(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the abortion regulations for Northern Ireland.
As the Minister responsible for this policy area, I shall answer the question.
The Government originally laid the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020 in Parliament on 25 March on the provision of abortion services in Northern Ireland. The regulations came into force on 31 March 2020 and became law on access to abortion services in Northern Ireland. The regulations were originally required to be debated by 17 May to remain in force as law. However, the unprecedented situation created by covid-19 has impacted on parliamentary processes, and virtual voting systems were not yet fully implemented in time for the regulations to be debated in both Houses. Therefore the Abortion (Northern Ireland) (No. 2) Regulations 2020 were laid and came into force on 14 May, revoking the earlier regulations. That gives Parliament an extra 28 days to consider and scrutinise the regulations properly, given the nature of this policy.
This approach has ensured that the law on abortion in Northern Ireland itself, a requirement specified by the House in the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, continues to apply with no risk, gap or legal uncertainty, and services can continue on the same basis in Northern Ireland as they are currently operating. The regulations are due to be debated in the House in a Delegated Legislation Committee on Monday 8 June and in the Lords after that. I understand that a committee has been empanelled to consider the regulations. I welcome the fact that the right hon. Gentleman’s party will be represented on that committee so that its voice can be heard. That will be the appropriate time for a full debate on the regulations.
I thank the Minister for his response. When this House voted for section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act, it was argued that Parliament had the right to legislate on abortion in Northern Ireland in the absence of a functioning Assembly. However, that Assembly has now been restored for almost five months, so it is absolutely not the right way forward for Parliament to vote on the regulations. That point is greatly strengthened by the fact that not only has the Assembly been restored, but on Tuesday this week it voted in a motion by an absolute majority to reject these unamendable regulations. An absolute majority of the Assembly of 90 Members voted to reject them. The will of the people of Northern Ireland has spoken.
The Government have said that their hands are tied because the law is clear: they must bring the regulations forward for a vote in Northern Ireland. However, having taken legal advice at the highest level, I discovered that the law is not at all clear on that. There is actually as good a legal argument that the Government are under no such obligation. In that regard, I note the submissions of huge importance to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee from two QCs who also argue that the Secretary of State is under no obligation to press the regulations to a vote. To do so will fundamentally breach the devolution settlement and cause a constitutional predicament of the Government’s own making.
The Secretary of State would also be well advised not to bring the regulations to a vote because they sanction abortion for non-fatal disability up to birth, something that around 75 Members of the Assembly this week voted against. It is unthinkable that the Government should present such a discriminatory provision, which was not even required by CEDAW.
As Heidi Crowter, the very powerful disability rights campaigner with Down’s syndrome has said:
“I would now call on the Government not to ask MPs and peers to vote for regulations that contain discriminatory provisions that tell people like me that we should not exist.”
I today would do the same. The Government should withdraw the regulations, respect the fact that devolution has been restored and, rather than seek to further undermine devolution, allow the Northern Ireland Assembly its rightful place to legislate on its own abortion law.
I recognise that this is an issue on which the right hon. Gentleman and his party, as well as many others in Northern Ireland, have deeply held views, and I know that it is an extremely sensitive issue that many across the House have a deep interest in. I do not intend to rehearse matters of detail that we will rightly address in the Committee that has been convened to scrutinise the legislation.
The Government were placed under a statutory duty to deliver abortion law for Northern Ireland by implementing the recommendations of the CEDAW report. That duty came into effect, given that the Executive was not restored by 21 October 2019. That followed many months, if not years, of the issues receiving ongoing attention at Westminster on human rights grounds, including parliamentary questions, Committee inquiries, amendments to other legislation requiring the Government to report, and so on, leading to this particular amendment being voted through with a significant majority.
The statutory duty in section 9 of the EF Act did not fall away with the restoration of the Executive, nor with the making of the initial regulations that came into force on 31 March 2020. That is why we have had to re-lay the new regulations. Even if the regulations had not been approved by Parliament in time, or the deadline had not been met, the Government would still be under a statutory duty to introduce new regulations.
