The UK government has a legal obligation to ensure the provision of abortion services in Northern Ireland, a minister has stressed amid accusations of ‘constitutional sabotage’ and ‘arrogance’.
Tory Speaker Lord Caine said the Westminster administration must act because of Stormont’s failure to do so, but insisted it was not too late to avoid the intervention of the Secretary of State.
The Tory peer told Parliament it was ‘unacceptable’ that there were women and girls unable to access abortion services in Northern Ireland and said some critics were using constitutional arguments about devolution as a “screen” for their general opposition to the layoffs.
Lord Caine was speaking as he faced criticism in the House of Lords over a decision to empower Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis to directly order abortion services in the region .
Crossbench counterpart Baroness O’Loan had tabled a so-called motion of regret criticizing the measures, on the grounds that they ‘disregard’ the role of the Northern Ireland Assembly and ignore the rules of devolution.
Abortion laws in Northern Ireland were liberalized in 2019 following laws passed by Westminster at a time when Stormont’s power-sharing government had collapsed.
But while individual health trusts in Northern Ireland currently provide services on an ad hoc basis, the Department of Health has yet to commission the services centrally due to a political stalemate in Stormont over the issue. .
The DUP, which opposes abortion, had refused to allow the issue to be put on the ministerial executive’s agenda.
Regulations set by the UK government remove the need for the Northern Ireland Department of Health to seek approval from the wider executive to commission services.
It also gave Mr Lewis the power to step in and order the services himself if the devolved health minister failed to do so.
Lord Caine told his peers: “The aim of the government and these regulations is to ensure that Parliament’s repeatedly expressed decision to give women and girls access to abortion services in Northern Ireland North is properly and fully implemented.
“It is unacceptable that there are women and girls in any part of our UK who cannot access basic healthcare and services that have been delayed for too long.”
Responding to claims that the decision would flout the devolution settlement, he said: “Some seem to be using the constitutional argument simply as a screen for the fact that they oppose abortion under all circumstances.”
Lord Caine added: “The Government and the Secretary of State remain bound by law to provide access to abortion services.
“Even at this late stage and even with these regulations, the Minister of the Department of Health still has the ability to move forward with the commissioning of services without the intervention of the Secretary of State.
“However, we are not ready to allow the provision of services to be delayed indefinitely.”
But objecting to the measure, Lady O’Loan said: ‘The Regulations give the Secretary of State wide and sweeping powers to act effectively as Minister for Northern Ireland without having been appointed as a Minister…and without any responsibility to the people of Northern Ireland. .”
Calling the situation ‘shameful’, former Labor MP and unaffiliated counterpart Baroness Hoey said: ‘When it suits government, they want devolution and they believe in devolution. When it doesn’t suit them, they take away decentralization, and that’s what it’s all about today. Forget the abortion issue, this is about constitutional sabotage of decentralization and the 1998 law.”
DUP peer Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown said: ‘I am sure everyone understands that under this settlement the opinion of the Northern Ireland Executive is to be totally disregarded, totally ignored. Such is the arrogance of those who enact these regulations.
But former Conservative health secretary Lord Clarke of Nottingham said: ‘I think the UK government – the UK government – has a right to intervene to ensure that the reach and availability of services whose people need are universal across the UK.”
Liberal Democrat Baroness Barker said: ‘We are debating these regulations here because of a catalog of failures by Northern Ireland’s elected politicians and officials to do something very basic – to ensure that any woman who needs or wishes to have an abortion can access it. in Northern Ireland.
Labor leader of the Lords, Baroness Smith of Basildon, said: ‘There has certainly been no indication from the government, as far as I know, that they wish to take up the post.
The motion of regret was defeated by 181 votes to 28, majority 153.