provide an update on her discussions with the Minister for Health in the Executive. I hope she is able to provide the reassurance that I and so many women and girls in Northern Ireland desperately seek.
Thank you, Mr Pritchard, it is an honour to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) on bringing the matter to the attention of the House. She is absolutely right that this is a narrow debate on a narrow set of issues. It is not, therefore, about women’s rights, despite the fact that what we have heard today has been padded out with a lot of comments about women’s rights.
It is not, unfortunately, about the rights of the unborn child, whom we should pause to consider, because no one ever speaks up for them. No one ever speaks up for that beating heart in a mother’s womb; no one ever gives voice to that. Today is not about that, unfortunately. Today is about the narrow confines of the rule of law, and where law should properly made.
I am aghast at the irony of today’s debate. We have had a lot of comment about this being the rightful place to make these laws, and how it is not a contradiction to stand as a Member from another devolved region and say that the devolved Assembly in Northern Ireland has no right to make those laws and regulations. When that region is currently in court on these very matters, trying to shape the laws of Northern Ireland, it is the most abhorrent contradiction for this place to try to grasp that power back, and the Assembly in Northern Ireland is on this very day debating some of the issues that pertain to this matter. The irony is not lost on anyone, except the unborn.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way; he is a great champion for the life of the unborn child, as are all his DUP colleagues. Does he share my concern that the regulations violate the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and fundamentally dishonour the devolution settlement? That point is particularly appropriate now that Stormont has been restored.
That was a telling point and absolutely right and proper. Yes, this does dishonour and betray the devolution settlement. There are no two ways about; that is the only want it cuts. When powers are devolved to one region and then it is decided that it is not doing things the way we like, so the powers should be taken back, that is not lost on anyone.
We are not allowed to make up facts in this debate. The myth has been projected today that the majority of people in Northern Ireland agree to and with the most liberal abortion laws in any other part of the United Kingdom. Given that that has never been tested, that statement is erroneous and not factual. Any time the Assembly has voted on such matters over the years, it has taken the other view. Whenever this House has voted on it, the representatives from Northern Ireland who attend this place were divided, but the majority voted against the new regulations as outlined.
We cannot make up the facts and pretend that, because one or two Members support this, all Northern Ireland supports it. That is a myth and one that has to be challenged. Talk to any section of society in Northern Ireland, in the tribal way that Northern Ireland is often caricatured—talk to members of the Roman Catholic faith, members of the Protestant faith, members of no faith—and one will find that the weight of opinion is solidly for the rights of the unborn child. That is the socially conservative society that Northern Ireland actually is.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Some 80% of respondents to the consultation on the imposition of the legislation did not want it imposed on Northern Ireland, which completely dispels the myth that the majority of people in Northern Ireland are pro-abortion. In fact, they are pro-life.
I do not need to make the point, because my hon. Friend has just made it so exceptionally well.
When the regulations were first set in train in July 2019, it was argued in this Parliament that Parliament was duty-bound to pass the amendment that became section 9 because Northern Ireland, it was stated, was in violation of its international human rights obligations under the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women and the recommendations of the 2018 CEDAW Committee report on Northern Ireland.
However, when ones drills down into that report, the explanatory memorandum to the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2021 acknowledges the fact, which the Government now confirm, that paragraphs 85 and 86 of the CEDAW Committee report, which the House rested upon when it made its case in 2019, do not constitute legally binding international obligations. Constantly, those arguing for these liberal laws hang their hat on the false premise that it was an international obligation, when it was no such thing. That myth needs to be dispelled. We should not base our laws upon a lie, and that is what has happened. That is why people are so agitated about what the Government did.
The hon. Member for Pontypridd is right: everyone is entitled to their own opinions on these serious, weighty and emotional matters; however, they and the Government are not entitled to make a pretence that the law was an international obligation that had to be followed when it was no such thing. The Government have now changed their former line of reasoning, arguing that it is the 2019 Act rather than the CEDAW recommendations that requires them to force Stormont to implement the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020 and the 2021 regulations. If ever something has been made perverse, it is the way in which the law is now being argued for.
It is plainly an untenable situation, where non-binding recommendations have been misrepresented to create a binding Act that removes any obligation to and any protection that the unborn child heretofore had. In doing so, the Government leave Northern Ireland in a straitjacket on one of the most sensitive issues that it could ever consider. The UK Government should not have imposed the same law on Northern Ireland that the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has criticised in respect of the United Kingdom. That committee expressed its concern
“about perceptions in society that stigmatize persons with disabilities…and about the termination of pregnancy at any stage on the basis of fetal impairment.”
By allowing for abortion up to birth—think of it—in cases of non-foetal disabilities such as Down’s syndrome, cleft lip and club foot, the regulations are deeply offensive to the values of Northern Irish people and their politicians.
The House is currently considering a private Member’s Bill that the Government have given fair wind to, introduced by the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), on the rights of children with disabilities. I am honoured to be the secondary sponsor of that Bill. On the one hand, Parliament is trying to introduce laws to protect children with Down’s syndrome, to honour them and to give them their place in society. At the same time, this House says, “Destroy that Down’s syndrome child.” That is what is perverse and wrong, and it is why people are so agitated.
We shall see evidence of that in the latest progress of the Severe Fetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment) Bill, which is being debated as we speak in Stormont. There is a myth that a majority of Northern Ireland politicians are for these liberal laws, when, in fact, the only vote that has taken place in the legislative Assembly since these laws were introduced was on a law to amend them and to remove some of the most horrible liberal policies that affect the unborn. That point, and that sense of irony, is not lost on us.