We have always been clear, when we consulted on this, that the consultation was about how we would deliver an abortion framework for Northern Ireland in line with the statutory duty that Parliament placed the Government under. It was not on whether the Secretary of State should be exercising this duty in the first place. That matter was decided by this sovereign Parliament. We think that, following the consultation and the publication of the Government’s response to that consultation, we have struck the appropriate balance in providing a framework that can be effectively commissioned in Northern Ireland and meet the needs of women and girls, as well as providing certainty and clarity for the medical professionals providing the service. We have always been clear that, in doing so, we would be respectful of the restored devolved institutions.
We hope that the regulations provide a solid framework for abortion services to be provided within Northern Ireland, although I appreciate that this remains a devolved issue and the Assembly can amend the regulations in future, subject to the usual Assembly and other procedures, including compliance with the European convention on human rights. Repealing section 9, which I know some in the right hon. Gentleman’s party have asked for, has never been a viable solution. This would have required primary legislation before Westminster, which would have been subject to a free vote on grounds of conscience, but we would still have a legal obligation to propose an alternative human rights-compliant model by 31 March to ensure we complied with convention rights.
Similarly, if the Executive and Assembly were to legislate for an alternative approach, it would still be required to be human rights and convention-compliant. I recognise that the Assembly did debate one aspect of the regulations on Tuesday—severe foetal impairment—and passed a motion stating that it does not support the provision allowing for abortions in cases of severe foetal impairment without time limit. While I respect the Assembly’s right to state its position on this, it does not have any bearing on the legal obligations that have been placed on us by this Parliament. Unfortunately, the motion that the Assembly debated and backed proposed no solution that would deliver a CEDAW-compliant regime in this regard.
The sensitive issue of severe foetal impairment has long been debated over many years right across the UK, and I recognise the strength of feeling on all sides of the debate, many of which have been expressed in this House over recent years. The Government are, however, under a clear statutory duty to allow for access to abortions in cases of both severe foetal impairment and fatal foetal abnormalities, and this is what we have delivered. This is also consistent with the provision in the rest of the UK under the Abortion Act 1967. We consider the regulations in this regard to be compatible with the requirements under the United Nations convention on the rights of persons with disabilities.
We recognise that these are difficult decisions, particularly so far as fatal foetal abnormalities or severe foetal impairment are concerned, which often occur late in wanted pregnancies, and it is right that women have the time to be able to make individual informed decisions, based on their own health and wider circumstances, in consultation with medical professionals. Putting in place proper support and provision of information to support women in making these informed decisions, including where women want to carry such pregnancies to term, is an operational issue for the Department of Health in Northern Ireland to take forward, as part of commissioning and overseeing abortion services as a new health service, consistent with the regulations. We have written to the Department on this point and stand ready to support it.
The Government stand ready to provide whatever support and guidance we can to both the Northern Ireland Minister of Health and the Department of Health to assist them in progressing work to set up these abortion services in line with the new legislative framework. I look forward to debating the detail of that framework next week.
Progressing these regulations now that Stormont has returned and following Tuesday’s decision there would show a profound lack of respect for the people of Northern Ireland and their elected representatives, and the rushed manner in which they were proceeded with here has thrown up deep flaws. Sex-selective abortion is not lawful here. It has been described by the Government here as abhorrent, yet the Northern Ireland regulations allow abortion for any reason up to 12 weeks, with no prohibition on sex-selective abortions. It is now possible to tell the sex of an unborn child between seven and 10 weeks. Women could even travel here from Northern Ireland for a sex-selective abortion. Does the Minister think this Parliament really intended this, and does it not show why these rushed regulations should be scrapped and the issue properly returned to Stormont?
I respect the strength of feeling that my hon. Friend has always deployed on this issue. The UK Government take the issue of sex-selective abortions very seriously. They publish an annual analysis on the male to female birth ratio for England and Wales to see if there is any evidence for this. The most recent analysis was published in October 2019, and it found no evidence that sex-selective abortions are occurring in Great Britain. The regulations for Northern Ireland do not make any reference to sex-selective abortion and they follow the same approach as the UK on this issue.
