Tory MPs warn Brandon Lewis his abortion moves in Northern Ireland ‘risks the Union’

Conservative MPs warned Brandon Lewis today that his new powers to direct commissioning of central abortion services in Northern Ireland are “putting the Union at risk”.

Thursday, 25th March 2021, 6:40 pm
Updated Friday, 26th March 2021, 10:13 am
Secretary of State Brandon Lewis speaking in the Commons after an urgent question tabled by DUP MP Carla Lockhart

Former minister Sir John Hayes said the UK Government’s granting of new regulations to Mr Lewis which allow him to direct the Stormont Executive to commission abortion services across NI are “unjust”.

Tory MP Sir Edward Leigh, said the move is “not democracy”, and party colleague Scott Benton described the new regulations as “a democratic and constitutional assault on Northern Ireland”.

It came as DUP MP Carla Lockhart, who tabled an urgent question, told the Commons the UK Government’s introduction of new powers compelling Stormont to implement abortion laws “represents a breach of the Belfast Agreement”.

But Mr Lewis said it is unacceptable that women and girls in Northern Ireland cannot access abortion services even though the law changed more than a year ago, and added that the UK Government’s decision to step in was not taken lightly.

Sir John dismissed Mr Lewis’s comment that Northern Ireland is violating its human rights obligations as “simply untrue” a charge also leveled at Mr Lewis by Tory MP Fiona Bruce.

“Isn’t it true that this legislation was based on an incorrect assumption that Northern Ireland was in violation of human rights obligations?” she asked Mr Lewis.

Sir John told the Commons: “Surely the minister must know the imposition of this measure against the expressed democratic wishes of the people of Northern Ireland is not only unjust and unwelcome but rooted in an entirely invalid assertion?”

MPs relaxed NI abortion legislation in 2019 but the Assembly narrowly rejected the move in a non-binding vote soon after.

Mr Lewis admitted that there was no international law binding on the UK on the matter but “that this is a matter of domestic law” as imposed on Northern Ireland by MPs in 2019.

Sir Edward added: “The House, this House, took the excuse of the fact the Assembly was not sitting to impose its views on Northern Ireland.

“The fact of the matter is that Northern Ireland can run its own government as long as it keeps doing things that we don’t disagree with.

“This is not democracy. The Secretary of State, whatever your views on abortion, the Secretary of State is putting the Union at risk.”

But Alliance MP Stephen Farry said there was significant support in NI for the Government stepping in, adding: “I would stress that there is large-scale support in Northern Ireland for these actions. It is simply not tenable to have a right on paper but not in practice and for different reproductive rights to exist across the UK.”

SUICIDE ATTEMPTS

Ms Lockhart claimed Mr Lewis’ move would undermine and destabilise devolution, but he responded by telling of two women who attempted suicide after their flights from NI to England for abortions were cancelled.

“I’ve spoken to many women and healthcare professionals in Northern Ireland,” he said.

“Some of their experiences are truly harrowing. Too many women and girls are still having to travel to other parts of the United Kingdom, to mainland Great Britain, to access this care.

“One story was of a much wanted pregnancy where sadly doctors informed the mother that the baby would not survive outside of the womb. This woman had to travel to London without her network of family support in order to access healthcare.

“She described to me a harrowing ordeal. Unable to travel back on a flight to her home because of complications and bleeding, stranded in London alone and grieving and in pain.

“I have been informed of other women, two other women, who have attempted suicide over the last year after their flights were cancelled and so they were unable to travel to England for proper care.”

He added: “The distress and unacceptable circumstances that women and girls continue to face at a time when local access should be readily available given the law change over a year ago, I am afraid is unacceptable.”

Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran (Oxford West and Abingdon) told the house that women were being seriously misled by some anti-abortion organisations.

“Is (Brandon Lewis) aware of the troubling reports of women being wilfully misled by anti-abortion organisations who encourage them towards anti-choice clinics disguising themselves as abortion services?” she asked. “These clinics then string the women along until they’re over 10 weeks so ensuring that they can’t access early medical abortions in Northern Ireland?”

Mr Lewis responded: “Even putting aside the legal and the moral obligations of this House to ensure that the right healthcare is being provided in Northern Ireland, doing nothing as some may make a case for, and I understand the sensitivities behind this, but doing nothing doesn’t actually mean that nothing is happening.