I welcome the fact of this debate. I also welcome the fact that the Opposition are not here in force today. I think that is surprising, because the Opposition have made a habit of trying to push these matters on to Northern Ireland. I think that, perhaps, under their leader the penny is starting to drop that they cannot keep interfering in the devolution process. They cannot keep saying on the one issue—the Protocol—that they cannot get involved in a debate because they are defending the Belfast agreement, and then the next day come into this place and say, “We want to interfere in the Belfast agreement, set its issues aside, and interfere in a piece of legislation in Northern Ireland.” They cannot have it both ways—that is the message that we send out. This House cannot have it both ways, because that would be obscene and it would be wrong.
Today, I proudly proclaim my defence of, and give my voice to, the unborn. The unborn have a right to life. It is not a health issue to remove the life of an unborn child. It is a moral issue, and this House should have the moral compass to do what is right.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, and I thank the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) for securing this debate. The issue of abortion in Northern Ireland is challenging for many people. Many of us, myself included, have had to go on a real journey of compassion and learning over several years. I am very aware of the sensitivities around it and of the strongly held views. However, it is very clear that there is nobody who this affects more, and nobody that this is more distressing for, than women and girls.
As with many issues over the years that the Executive found too hard to deal with, the changes in Northern Irish law were brought about via interventions from this place from Members of the Opposition. The inadequacy of the previous regulations was very clear for many years. Many women had to go to court and relive the most distressing experiences, in order to build momentum and support for change. This is in many ways a rule of law issue. Despite what other Members have said today, without a plebiscite, we do not know exactly what every single member of the public thinks in Northern Ireland. However, I would be very surprised if any Member could tell me, with a straight face, that a majority of people support the previous provisions under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which carried a sanction of up to life imprisonment for those involved in an abortion—regardless of the circumstances.
Whatever people have to say about how they came about, these regulations are the law; this is a rule of law issue and it is entirely inappropriate that these services have yet to be fully commissioned. We are all very much aware of the pressures that the health service and health professionals are under. However, if we are honest, we know that healthcare and health service pressure is not at the core of this issue. We also know that it is not acceptable to duck our responsibilities and force women to travel to Britain—especially in a pandemic.
People know, in their heart of hearts, that to deny these services is simply exporting the issue. They know that this legislation does not actually reduce the number of people who require an abortion; it just has the impact of making a stressful situation even worse for those who are going through it. Despite the pandemic, we know that 371 women and girls still travelled to Britain for abortions, which by law, they should have been able to access in Northern Ireland. We know that many others had to resort to unregulated abortion pills—with all the potential health and legal complications that would result from that.
I am a deep believer in devolution, and it is a matter of regret to me that the Executive failed to commission services in line with their legal obligations. It is also a matter of regret to me that in 23 years, to the best of my knowledge, the Executive have not delivered any piece of equality legislation. Those who believe they are holding some imaginary line should realise that in fact, they are growing the belief among many people in the centre ground in Northern Ireland that the only way they can have the rights and entitlements they wish to have is by changing the constitutional paradigm.
Tomorrow, we will be back in this Chamber discussing the impact of Brexit in Northern Ireland, and there are Members who will rehearse in that debate a very uncompromising position about the need for there to be no divergence whatsoever between Britain and Northern Ireland. As recently as yesterday, the Democratic Unionist party leader repeated his calls to bring down the Assembly over the principle of divergence between Britain and Northern Ireland. The mantra is that there can be no divergence in Northern Ireland—that everybody in Northern Ireland has to have the right to exactly the same sausages as people in Britain have—yet they are willing to fight and stand against people in Northern Ireland having the right to the same healthcare services as those in Britain. The prospect that many more women will be forced to either travel or go to court in order to change the current situation is cruel and distressing.
I will briefly reference the Severe Fetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment) Bill, which in a weird echo is being debated in the Assembly as we speak, and which targets some of the most distressing cases of women seeking an abortion. Those cases are incredibly rare—less than 0.1% of abortions, as I understand it—but that Bill has still invited hours and hours of discussion by MLAs about the plight of those women. By all credible assessments, the Bill is legally incompetent and unlikely to receive Royal Assent. It is found by many disability campaigners to be a fairly cynical and exploitative move that undermines many of the efforts that are being made for people with disabilities, and I believe it is effectively a campaigning opportunity for some people to play out the most distressing experiences in the lives of people who, in nearly all cases, are facing a heartbreaking diagnosis after a much-wanted pregnancy.
The hon. Member for Pontypridd has also referenced the safe spaces—the exclusion zones. While abortion is a conscience matter for the Social Democratic and Labour party, that is a piece of legislation that we are all strongly in support of, and I welcome the ruling of the Human Rights Commission that it does not diminish the right of people to protest if they so wish.
In conclusion, the issue of abortion is not something that I take lightly. I know that many people who have arrived at a different position than I have arrived at come from a place of sincerity and compassion, but I also have no doubt that the decision that many women take requires the same level of compassion and dignity, and it is long past time that we make available the services that the law provides for them. There are clearly wider conversations to be had about how we can improve the circumstances of people who are faced with these sorts of choices, such as more adequately securing people’s belief that the state will meet their needs and support them if they are dealing with a very disabled child, because that is not the case at the moment. I am sure that every Member of this House meets families who are living a hell, given the inadequacy of the services that are provided to their families. Perhaps if those services were more comprehensive, people would not feel that abortion was the best choice for their family.