This urgent question this morning is on an extremely sensitive subject—perhaps the most sensitive of subjects that we as legislators can debate—and I, as the Minister has done, acknowledge the strength of feeling already expressed today and earlier this week in Stormont. But the task now for Westminster is implementing a law that already stands. In 2019, this place passed the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act, which has taken legal effect. Abortion is now legal in Northern Ireland, and women there are entitled to the same rights and services as women in all other parts of the United Kingdom. We are now tasked with implementing the regulations setting out the legal framework that will bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK.
Although abortion is legal in Northern Ireland today, there is limited provision available and more needs to be done to get a full service up and running, so will the Minister commit to working with the Department of Health in Northern Ireland to ensure the full implementation of services as set out in the legal framework and to fulfil the UK’s international human rights obligations? As he has said, that responsibility remains with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
Labour supported the recommendations of the United Nations convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women—CEDAW—and we are supportive of the regulations to be debated on Monday that provide safe, legal and accessible abortion services to women in Northern Ireland. We heard last year that the CEDAW report deemed that abortion law in Northern Ireland created a “grave and systematic” violation of rights, and in our own Supreme Court in 2018, the position was deemed untenable. It was seen to be treating women like vehicles and was found to be incompatible with article 8 of the European convention on human rights. We cannot pick and choose which parts of CEDAW or our international human rights obligations we do or do not like, and CEDAW explicitly recommended legislation on severe foetal impairment. That is not today’s debate, however.
As we look forwards, not backwards, will the Minister commit to a timeline for the full provision of services? Regarding signposting and the availability of current services, will he confirm what steps he has taken to ensure that public information is available, and will he further confirm that telemedicine, which is available in England, Wales and Scotland during this pandemic, will be made available to the women of Northern Ireland?
I am grateful to the shadow Secretary of State for setting out the position so clearly from the perspective of the Labour party. I recognise that it is a responsibility of the United Kingdom Government to deliver on our international human rights obligations. She is absolutely right in that respect. With regard to implementation, clearly this is now a responsibility for the Department of Health in Northern Ireland, and it is something on which we have written to that Department. We have written to other Departments that have responsibilities in this regard to ensure that the full detail of what was recommended in the CEDAW report is addressed, and the details of that are set out in the Government’s response to the consultation.
In terms of timelines, we all recognise that there have been additional pressures placed on services, and health services in particular, by the covid situation, so while it is the case that the full range of services are not available in Northern Ireland, we will continue to fund and support the travel for those—hopefully very few—women who will need to travel to the rest of the UK for terminations. The hon. Lady is right to say that we have an ongoing responsibility on this, and we will engage with that. We will continue to engage with the Department of Health to ensure that the full provisions are delivered on.
I thank the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) for bringing this urgent question. Although I agree with him on most things, he will know that this is not one of them. My views have been founded on the experiences I had when meeting women in particular in Northern Ireland and the experiences that they had to go through in order for the law to be changed. We had to work very hard in this Chamber to get the law changed, but it has been changed. I would respectfully mention that it was not just a question of the Assembly and the Executive not being formed in Northern Ireland; it was also a question of treaty obligations not being followed, and it was the role of Parliament to ensure that they were followed. Regardless, I want to ask the Minister this question. I appreciate his saying that we will follow the law, but will he put more pressure than just written pressure on the Department of Health? There are women beyond the 10-week gestation period who are getting no service provision at all, and that means that the law that we in this place moved to an Act is not being followed. That surely cannot be right.
I recognise the strength of feeling that my hon. Friend expresses, and his experience of meeting directly with some of the women affected by this. As part of the consultation process, I have also met some of those people, and their stories are in many cases harrowing, so he makes a powerful case. Absolutely, yes, we will continue not just to write to the Department of Health but to provide all the support that we can in getting it to implement this. It is important to recognise that this law is already in force and in effect, but this House will debate it in Committee in the coming week, and I hope that it will then be absolutely clear that the House fully supports these regulations and wants to see them observed. That in itself will send a message to the Executive.
