UK Government cannot make changes to NI abortion laws, committee told

The UK Government cannot make changes to Northern Ireland’s abortion laws, a parliamentary committee has heard.

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Karen Bradley said she did not have the power to enforce legislative changes to the region’s strict laws because the Northern Ireland institutions were not suspended, even though they have not functioned in two years.

“They exist. They could come into being tomorrow if the parties chose that they wish to go back into powersharing,” she said.

“Because of that, I, as Secretary of State, have no executive powers to direct the civil servants, the officials in Northern Ireland.”

Ms Bradley was giving evidence to the Commons Women and Equalities Committee about abortion law in Northern Ireland alongside women and equalities minister Penny Mordaunt.

The UK Cabinet ministers were questioned about breaches of women’s human rights as a result of the law, and other evidence heard during the inquiry so far.

Ms Bradley said she understood that people were “frustrated” by the situation but she said it was the reality of the legal position.

“We have not had a declaration of incompatibility (with human rights) in a court judgment and, therefore, there is no obligation on the UK Government or the UK Parliament to take action that makes sure we comply as the body that is responsible for upholding human rights.”

She added that she was focused on the restoration of the devolved institutions, which she described as the “most appropriate way” to bring about change to the laws.

An abortion is only permitted in Northern Ireland if a woman’s life is at risk or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her physical and mental health.

The 1967 Abortion Act, which governs the rest of the UK, was not extended to Northern Ireland.

Two stars of Channel 4’s Derry Girls delivered a 60,000-strong petition to the Secretary of State on Tuesday demanding the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland.

Nicola Coughlan, who plays Clare Devlin, and Siobhan McSweeney, who plays Sister Michael, joined 26 other women in a march at Westminster.

The campaign, organised by Amnesty UK, is calling on the UK Government to intervene and change the law in the region in the absence of ministers at Stormont.

Maura McCallion, of the Office of the Attorney General for Northern Ireland, told the committee that it was the Attorney General’s view that no action was required at the moment.

“Our law is different from what it was in the Republic of Ireland before laws were changed there,” Ms McCallion said.

“Our law does allow for people to have an abortion when their life is at risk, so it shouldn’t be that someone’s life is at risk because an abortion’s not been offered to them.”

But the committee heard that if the law was clear then Cabinet minsters would not be before a committee in Westminster discussing the matter.

Ms Mordaunt said it was “absolutely clear” that even with the law allowing for services in certain circumstances, that “women’s lives are being put at risk”.

“We’re really talking about what constitutes good care … in my limited experience, women don’t choose to have these procedures without compelling reasons.”

She added that if women do access services, they should receive the best care possible.

“This is about a duty of care we have to the citizens of our country,” she said.

Ms Mordaunt said she believed there was “something wrong” when a 12-year-old rape victim from Northern Ireland has to travel to Liverpool for a termination and has to be accompanied by police officers in order to gain DNA evidence, as in the recent case of a young girl.

She added that typically if there were failings in hospital care in a devolved country, that systems would “kick in” to rectify the matter, but she said “because this is not regulated as a healthcare issue, it’s regulated as a criminal issue, those things do not kick in”.

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