We also fully support better reproductive services, better education, and better information around relationships and consent in school—all the things that we should do to reduce the number of occasions on which people feel abortion is the only choice for them—but quite clearly, for those who do, that is their choice, and the services should be there to meet that choice.
It is a matter of deep regret that this House has sought to impose its will above the devolution settlement. At the heart of devolution must lie respect for the areas of legislation that have been determined to fall within the jurisdiction of devolved authorities. In complex and highly charged matters such as abortion, the benefit of the doubt should always be granted to the devolved authorities that they are capable of managing their own affairs.
Both the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020 and the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2021 were passed despite the overwhelming majority of MPs representing Northern Ireland who take their seats in Westminster voting against the regulations on both occasions, despite the overwhelming majority of respondents to the consultation on the legislation being opposed to its imposition in Northern Ireland and despite the Assembly being back up and running prior to those regulations becoming law. The very premise for the legislation was flawed, with the claim that intervention was required by Westminster because Northern Ireland was in breach of international law. That claim has been demonstrated to be absolutely wrong—even the explanatory notes for the legislation noted that the CEDAW report recommendations
“are not binding and do not constitute international obligations.”
My hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) eloquently outlined the change that had to be made in the regulations’ explanatory notes to demonstrate that the very foundation on which that law was brought forward was factually incorrect. That is a crazy way to make law—to build it on something that is fundamentally wrong.
The regulations go far beyond what is legally required, as well as beyond the law in England and Wales. They are also discriminatory against those diagnosed with disabilities. A submission to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee stated:
“Abortion is a sensitive matter throughout the United Kingdom, but no more so than in Northern Ireland to which the Abortion Act 1967 has not been extended”.
The Abortion (Northern Ireland) (No. 2) Regulations 2020
“radically alter the framework for abortion services in Northern Ireland”,
“its provisions exceed those already available elsewhere in the UK. For example,”
that includes unconditional access to abortion where
“the pregnancy has not exceeded its 12th week”.
We hear about Northern Ireland’s stance on pro-life and about the number of people who have had to make a difficult journey to GB for access, but we do not often hear about the 100,000 lives who are alive today in Northern Ireland because we did not sign up to the 1967 Act. One hundred thousand lives—people working in our hospitals and the NHS, teachers, and those right throughout our society who are alive today and contributing to society because they were not aborted. Our law values life.
Tragically, the radical regulations permit sex-selective abortion, since the sex of a foetus can be determined through non-invasive prenatal testing. Imagine, baby girls—in the main—being aborted just because they are girls. We call ourselves a progressive society; there is nothing progressive about having a law that allows for babies to be aborted because of their sex.
On the subject of disability, Lord Shinkwin noted during the debate in the other place on the latest version of the abortion regulations imposed on Northern Ireland earlier this year:
“The regulations…threaten me because they challenge that right by devaluing my existence. The narrative of the regulations is that I should not really exist. Indeed, I would be better off dead.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 28 April 2021; Vol. 811, c. 2271.]
On that point, on the importance of the unborn and of protection for the unborn, and on the recognition of that in law, whenever we hear of incidents such as the Omagh bombing, when the unborn were killed, they are included in the numbers of the dead. In the incident at Hillsborough, the unborn were included among the dead. I believe that that is the point: they are a life and they are deemed in law to be a life. The recognition is there, and yet now we believe that we can snuff it out.
Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes a very valid point. the most basic human right is the right to life and, unfortunately, in our society now the unborn do not have that right. That is not right, and we should not accept it.
As Lord Shinkwin notes, the CEDAW recommendations, one of the great premises on which the law was introduced, expressly prohibit perpetuating stereotypes towards persons with disabilities. The regulations appear to contravene the very recommendations to which they claim to conform. Other Members may be unaware—Members from Northern Ireland have already noted this point in the debate—that proceedings continue in Northern Ireland today, highlighting how unwarranted and extreme these abortion regulations are.
This very afternoon, Members of the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland will consider the Severe Fetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment) Bill, a private Member’s Bill brought forward by my good friends and colleagues, MLAs Paul Givan and Christopher Stalford. The Bill seeks to amend the regulations to remove the ground for an abortion in cases of severe foetal impairment.
The Bill passed the second stage in the Northern Ireland Assembly with 48 votes to 12, and was supported by an overwhelming 99.55% of the more than 9,000 submissions to the Northern Ireland Committee for Health consultation. The Bill will now have its consideration stage this afternoon. It goes some way towards meeting the objective of the CEDAW report, on which section 9 of the 2020 regulations is framed—that stereotypes towards persons with disabilities should not be perpetuated. Under the current regulations, babies with entirely non-fatal disabilities, including Down’s syndrome, cleft palate and club foot, can be singled out for abortion in Northern Ireland because of their disability. The provisions allow for them to be aborted right up to birth.
As has been said, we need a society that values people. We see the amazing Bill that has been brought forward for children and young people and people living with Down’s syndrome. We want a society where our legislation values those people and lets them see that we want them to exist and to contribute to society. Our abortion laws allow for them to be aborted up to birth. That tells people with disabilities that their lives are less worthy of protection than the lives of those without disability, and perpetuates deeply unhelpful stereotypes about their quality of life by suggesting that it might be better for them not to have been born.