Could the Minister of State further outline the reasoning behind the refusal to repeal the Act and instead allow the Northern Ireland Assembly to take the reins? Before the initial vote in this place, Ministers and Members underlined that this should be a devolved matter but that if the Assembly had not reconvened, Westminster would step in. Now that the Assembly is convened, this week the people of Northern Ireland have spoken through their elected representatives, and they have spoken in a largely ignored consultation process. Now we are speaking about this again in this House. Will the Minister revert to the democratically approved method? Let the Northern Ireland representatives and the people of Northern Ireland decide. That is really where it should be done—not here.
I have great sympathy for where the hon. Gentleman is coming from, in terms of the fact that the Assembly should have decided on this issue some time ago. It was a responsibility incumbent on the Assembly before it broke up to address this issue in a way that would satisfy our human rights obligations. Unfortunately, it did not, and to date it has still not agreed a way forward on this issue. As he will know, the legislation passed by this House set a deadline of 21 October for the Assembly to be back in place, beyond which the responsibility to legislate was placed on to this House, and that is the law by which we are bound.
With regard to the suggestion that the hon. Gentleman and others have made to simply repeal section 9 of the Act, that would not excise from the Government its wider human rights obligations or the responsibility of this House to deliver on our human rights commitments. We would still have a responsibility to deliver on this, unless the Northern Ireland Assembly had taken it upon itself to do so. I would point out that the Northern Ireland Assembly can reform and take forward these regulations, so long as it does so in a way that is compliant with our human rights obligations and CEDAW.
It is worth saying that these regulations do reflect the very sensitive situation in Northern Ireland on conscientious objection and the locations that abortions can be performed in. I support the Minister of State in saying that we did give an option, at every stage since the Act was passed last year, for politicians to get back into power and shape these reforms. I urge him to keep pushing forward and have the best interests of women and girls at the forefront of his mind.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that we have to keep the best interests of women and girls at the forefront of our minds throughout this process. He is also right about the sensitivity with which we have approached this process. I should perhaps thank him for the fact that I am here at the Dispatch Box, as he was the person who gave me responsibility for this. Throughout the process, he has shown extreme sensitivity to the concerns of women and girls in Northern Ireland and the deeply held views on both sides of the debate. It is absolutely right that we should do that.
The Northern Ireland Assembly has expressed a view, with a clear majority not supporting the proposed regulations on abortion. For another legislature to impose these abortion regulations cuts right across the Assembly and the principles set out in the Good Friday agreement and shows an imperialist contempt for devolution. It is time for real pragmatism. It is not beyond the wit of this House to be respectful of the devolution deal and to enable the Northern Ireland Assembly to move this legislation forward. Why will the Minister not do that?
As I made clear in my response to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), the Northern Ireland Assembly can take this issue forward, but it needs to do so on a basis that is CEDAW compliant and consistent with our human rights obligations. This House does have a standing in that respect, to ensure that we live up to those human rights obligations. Many of the hon. Lady’s colleagues have recognised that and supported the legislation, which required us to take further action. It is important that we move forward in a way that is respectful of the devolved settlement but also recognises our fundamental commitment to human rights, including the rights of women and girls.
I was under the impression that these regulations were no more liberal than those in the rest of Great Britain. I am a bit worried by some of the questioning, which might imply they are not. Can my hon. Friend reassure me that the regulations will simply be a reflection of what is happening in England, Scotland and Wales?
My hon. and gallant Friend makes a very important point. I direct him to the Government’s detailed response to the consultation, in which we set out the importance of using the legal basis that has been established in England, Scotland, Wales for this process and ensuring that we stick to it as closely as possible, particularly on issues such as conscientious objection. There is a fundamental difference in how the regulations have had to be built up because of the way the EF Act repealed the illegality of abortion before putting in place the new framework. Whereas the Abortion Act 1967 works on the basis that abortion is illegal unless carried out under that Act, in Northern Ireland we have had to build up a framework and then say that everything outside that framework is illegal. That is the reason for the main differences between this and the framework in England and Wales. However, our approach throughout the design of this framework is to ensure that the outcomes are as consistent as possible.
