Section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act 2019, places me under a legal duty to ensure that women and girls in Northern Ireland can access abortion services. I am determined to ensure that women and girls in Northern Ireland can access abortion services in the same way as those living in the rest of the United Kingdom.
On 22 July 2021, I gave a direction to the Northern Ireland Department of Health, and to the Health and Social Care Board, to commission and make abortion services available by 31 March 2022. The Department of Health has not met that deadline, and it is now clear that no progress will be made towards the provision of these services.
It has always been my preference that, as a devolved matter, the Department of Health delivers these services. However, with over two years having passed since the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020 established a framework, women and girls are still unable to access high-quality abortion and post-abortion care in Northern Ireland. This is entirely unacceptable.
Today, I am therefore laying regulations that:
- remove the need for Executive Committee approval before services can be commissioned and funded by the Department of Health. 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 Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW Report), must be complied with irrespective of whether the matter has been discussed or agreed by the Executive Committee; and
- confer on a Secretary of State 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. For the purpose of determining what a Northern Ireland Minister or department could do, any need for Executive Committee approval will be disregarded. Whilst the regulations will also provide a Secretary of State with the power to provide financial assistance for the same purpose, as a devolved matter it remains the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive to fund abortion services in Northern Ireland.
This means that the Department of Health will have no further barriers to commission and fund services. I am steadfast in my belief that the Department of Health should drive forward the commissioning of abortion services without further delay in Northern Ireland.
If the Department of Health does not commission and fund abortion services as directed, I will intervene further. To ensure I have all the information required in those circumstances, a small team that I am establishing in the Northern Ireland Office will work alongside the Department of Health and take this forward.