The regulations matter because they send a clear message that people with disabilities are not equal to others—the Bill being discussed in Northern Ireland today says they are. In England and Wales, where a very similar law is in place, 90% of babies diagnosed with Down’s syndrome before birth are aborted, and we know of women who have been offered multiple terminations of their unborn child, up to a very late stage of pregnancy, because their child has been diagnosed with the disability.
A submission to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee on the 2021 regulations noted:
“The Committee will recall that the proposals consulted on by the Northern Ireland Office in respect of the 2020 Regulations were rejected by almost 80% of those responding. And yet this breadth of feeling was not reflected in the legislation which subsequently ensued.”
The Severe Fetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment) Bill
“goes some way to begin to redress that democratic deficit.”
The Bill indicates the Assembly’s capacity to legislate for itself on abortion, as well as the disparity between the regulations imposed without consent on Northern Ireland and the views of the majority of the population and their elected representatives. I urge the Government to rethink, to respect the devolution settlement and to allow Stormont the time and space to formulate a made-in and made-for Northern Ireland policy.
Finally, I pick up on a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), who has left early. Never once in this debate is the baby mentioned by the pro-abortion speakers. It is all about the women. I value women. I am a woman myself. I have a baby myself. I value women, but I also value the life of the unborn. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim has said, I am unashamedly pro-life. I will be a voice for the voiceless. We need to get to a point in this society where our laws legislate and create a society that values life and where people can choose life. Yes, we need additional services—I would be the first to say that—to help women who choose life, but I want our laws to value the unborn and value the baby in the womb.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart), my co-chair on the pro-life all-party parliamentary group. I commend her for her informed and sensitive speech and for all that she does to be a voice for the unborn in this place.
I rise to speak in this debate to support the right of the Northern Ireland Assembly, representing the people of Northern Ireland, to determine the way forward on abortion—a matter devolved there for some 100 years. I will also highlight the problems arising from the 2020 and 2021 regulations.
I agree that this is a sensitive matter; it is one of fundamental importance in terms of the lives of the unborn, respecting the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland, and respect for the long standing Sewell convention of devolution—that the UK Parliament does not normally legislate in respect of devolved matters without the consent of the devolved legislature. Before I move on to the particular problems of the 2020 and 2021 regulations, I will first refer to two other issues: the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee and the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2021. There were multiple submissions to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee earlier this year as it considered the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2021. Those submissions illustrated the worrying damage that imposing such changes could inflict on the Union. I will quote just one, which says that the Secretary of State’s new powers would
“give him complete control of policies related to abortion and education in Northern Ireland, which are devolved matters. They will take away from the people of Northern Ireland any power to affect any abortion policy the Westminster government choose to impose”,
“given the current unrest in the province, these measures could do untold damage to the already fragile Northern Ireland Assembly and the Good Friday Agreement.”
Those are profound implications.
I turn to the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution, which published a report on the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2021 in April highlighting several constitutional issues arising from the regulations. The Committee stated:
“The 2021 Regulations raise an important issue concerning devolved competence. On the one hand the Secretary of State cites a statutory duty, arising from section 9 of the 2019 Act, to make the 2020 and 2021 Regulations… On the other hand, one of the governing parties in the Northern Ireland Executive opposes the Regulations as an unwarranted interference with the devolution arrangements… The prospect of different laws on abortion operating in Northern Ireland would cause substantial legal and political difficulties, and risk undermining the devolution arrangements. We urge the Government and the Northern Ireland Executive to adopt a more constructive approach to resolve this matter.”
I now turn in detail to the problems arising from the 2021 and 2020 regulations. Some of these points have been touched on, very eloquently, before; forgive me, Mr Pritchard, if I touch on them again. They are worth repeating. The 2020 regulations allowed the Westminster Government to introduce a completely new abortion framework to Northern Ireland—even broader than the already extremely permissive regulations applicable here. For example, the regulations allow for an abortion, without the need for any ground or reason to be given, for any pregnancy up to 12 weeks. That, effectively, permits sex-selective abortion, as it is now possible to tell the sex of an unborn child between seven and 10 weeks.
Government Ministers here have repeatedly stated that sex selection is not a lawful ground for the termination of pregnancy. When sex-selective abortion was debated in Westminster in 2015, a Minister described it as an “abhorrent practice”. In permitting abortion on demand up to 12 weeks, the regulations go far beyond the law in Great Britain. Indeed, they are even more permissive than required by the CEDAW report, which I will come on to shortly.
The 2021 regulations are even broader, as they deal not only with abortion but with wider issues such as sex education. However, no formal consultation has taken place on the regulations. The Government relied on a mere six-week consultation on the 2020 regulations—six weeks that ran during the general election campaign of 2019 and in the lead-up to Christmas that year.
Then there is the question of the cost of implementing this new framework for abortion in Northern Ireland, which is shrouded in confusion. There was no impact assessment for the 2020 regulations. It appears that the UK Government—the Minister may correct me—have given no indication of how costs will be borne, arguing that this is a matter for the Department of Health in Northern Ireland. However, the Department of Health in Northern Ireland considers this funding to be a matter for the UK Government.
There is the further legal point of controversy as to whether the obligations in the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 were a one-off, so that the 2020 regulations met them, which is the view of the former Attorney General for Northern Ireland, John Larkin QC, or whether those obligations are continuing, which I understand is the view of the Government.