I am speaking on behalf of, and in agreement with, my hon. Friend the Member for North Down (Stephen Farry), who was unable to travel here today at short notice. He has asked me to note that there is considerable support among people and elected representatives in Northern Ireland for CEDAW-compliant regulations. Does the Minister now agree that the priority must be to ensure the full commissioning of services, rather than the current piecemeal interim provision?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and I know that the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) would have expressed that view had he been in the House today. It is vital that we get the services in place as quickly as possible. We recognise the additional pressures facing the Department of Health as a result of covid and we want to support it with that, but it is right that we should end a situation whereby women and girls from Northern Ireland have to undergo travel to access these services. Putting in place a proper CEDAW-compliant system will do that.
These regulations enshrine a more liberal abortion regime in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the United Kingdom, against the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland and against the spirit and principle of devolution. I am grateful to the Minister for his engagement on this issue so far, and I appreciate that he feels that the Government are under an obligation to bring these regulations forward, but is he aware of the eminent legal opinion that the Secretary of State has already met his obligations under the emergency powers Act, and that now the Assembly is restored he is free to withdraw those regulations? That is something that the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy)—who is otherwise engaged—recognised in the debate on her amendment to the legislation last year, when she said that if Stormont was up and running, it would be absolutely not the right thing to do to impose regulations on Northern Ireland from London. She was right then, and will my hon. Friend heed the call from Northern Ireland to allow Stormont to decide whether it wants a more liberal regime than in the rest of the UK?
I absolutely respect my hon. Friend’s views, but I disagree with him about the regime being more liberal than in the rest of the UK. We set out the detail of that in our response to the consultation and the detailed reasoning that the Government have provided in that respect. However, it is in the hands of the Assembly to propose reforms and a way forward on the regulations, so long as it can do so in a way that is CEDAW compliant. I would be very happy for it to take that opportunity. There is nothing to prohibit it doing so, and it is a matter of regret that, having been in place for a number of months before the regulations came into force, it has not. However, my firm understanding of the advice that the Government have received is that the legal obligations on us to ensure a human rights-compliant model in every part of the UK, including Northern Ireland, remain in place.
The Minister has to be absolutely clear about this. CEDAW does not require legislation for a full-term terminations. CEDAW does not require regulations for disability terminations. CEDAW does not require regulations for sex-selection terminations. That is that what is going to happen in Northern Ireland as a result of what has occurred in this place. On Tuesday, 78 MLAs, from a total of 90, rejected the CEDAW recommendations in a series of votes in the Assembly, whether the Minister likes it or not. They were right to do that, and if the Minister really wants to respect the Assembly, and indeed this place, he should urge the Assembly to go back, give it the space it needs and allow it to legislate on these matters and come to its own conclusions. That is the democratic thing to do, the right thing to do and the appropriate thing to do, and it is in line with what the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) said when she addressed the House on 9 July last year. I urge the Minister to allow that to happen and not brush this hideous vista under the carpet.
Again, I respect the hon. Gentleman’s view, but the Government have been clear about what we are legally required to do under the EF Act. That has not changed. We have to bring in a set of regulations that comply with CEDAW, which specified that in cases of severe foetal impairment there would have to be the ability to have terminations. As the hon. Gentleman will recognise, many of those cases become apparent only late in term. It was therefore necessary to address that CEDAW requirement in the way that we have. However, I encourage the Assembly to engage with this issue and ensure that it can in future assess details of the framework and look at aspects of the issue to meet the rights obligations constructively. Any consensus that can be built in the Assembly on those matters would be extremely welcome
I again welcome the Government’s work to ensure that, after many decades, women in Northern Ireland have proper access to abortion, as women in the rest of the UK do. I particularly thank the Minister for the way in which he is handling the matter. I think the whole House greatly appreciates that. The Government are quite properly protecting those women’s human rights and rights under international conventions. I thank the women who have had the courage to speak out about their experiences, which has shed so much light on these issues.