“Doing nothing actually means that people are at the kind of risk of problems, misleading guidance and advice that she has rightly outlined. There is also a risk that people turn to unofficial shall we say healthcare, inappropriate healthcare, that doesn’t give them the right sort of healthcare.”

‘UNBORN CHILD’

Three DUPs challenged Mr Lewis on the impact of his actions on devolution - and the unborn child. 

But Mr Lewis countered that commissioning professional and qualified abortion services in NI were the best way to respect the rights of the unborn child.

DUP MP Gregory Campbell noted Mr Lewis repeatedly mentioned healthcare for women and girls but that “the one person he hasn’t mentioned is the right of the unborn child. If parliament is seeking to overlook the devolutionary settlement and he is seeking to do that, who will look after the rights of the unborn child?”  

Mr Lewis responded that Mr Campbell had “outlined the strength of feeling” he held but made no reference to any rights of the unborn child in his reply, instead arguing that Mr Campbell’s question underlines the importance of quality healthcare for women and girls in Northern Ireland.

DUP MP Ian Paisley argued that the devolved settlement makes it very clear that abortion services is a devolved matter.

“He [Mr Lewis] speaks very emotively and emotionally from the dispatch box today that he speaks for women and girls and that he has a moral obligation to do that,” he said. “Where is his moral obligation to stand at that dispatch box and to defend the most vulnerable of life - the unborn life?”

He also noted that the “carefully balanced New Decade New Approach Agreement that he signed up to is being upset”, as it says a core principle underpinning devolution is respect.

“But where is the respect for  the government of Northern Ireland and the people of Northern Ireland and for the unborn lives in Northern Ireland?”

Mr Lewis responded that the best way to respect the unborn child is to take forward commissioning of full abortion services in NI by qualified health professsionals.

“I do actually think that the situation of the unborn child is a hugely important issue and it is something that we do need to ensure is properly respected and understood,” he said.

“And the best way to do that is to make sure that proper official and qualified health officials are able to give the right care and advice and support to women and girls in Northern Ireland. And part of the danger of the situation at the moment is there are too many cases of women and girls sadly taking advice from the wrong quarters, making bad decisions, and suffering badly - and potentially unborn children suffering badly through bad healthcare that is not properly provided. So I would argue this is also a reason why this should be taken forward.”

DUP Westminster leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said that it should not be for Westminster to “impose its views in breach of the devolution settlement”.

He told the Commons: “We want to see women in Northern Ireland have access to the best healthcare of course, but we also believe passionately in protecting the life of the unborn child in Northern Ireland. That is a view shared right across our society, it is the view of a majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly.”

“And what the Government is seeking to do is not only having imposed regulations on Northern Ireland on abortion, is then seeking to direct the Northern Ireland Executive to implement regulations they never signed up to and surely it should be left to local ministers to decide what services to commission and not for Westminster to impose its view in breach of the devolution settlement.”

DUP MP Gavin Robinson argued that despite suggestions to the contrary during the debate, abortion services were already being delived by qualified health professionals in Northern Ireland.

He said that “throughout the course of this urgent question, to suggest this is about applying the law and to suggest this is about offering appropriate and quality healthcare dismissed entirely the fact that our healthcare professionals are applying the law and our Chief Medical Officer was incredibly clear about that this morning [on BBC Radio]. He has taken it upon himself to advise healthcare professionals of their obligations and the service are being provided. That has been lost in the course of this urgent question today.”

Mr Lewis acknowledged there have been some 1100 abortions since the law was relaxed but countered that the DOH is not yet providing the full range of abortion services in Northern Ireland.

‘BACK OFF’

First Minister Arlene Foster yesterday told Secretary of State Brandon Lewis to “back off” in relation to his move to take control of abortion services in Northern Ireland.

Mrs Foster said the DUP’s approach is that “both lives matter”.

“This is a hugely complex, controversial, legally challenging issue for the Executive but let us be very clear, it is for the Executive, it is not for Brandon Lewis, and I think not only did my colleagues make that clear today [Wednesday] in the House of Commons but a number of Brandon Lewis’s colleagues made that clear to him today,” she said in an Executive press conference. “The reason why he brought it to the House in the first place was there was no devolution at the time, there is devolution now and he should back off.”

But Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill took a different view.

“The Executive needs to take a decision on this issue, and my very clear view is that one year post the legislation being brought into effect, women are being failed access to modern, compassionate healthcare,” she said.

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