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Abortion Services Commissioning: Northern Ireland

Volume 711: debated on Thursday 24 March 2022

l am under a legal obligation by virtue of Section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 to ensure that the recommendations in paragraphs 85 and 86 of the 2018 Report of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women—“the CEDAW Report”—are implemented.

Two years after the Abortion (Northern Ireland) 2020 Regulations established the framework for abortion services, women and girls, are still unable to access high-quality abortion and post-abortion care in Northern Ireland. This is unacceptable. Without access to services in Northern Ireland, women and girls are being placed at an increased risk of harm.

It is increasingly clear that the Northern Ireland Department of Health is not going to ensure relevant healthcare services are available by the 31 March 2022 deadline that I set in my direction of July 2021. Recent events, such as the resignation of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister consequently leaving office have created a further obstacle to progress as the Executive Committee cannot meet to approve matters. This ongoing inaction leaves me no choice but to prepare work on further regulations to ensure services are commissioned.

Therefore, I am committed to return to Parliament directly following the Assembly election in May and, if necessary, make regulations and directions that will:

place a duty on the Department of Health to make abortion services available as soon as is reasonably practicable;

remove the need for executive committee approval before services can be commissioned and funded. The regulations will do this by providing that directions under the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2021, which require action to be taken to implement the recommendations of the CEDAW report, must be complied with irrespective of whether the matter has been discussed or agreed by the executive committee. This means that the Department of Health will have no further barriers to commission and fund services; and

confer on me the power to do anything that a Northern Ireland Minister or department could do for the purpose of ensuring that the recommendations in paragraphs 85 and 86 of the CEDAW report are implemented.

To provide additional oversight, I am immediately setting up a small team in the Northern Ireland Office with relevant experience in reproductive healthcare and financial monitoring to provide me with expert advice and to work alongside the Department of Health.

If I assess the Department of Health is not complying with the duty I place on it, I am prepared to use my powers to intervene.

[HCWS716]