It is critical to remind ourselves, as colleagues have done, that the minor UN CEDAW committee was not the UN speaking as a whole, which was often the impression that we were given when we were discussing the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019. Those discussions were far too brief. I remember one important debate on the Bill, on 18 July, that lasted just one hour. On another occasion, if I remember correctly—and I stand to be corrected—we were asked to look at House of Lords amendments in just 17 minutes, which was totally inadequate for the consideration of such important legislation.
That CEDAW committee was not the UN speaking as a whole and, as we have heard, its recommendations are neither binding nor international law. That has been specifically confirmed by the Northern Ireland Office itself in its explanatory memorandum to the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2021, which states, with reference to paragraphs 85 and 86 of the CEDAW report:
“In particular, those recommendations are not binding and do not constitute international obligations.”
The whole premise on which we passed the 2019 Act was false.
On the basis of those non-binding recommendations, the Government seek, through the 2021 regulations, to give the Secretary of State sweeping powers to direct not just Ministers but civil servants and health bodies in Northern Ireland to implement a broad abortion framework. That is a far wider group of people and bodies than envisaged by the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which allows the Secretary of State to give direction to Ministers or a Northern Ireland Department only in certain circumstances, namely,
“for the purpose of giving effect to any international obligations”
—and we have agreed today, I hope, that the CEDAW recommendations were not international obligations—or for the purpose of
“safeguarding the interests of defence or national security or of protecting public safety or public order”.
The wide-ranging powers given to the Secretary of State by the 2020 and 2021 regulations cannot be justified on any of those grounds.
I turn now to commissioning. There is no reference to what services might be commissioned in either the 2020 or the 2021 regulations. The regulations are now, as Mr Pritchard has said, the subject of a pending court decision, which makes for a further legal complication. The requirement to commission services under the direction of the Secretary of State may disappear if that legal challenge is successful, leaving a legal loophole. What is particularly concerning about the commissioning, however, is that the regulations do not include any proposed inspection arrangements for premises conducting abortions, whether NHS or private. It would appear that the Northern Ireland Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority has no powers to inspect any premises to compare with those of the Care Quality Commission in England. If that is the case, that omission is doubly concerning when we consider recent reports by the CQC of abortion clinics in England. In the last few weeks, a British Pregnancy Advisory Service clinic in Middlesbrough was rated inadequate after inspectors found that medicines were not stored safely and that systems to protect people from abuse were not “effective”, while a Doncaster BPAS clinic was put into special measures following an inspection. It is essential that proper provision for the inspection and regulation of abortion services is in place in Northern Ireland.
As mentioned, abortion remains a devolved matter that rests with the competency of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2019—which, in section 9, includes the order-making power under which the regulations were created—was imposed on Northern Ireland at the behest of parliamentarians from other parts of the UK. No Northern Ireland MP in Westminster supported the passing of that Act.
The Northern Ireland Assembly have been up and running for some time. It not only has the legislative competency to act on abortion-related matters but, as we have heard, it is in the process of doing so through the Severe Foetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment) Bill. Respect for the competencies of that Assembly and the devolution settlement surely dictates that all other abortion matters should be determined by the Assembly, particularly since abortion has been a devolved matter for so long.
The Severe Foetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment) Bill seeks to address the discriminatory nature of abortion law implemented in Northern Ireland under regulation 7 of the 2020 regulations, which permits abortion up to birth on the grounds of disability. It is a matter of increasing concern across the UK in terms of its discriminatory aspect, as we heard in the House only two weeks ago in a debate on the proposed Down’s syndrome Bill.
Application of regulation 7 would very much go against the progressive tide of thinking in that respect. The fact that abortion up to birth for serious foetal disability is already in effect in GB is no reason to implement it in Northern Ireland—particularly as it is now considered to be deeply concerning and ill-defined legislation. I know that because my son was born with a club foot. I do not consider that to be a serious disability. We have seen it corrected; no one looking at my son today would know that he had been born with that disability.
Even the CEDAW report on which the regulations rely stated:
“In cases of severe fetal impairment, the Committee aligns itself”
with the UN
“Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in the condemnation of sex selective and disability selective abortions, both stemming from…negative stereotypes and prejudices towards women and persons with disabilities.”
With great sadness, I conclude that imposing the ill-thought-through and hurried-through regulations would demonstrate a profound lack of respect for the people of Northern Ireland and their elected representatives. As I have repeatedly said in this House—I refer to my remarks on 8 July, 18 July and 9 September 2019, and on 8 January 2020—the hurried handling of the issue of abortion, which is a devolved policy area, and the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act and the subsequent introduction of regulations has been, in my opinion, unconstitutional, undemocratic, legally incoherent and utterly disrespectful to the people of Northern Ireland.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate on an issue that is very close to my heart. I will replicate the opinions of my colleagues and of the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). I am my party’s health spokesperson. As a Northern Ireland MP—I was born and bred there and I still live there—I have listened to the views of those around me: of women and men; of young and old; of those who are affected by the meddling of this House in one area and cry out for help in other areas, only to be told that the issues are devolved. There is no justification for interference in the devolved settlement in Northern Ireland in this matter.
The Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2021 conferred egregiously wide powers on the Secretary of State to
“direct a Northern Ireland Minister, a Northern Ireland department, the Health and Social Care Board and the Public Health Agency to take any action capable of being taken that is required for the purpose of implementing the recommendations in paragraphs 85 and 86”
of the CEDAW report. The regulations note that the Secretary of State will have powers to direct any “relevant person” to take any action that they are capable of for the purpose implementing the recommendations in paragraphs 85 and 86 of the CEDAW report. It is not clear that Parliament intended to allow such wide-ranging powers to be created, given the obligations voted on in section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, which outlines such powers as applying to Ministers and Northern Ireland Departments only, while the 2021 regulations extend these powers to direct public health organisations.