Last year, the Women and Equalities Committee identified a lack of medical facilities and clinical expertise on abortion in Northern Ireland because of the climate of fear on the matter in the Province. How will the Minister ensure that, in the absence in Northern Ireland of a separate, independent regulatory body overseeing the provision of health services, the regulations are put into practice? Will the Department of Health in Northern Ireland have a clear legal duty to ensure that facilities are in place? How will my hon. Friend ensure that they are in place in rural areas as well as towns, and that he gets independent advice on whether our international obligations are being acted upon?
My right hon. Friend, who played a significant role as Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee in the genesis of all this, makes important points. She will recognise that many aspects of implementation are in the hands of the Northern Ireland Department of Health, but she raises some extremely important matters, all of which we discussed during the consultation with some of the key medical professional bodies with which we engaged. She mentioned facilities and training. Those are important aspects of what will need to be delivered, but those responsibilities now fall on the Northern Ireland Department of Health. I assure my right hon. Friend that we will provide them with the support that they need. I know that my colleagues in the Department for Health and Social Care are also keen to lean in and provide any support on that front. We want this to move forward quickly. We recognise that the focus on covid-19 has presented specific challenges in the short term, but we want to ensure that the full range of services is available as soon as possible so that we can meet the challenge of providing human rights-compliant services to women and girls in Northern Ireland.
“It makes me feel like I shouldn’t exist.” Those are the words of Heidi Crowter, who was born with Down’s syndrome. The Government, whether we like it or not, continue to ride roughshod over the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland. They are discriminating against people who have non-fatal disabilities and going far beyond their legal requirement. They have implemented the most liberal abortion laws in the whole of Europe. Will the Minister recognise the severe offence that the regulations cause to people with disabilities and also that the clear will of the devolved institutions is that the regulations are not wanted in Northern Ireland? What is the Minister’s message today to Heidi Crowter, who says that she feels she should not exist in this society if the regulations go ahead? [Interruption.] As I stand in this House, speaking on something I feel passionately about, I hear a little baby cry. I heard my own baby cry at 5 o’clock this morning—quite early. Both lives matter. It is not just about women’s health, but about both lives. It is not the Government’s right to impose such liberal abortion laws on Northern Ireland that will see abortion up to birth for disability.
The hon. Lady speaks very powerfully, as she always does, on this issue. Of course, nobody in the House wants to regulate or legislate in any way to the detriment of people with disabilities. We rightly have a huge body of legislation in this country to protect the rights of people with disabilities. It is not for the Government—and it is not the approach we take in the rest of the UK—to list specific conditions that it may or not be decided constitute severe foetal impairment.
This is an individual decision for each woman to make following medical assessments, the clear provision of information and proper support for medical professionals and others. In this respect, the law that we are introducing in Northern Ireland reflects the law in the rest of GB. Addressing SFI was a specific requirement of the CEDAW report, which is why it is included in the regulations.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) on securing this urgent question. He knows that I agree with him on most things, but I respectfully disagree with him on this. Does the Minister agree that the laws we had to pass here in July and the regulations and framework that his Department has produced better align Northern Ireland with the rest of the United Kingdom in this respect and indeed with the Republic of Ireland and that, like same-sex marriage, we know from the data available that they accord pretty much with the overwhelming view of the people of Northern Ireland?
I agree with my right hon. Friend, who speaks with considerable experience in these matters, from his time as a Minister and Chair of the Select Committee. As we have set out in our consultation response, it is important that wherever possible we make sure the outcomes of the regulations in Northern Ireland are aligned with the outcomes in the rest of GB. It is important both because it is the right thing to do fundamentally—as a Unionist I believe it is the right thing to do—and because the approach in the rest of the UK has been legally tested and found to be compliant with the relevant human rights law. For those reasons, he is right to make that point.
