Alex Davies-Jones (Pontypridd) (Lab)
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.