Lewis to order abortion services ‘in weeks’ if Stormont doesn’t act

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis has said he will set up abortion services in the area “within weeks” if Stormont does not.

Mr Lewis said he had both a moral and legal duty to act if there was still no movement.

It comes after the UK government introduced new legislation last week in a bid to ensure the full provision of abortion services in Northern Ireland.

Abortion laws in the region were liberalized in 2019 following laws passed by Westminster at a time when Stormont’s power-sharing government had collapsed.

However, 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 over the issue.

The DUP, which opposes abortion, has refused to allow the issue to be put on the ministerial executive agenda.

Regulations tabled in Parliament remove the need for the Department of Health to seek approval from the Stormont executive to order services.

It means Stormont Ulster Unionist Health Minister Robin Swann, who remains in office in a fictitious capacity despite the power-sharing crisis, can now roll out the policy.

Mr. Swann said he was seeking legal advice,

On Wednesday, Mr Lewis met volunteers in Belfast who support women through redundancy services.

Mr Lewis told the PA news agency that if he does not see ‘positive action in the very, very near future’, referring to a ‘weeks’ delay, the government will take action.

“The Ministry of Health can act and I expect them to act because we have removed the obstacle that the Ministry of Health said was there,” he said.

“If they don’t act, there’s a side point to what we did last week, which is that we’ve now taken power so that the secretary of state, me, can act, I have the legal basis to act and commission services directly in Northern Ireland.

Brandon Lewis meets volunteers with the charity Alliance for Choice (PressEye/PA)

“I have always said that this should be done by the devolved administration, but if it is clear that the devolved administration will not do it, I have a moral duty to act because I believe that women should have access to proper healthcare on the same basis as they do in the rest of the UK, but I also have a legal duty to myself under the 2019 Act passed by Parliament.

“We’ll see what happens with the Department of Health, but we’re not going to let this go for very long. If they have not shown positive steps in the very, very near future, we will take the necessary steps to order services. »

He is also building a team of experts within the Northern Ireland Office for Service Commissioning.

“Let’s see where the Ministry of Health is in the next few weeks, but I think after the time they have and the lack of services available for people who need them, I think we are talking about weeks rather than anything. further,” he said.

Mr Lewis met people who provide support and advice, as well as people who have used abortion services.

“There are some really harrowing stories about what people have to go through,” he said.

“Although they are all very strong women and individuals, in one particular, telling me about their own experience, no one should have gone through the time things took, and because they are clearly a person very strong, they were able to work, fight effectively against a system to obtain the support, the service they needed. It shouldn’t be like this.

“It can be quite shocking actually, what people have to go through to access services.”

Mr Lewis also paid tribute to the volunteers who support women during layoffs, describing the way they come together as “very powerful”.

“They really care about making sure people have some support, that connection and that strength of character…but it shouldn’t be like that, relying on volunteers because there’s no service ordered,” he added.

Mr Lewis said he had also met with pro-life activists.

“I respect if some people are very pro-life, free speech works both ways, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t provide the service and make sure we do it in a safe environment for people. “, did he declare.

“I have to say I was disappointed and surprised at how reluctant the system in Northern Ireland and the Department of Health have been. The Ministry of Health is there to support health and yet it has been reluctant to do so in this area, which I think is disappointing.

Among those Mr Lewis met were Alliance for Choice volunteer Claire Hackett, 39, from Dungannon, and Katie Boyd, 40, from Belfast, who have been through the experience of being made redundant.

Ms Hackett said it was ‘good to hear a firm commitment’ from Mr Lewis on a timetable for action.

Ms Boyd said: “I wanted a space to tell my story and let her know where I felt the service had failed me and so if it had failed me, potentially where it was failing other women.”

Ms Boyd said she found the ‘underground’ service much more compassionate and kinder, while she said it had become ‘less straightforward’ after abortion was decriminalised.

“It was brutal, it was really traumatic,” she said, describing how she desperately searched for information about services and heard nothing for a month.

“I was stuck and that’s when I contacted Alliance for Choice. Then there were complications after that I got a call from the clinic a month after I first reached out which would have put me over my gestation limit so if I hadn’t been able to access the pills during this interim period, I would have had to travel for a surgical abortion.

A spokesperson for Mr Swann said: ‘The Secretary of State’s written statement and the new regulations are being carefully considered by my department.

“I am in the process of seeking further legal advice, particularly in relation to the legal responsibilities of a Northern Ireland Minister of Health under the Northern Ireland Ministerial Code.”