We all recognise that this is a difficult issue for many and that there are strongly held views on all sides of this debate, but one reason the House stood up for the human rights of all women in the United Kingdom was that just because it was difficult did not mean their rights should be denied, and devolution does not absolve us of our responsibility to uphold the human rights of every UK citizen. I respect the Minister’s argument—[Interruption.] —as does my daughter—that human rights are at the heart of this and that the Assembly should come up with alternative proposals if it does not like the regulations, because not to propose regulations would mean further delay and possibly women making unsafe choices in Northern Ireland because there is not clarity about the services available to them.
I want to press the Minister on something he said. He recognises that travelling is not a sustainable option and that many women cannot travel—indeed, in the current crisis it is unacceptable. When we talk about these cases, let us also talk about the case of Sarah Jane Ewart, an incredibly brave woman who had to come forward. Her baby had a fatal foetal abnormality, and at the moment there is no provision to support anybody else in her tragic, horrific position in Northern Ireland. The Minister says he wants to see the Department of Health in Northern Ireland providing these services. What is his plan if the Northern Ireland Assembly continues to say it will not commission these services? How do we uphold the rights in CEDAW that we have said every woman in the United Kingdom is entitled to be covered by?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. I recognise that, along with thanking the former Secretary of State, I can probably thank her for the fact that I am here answering this urgent question. It is important that we end the need to travel, which is what these regulations properly implemented should do. She will recognise that that cannot necessarily be done instantly, because of issues with facilities, training and other such things that my right hon. Friend the former Chair of the Select Committee has raised. We recognise that fact in continuing to fund and support travel in the interim. As I have said, however, we will work with the Department of Health in Northern Ireland, provide it with the support it needs and continue to engage with the relevant medical bodies to make sure that this process can be completed as quickly as possible. I join her in once again urging the Assembly to engage and support this actively in order to make sure we have a set of measures in place that can deliver for women and girls in Northern Ireland.
I thank my hon. Friend for the sensitive and careful way he has approached these regulations. Does he agree that for every eminent legal opinion there is always an opposing view and that the right place to scrutinise that is in Committee, where these regulations will shortly be, and that the right thing for the Government to do is to uphold the CEDAW regulations, be compliant with our human rights obligations and do the right thing by all women and girls in the United Kingdom?
I can only say yes.
To follow on from the comments from the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart), which I completely endorse, there is an incredibly moving account by a 24-year-old lady, Heidi Crowter. Heidi said that the proposed regulations make her feel “unloved” as they permit abortion up to birth if a child has been diagnosed with Down’s syndrome, but only up to 24 weeks if the baby has no disability. This House has a responsibility to send out a clear signal that all lives matter and all lives have an intrinsic human value. On listening to Heidi’s account, will the Government not reconsider these regulations and ensure that they do not allow abortion on the grounds of non-fatal abnormalities?
My hon. Friend makes his case very powerfully, as does Heidi Crowter. I want to be very clear that this Government believe in supporting the rights of people with disabilities and do not in any way see these regulations as impinging on those. The regulations mirror the law in the rest of the UK, where abortions are permitted in cases of severe foetal impairment and fatal foetal abnormality, with no time limit. The Abortion Act does not define what conditions fit within this meaning, but similarly, it is an individual’s decision based on proper medical assessments and advice and other relevant provision of information and support.
Recognising the extremely sensitive and important issue that this is, will my hon. Friend provide an assurance as to the robustness of consultation on both sides of this debate?
My hon. Friend raises a really important point. This was a long and serious consultation in which we engaged with a huge variety of groups, from some of the medical professionals and royal colleges concerned to a number of the campaign groups and church groups from Northern Ireland, and all the parties were approached as part of this consultation. It is very important that we have listened to the views of all sides, but we were always clear, in opening the consultation, that this was about how we did this and not whether we did it, because there was a legal requirement on us to do it.
I thank the Minister as we move on to the next urgent question. Exceptionally, if not uniquely, it will be responded to by the same Minister, so we will pause for up to a minute while those who wish to leave the Chamber can do so while safely distancing, and others can occupy their positions.