That sets a dangerous precedent for commissioning on a devolved issue. There is no clear limit to the sweeping powers granted to the Secretary of State; they are potentially indefinite. The Northern Ireland Office states that
“the statutory duty imposed on the Secretary of State by section 9 of the NIEF Act is such that until all of the recommendations in the CEDAW Report are implemented in Northern Ireland, he will not have complied with his statutory duties in full.”
That is very concerning and very worrying. These are wide-ranging powers across a spectrum of issues that extends well beyond abortion. The list under paragraph 86 of the CEDAW report, for example, also includes sex education. The powers taken by the Secretary of State in the 2021 regulations allow the UK Government to override Stormont on devolved issues on an ongoing basis, even though the Assembly is functioning. We may not like all the things happening at the Assembly, but it is a functioning Assembly and it has a cross-section of political support in Northern Ireland.
Notably, consent for constitutional change is one of the fundamental principles of the 2005 St Andrews agreement, which restored the political institutions of Northern Ireland in July 2006. The radical abortion amendment to the 2019 Act has not received the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Repeatedly laying these statutory instruments glosses over the deeper issues related to devolution and that abortion is devolved to Northern Ireland, but seemingly now in name only.
Abortion is an immensely sensitive issue in Northern Ireland, a place where both lives matter—both the life of the pregnant woman and the life of the unborn child, the baby yet to be born. It is an issue that crosses the bounds of political persuasion, class or creed. At the walk for life at Stormont, which I was happy to attend with my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart), I stood shoulder to shoulder with nationalists, Alliance voters and Unionists alike. We rose above the politics because life matters, including the life of the unborn baby. I was thankful for the thousands and thousands who came out to respectfully plead that we did not implement the most liberal abortion laws in Europe, to no avail.
I respect the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones)—she knows that, I spoke to her beforehand—and I want to be respectful to everyone because it is my nature to be so. With that in mind, I say this. The hon. Lady referred to consensus. First, back on 2 June 2020, 75 of the 90 Members of the Legislative Assembly demonstrated cross-community opposition to the imposition of abortion legislation that discriminated against those with non-fatal disabilities, including Down’s syndrome, and an absolute majority voted specifically against the imposition of abortion regulations that allow disability discrimination, as the 2021 regulations have done. Secondly, I am aware of a poll earlier this year that indicated that 60% of the people of Northern Ireland were against abortion on demand for any purpose. Those are two reasons why the consensus that the hon. Lady referred to does not hold up.
Thirdly, a poll by the University of Liverpool and Britain’s Economic and Social Research Council showed that only 5% of the public in Northern Ireland support introducing abortion up to 24 weeks, which is what the UK Government implemented through their regulations. Fourthly—my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann made this point, but it is important that I put on the record that I feel the same; it has never been contradicted, and indeed has been enhanced—it has been reported that an estimated 100,000 people would likely not be alive today had Northern Ireland been subject to the same drastic expansion of abortion legislation as the rest of the UK has experienced since the Abortion Act 1967. With abortion on demand, those people would not have jobs and would not be contributing to society. I thought that was a very salient tale of just how important that is.
In effect, it seems that abortion in Northern Ireland has become a reserved matter, predicated on the consent of Westminster, and by extension, the CEDAW recommendations, rather than a devolved matter of full legislative control as before 2019. In the last two days, from my constituents in Strangford, I have been contacted with some 400 emails on this issue—I say that honestly. How many emails have I had in favour of abortion in the last six months? Three. Three in favour of abortion, and 400 in the last few days. Indeed, in those six months, thousands spoke against it.
I want to reflect the opinion of those in Strangford and across Northern Ireland. I am very proud to represent everyone on this issue, and people do take the time to come and tell me their views. I have had nationalists come to my office who pleaded with me to stand firm against this most liberal abortion regime in the world. The case is clear. The majority are against abortion.
One of my constituents tells me that she emailed one Member of the House who has spoken out passionately, telling this House that she spoke for the women of Northern Ireland. I will not shame anybody, because that is not what I do, but my constituent, who wrote to that Member and asked her to represent her, is still waiting for a reply. There is a pick-and-choose when it comes to Northern Ireland that goes from Government right down to individual Members. I am not picking and choosing. I can speak with authority and say with certainty that the overwhelming majority of those who have contacted me are appalled at this legislation. They are appalled that the wishes of a cross-section of the Assembly have been ignored by the Government. They are appalled that the legislation means that a reason for taking a life at 27 weeks can be a cleft lip. Does anyone really think that that reason could be condoned legislatively or in any other way?
My hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann speaks with passion, compassion and sense, and I commend her for that. My voice should not carry any less weight because I am a man. I speak for my constituents—male and female, young and old. I represent them very well, I believe, and I am fervently urging Members to consider what they are asking to be implemented expressly against the democratic will of the people of the Province.
There is coming a day shortly when the day-to-day business of Northern Ireland could well be the responsibility of this House, and all decisions could be made here, but not now and not at this time. Today is not that day. It is the place of the Northern Ireland Assembly to make a decision on abortion. It should be up to Assembly Members to respect them. They should be respecting the thousands upon thousands of my constituents who say that they do not want abortion on demand, that they want to speak up for the unborn and, above all, to respect life. The life of the unborn baby is so important to all of us.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) on securing this timely debate on the commissioning of abortion services in Northern Ireland. I am proud of her work, as my predecessor, for women and girls in Northern Ireland. I will endeavour to do all that I can to support them.
