A string of anti-abortion MPs argued it is up to the Northern Ireland Assembly to make decisions.
During a Westminster Hall debate on the commissioning of abortion services in Northern Ireland, anti-abortion MPs accused the UK Government of not respecting the devolution settlement by using powers that would direct Stormont to roll out health services.
Northern Ireland’s abortion laws were liberalised in 2019 following legislation passed by Westminster but full services have not yet been centrally commissioned due to disagreements between the executive parties.
Leading the debate, Labour MP Alex Davies-Jones, a former shadow Northern Ireland minister, said that despite the legislative progress made, “we all know the reality for women seeking abortions in Northern Ireland is fundamentally unchanged”, adding: “The law simply isn’t being properly implemented.”
The Labour MP for Pontypridd said that while she “fully recognises” the devolution settlement, she believes “conformity of the whole of the UK with the European Convention on Human Rights is a matter for Westminster and not Stormont”, with the UK Government ultimately holding the responsibility for “ensuring that all of our nations across the UK abide by our international as well as domestic legal obligations”.
A string of anti-abortion MPs, though, disagreed with Ms Davies-Jones, arguing it is up to the Northern Ireland Assembly to make decisions on abortion.
DUP MP Carla Lockhart (Upper Bann) said: “It’s a matter of deep regret that this House has sought to impose as well above the devolution settlement.
“At the heart of devolution must lie respect for the areas of legislation that have been determined to fall within the jurisdiction of devolved authorities.
“And complex and highly charged matters such as abortion, the benefit of the doubt should always be granted to the devolved authorities that they are capable of managing their own affairs.”
Ms Lockhart said the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020 and the Abortion (Northern Ireland) regulations 2021 were passed “despite the overwhelming majority of MPs representing Northern Ireland, who take their seats in Westminster, voting against them on both occasions”.
Conservative MP Fiona Bruce (Congleton) echoed the MP for Upper Bann, claiming that given the Northern Ireland Assembly is now up and running, “not only has the legislative competency to act on abortion related matters” but is in the process of doing so through the Severe Foetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment) Bill.
She added: “Imposing these ill-thought-through and hurried-through regulations would demonstrate a profound lack of respect for the people of Northern Ireland and their elected representatives.
“And as I’ve repeatedly said in this House, the way in which this issue of abortion, a devolved policy area, and the Northern Ireland Executive formation Bill was hurriedly handled, and the subsequent introduction of regulations has been, I believe, unconstitutional, undemocratic, legally incoherent and utterly disrespectful to the people of Northern Ireland.”
The DUP’s Jim Shannon (Strangford) also said it was up to the Northern Ireland Assembly to “make the decision on abortion” and that it should be up to Assembly members to respect his constituents, “thousands upon thousands who say that they don’t want abortion on demand” and that “they want to speak up for the unborn”.
Health minister Maria Caulfield said that, while health is a devolved matter, the UK Government “has to uphold its legal duties”.
She added: “The Secretary of State (Brandon Lewis) has clearly stated fully commissioned services must be provided by March of next year.
“And if it becomes clear before that deadline, that the Department of Health or indeed the Northern Ireland executive are not making progress, he will have to make take further steps to ensure that his legal duties are upheld.”