At the beginning of my parliamentary career, I worked as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the shadow Northern Ireland team and was a member of the Women and Equalities Committee. This afforded me the opportunities to work with colleagues in Northern Ireland and to have a greater insight into the inequality of women in Northern Ireland compared with the rest of the UK. I had the opportunity to meet the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) before she was in this place. I remember the conversation well. She spoke today about compassion and learning and that this issue is a journey. I think we all understand what a journey it is for women in Northern Ireland.
Being part of the Women and Equalities Committee when it did the report on abortion law in Northern Ireland gave me an in-depth view of the change that was needed to move forward. I pay tribute to all the organisations and politicians who spoke to us. Moreover, I pay tribute to the women who shared their deeply personal experiences with us as well.
The standpoint of the Labour Front Bench is that these women should have the right to make an informed choice. Any woman who suffers a loss or makes a decision to end a pregnancy should have support services available to them. I was very dismayed to hear that there is an 80% increase in need, and limited funding means that women have got up to a six month waiting list for support. How can this be acceptable in 2021?
I have listened to all of the speakers in today’s debate. It is important that we all understand and are respectful of each other’s views. I was brought up a Roman Catholic and my father was the deputy head of a Roman Catholic school. I had that one-sided view of the right to life. However, as a woman and having been in education for 20 years, I have seen at first hand the pain that girls and women have had to go through. That is why those services are so important. As my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd outlined at the start, this is not a debate about the mechanics of devolution; it is a debate about the rights and the duty of this Parliament to uphold the rights of citizens across the United Kingdom. The law is clear: we need to get on with delivering those services.
The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about the views of the people in Northern Ireland. I want to draw their attention to an Amnesty International poll, done by an independent research company in 2020, which
“demonstrates an overwhelming demand for change to Northern Ireland’s draconian abortion laws.”
It is important that we are fair, just and transparent about the data that is out there on the views of people in Northern Ireland.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd explained in her excellent speech, the changes to abortion laws extended abortion rights to the women of Northern Ireland. They were made in line with the recommendations of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and affording women in Northern Ireland those rights was about aligning abortion policy across the United Kingdom. It was a key moment for us, but little has changed since March 2020 for women in Northern Ireland. This is the title of the debate, and the lack of the commissioning of abortion services in Northern Ireland is having a direct impact on women.
The debate is about the rights of women in Northern Ireland and their right to access basic reproductive healthcare without needless barriers. It is about their right to clear, accurate and impartial advice and guidance about their healthcare choices. There is a worrying lack of impartial guidance, if any guidance at all, on a woman’s right to choice when she finds out she is pregnant. The GP should be women’s first port of call and they do not always get the advice they need there. When women turn to the internet and google abortion services in Northern Ireland, they are led to services that put in delaying tactics, making it impossible for them to terminate their pregnancy if they wish to. It also forces more and more women to purchase abortion pills online. We should not be in that situation. Fortunately, those women are not living in fear of prosecution now when they use that service.
Unfortunately, I need the time.
The lack of commissioning means that Informing Choices NI has had to withdraw its central access point and BPAS has had to come in to support it as well. Women have a right to have high-quality access services as early as possible and as late as necessary and those rights are currently denied to women because of the inaction of the Northern Ireland Executive, the Department of Health in Northern Ireland and the Secretary of State. It has been nearly two years since those essential services should have been made routinely available in Northern Ireland, but as colleagues have said, the reality for many women is that the change in legislation might as well not have happened.
The lack of funding or a commissioning framework has led to piecemeal service provision, with women’s access dictated by their postcode. Women in the Western Health and Social Care Trust area have had not access to services in nine months and they cannot go to another trust to access services, having to pay nearly €500 privately to go to Ireland or to England and access pills online if it is not too late. What should be a service for all becomes a service for a lucky few: those who can take a hit to their income, take a day off work or travel the hours to access healthcare. That is not fair. The impact of covid has also been felt in service provision and in the travel restrictions.
The reality for women in Northern Ireland is that access to basic healthcare rights is in no way guaranteed. Will the Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland meet me to discuss an immediate way in which the Government can address the current crisis for women in Northern Ireland? What additional measures will the Executive put in place, especially in light of the new covid variant omicron, to ensure that the provision will be extended and maintained into the new year?
I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say, because this is a very important issue for women and girls in Northern Ireland.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) for securing the debate. The Northern Ireland Office Ministers regret that they are unable to be here today, but I am sure they welcome the opportunity to have this debate and hear the wide-ranging views on abortion in Northern Ireland. It is an extremely emotive and sensitive subject and it is important that we have that debate in this place.
It is now more than two years since the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 was passed, where Parliament stepped in and decided that women in Northern Ireland should have access to the same healthcare rights as women in England, Scotland and Wales. Even though the law was changed two years ago, it is true that services have not been commissioned in full.
The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act placed a duty on the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to ensure that abortion services which meet the recommendations are put in place and implemented. He has a legal duty to uphold that. As we have heard today, it is true that women have to access abortion in the rest of Great Britain, even though early medical abortion is available in four of the five trusts in Northern Ireland and BPAS has stepped in to provide an interim referral service for women and girls on a temporary basis.
Women and girls who require surgical abortions and post-10 week abortions still have to travel to Britain. The only way for the legal obligations to be met is through local commissioning. The Secretary of State has been clear with the Northern Ireland Department of Health and the Northern Ireland Executive about the commissioning of abortion services that are consistent with the regulations passed in 2019. Despite continuous engagement by the Secretary of State, he remains frustrated that progress is not being made.
As a result of the ongoing delay in commissioning services specifically by the Department of Health and the Northern Ireland Executive, Members will be aware that in July this year, the Secretary of State issued a direction to the Northern Ireland Department of Health, the Minister of Health, and the Health and Social Care Board to commission and make abortion services available by no later than 31 March 2022.
I thank the Minister for giving way because that point is absolutely vital. By the Secretary of State recommending to the Minister in Northern Ireland that he commission these services, is that not an acceptance that these services are devolved matters? Conversely, matters that are reserved, such as the protocol, can be debated here—and posed and changed here—if that is the Government’s position. If the Government’s position is that this matter is devolved, it should remain devolved.
I thank the hon. Member. I was going to come on to the point he raised in his remarks, but will touch on it now, if I may. Health is a devolved matter and that is very much recognised. It was frustrating. It was a free vote, and he knows how I voted and I would do the same today. However, at the time, there was no functioning Assembly. This Parliament had to make decisions, not just on this issue, but other issues such as budgetary matters. As a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at the time, I remember making the case to MLAs that this was why it was so important to get the Assembly up and running, because decisions were made in this place that did not reflect and respect devolution. Decisions were having to be made in this place on devolved matters.
I totally agree that this is a very sensitive issue and there are strongly held views on it, but it is as if we are sometimes speaking in a vacuum. Yes, there was a political vacuum in Northern Ireland when the law was made, but there was also an issue around the law, where the High Court clearly stated in the Sarah Ewart case that the Northern Ireland Executive were falling foul of the law in terms of human rights protections around fatal foetal abnormality and sexual assault.
Whatever people might think about the law that this place brought in, the Northern Ireland Executive did not bring in a law to deal with that issue. Nobody that I have heard who opposes the law here has come up with a solution to deal with the fact that Sarah Ewart and many other women were forced, when the baby was not able to be born or to survive, to carry to full term. Those people were left without any recourse by our Northern Ireland Executive, so it is all very well talking about devolution and everything else, but when responsibility lay with the Northern Ireland Executive, they did not lift the ball, did not deal with it and left women, such as Sarah Ewart, in a very invidious position.
We are left with the law that was passed in 2019, so the Secretary of State is now under a legal duty to implement it. He has directed the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to include it on the agenda for the Executive Committee. That is not taken lightly because, while I understand the points the hon. Gentleman has just made, health is a devolved matter, but the UK Government have to uphold their legal duties in terms of the decision.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has taken the decision in line with his statutory duty. He recognises that it is an unprecedented step, but it was taken after allowing a year for the commissioning of services since the Northern Ireland Office provided a framework in spring 2020. The Secretary of State has clearly stated that fully commissioned services must be provided by March next year. If it becomes clear before that deadline that the Department of Health, or indeed the Northern Ireland Executive, are not making progress, he will have to take further steps to ensure that his legal duties are upheld.
I know that I am running out of time, but I will just follow up on a couple of comments. The hon. Member for Pontypridd asked about progress, and I hope that I have set out that the Secretary of State has set the deadline of March and is monitoring progress closely. On the issue of exclusion zones, my understanding is that there is a Bill before the Assembly, brought forward by an MLA, that is being debated on that very issue, and in terms of devolution, the decision will be made there.
On the importance of devolution, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and hon. Members for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart), absolutely, health is a devolved matter and these decisions are devolved for a reason. My plea to MLAs now is the same as when I was on the Back Benches in 2019 and being forced to make these decisions: however fragile the Assembly is, it is important that it keeps going so it can make these devolved decisions. Colleagues have set out clearly the importance of that, which I recognise.
The Secretary of State has said that he is committed to continuing to work closely with colleagues and stakeholders in Northern Ireland. It has always been our position that these services should be delivered locally. I am grateful to all hon. Members. I know that this is a sensitive and difficult issue to debate, but I thank everyone for debating it in such a sensitive and respectful manner. With that, I draw my remarks to a close.
It has been a privilege to take part in today’s debate and have the opportunity to speak up on behalf of women in need of abortion care in Northern Ireland. I am grateful for the contributions of colleagues from across the House, and although I recognise that some of us are unlikely to ever reach a consensus on the issue, it has been good to see that the debate has been mutually respectful. I particularly welcome the comments from my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna), who spoke passionately about the need to have women and girls at the heart of the issue, and we need to uphold and make available their legal right to local services for a safe abortion.
The central theme of the debate has been choice. In law, women in Northern Ireland have the right to choose, but that is meaningless without access to safe, local abortion services. We have been debating the issue of access to abortion in Northern Ireland for years, and it is simply past the time for action to take place. With that in mind, I welcome the Minister’s reiteration of the Secretary of State’s commitment to bring this in by 31 March 2022 to ensure that the legal duty is upheld.
While I am no longer the shadow Minister for Northern Ireland, I am pleased to have passed the brief into the capable hands of my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi). I will closely scrutinise the Government’s work on the issue, and I urge the Minister and the Secretary of State to work to meet the needs of women in Northern Ireland without delay.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the commissioning of abortion services in Northern Ireland.