Northern Ireland minister grilled by MPs for giving himself sweeping new powers to impose expanded abortion on NI

This morning a large group of MPs grilled Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, for giving himself sweeping new powers to impose expanded abortion on Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland MP Carla Lockhart was granted an urgent question on the issue after Brandon Lewis announced on Tuesday that the Conservative Government had introduced regulations to Parliament that will give the Northern Ireland Secretary new powers, enabling him to force Stormont to expand abortion access across Northern Ireland through the commissioning of abortion services.

Urgent questions are only granted by the Speaker of the House on major issues where the speaker is satisfied that the issue is urgent and of public importance.

In her urgent question, Carla Lockhart MP highlighted that the action of the UK Government represents a breach of the Belfast Agreement and destabilises the devolved institutions. She also further questioned his legal basis of intervention in this area.

Lockhart said, “Can the Secretary of State also confirm that according to the devolution settlement established by the Belfast agreement, access to abortion services is a devolved issue and this action represents a breach of the Belfast agreement? Furthermore, can he confirm that his sole legal basis for intervention in this area is section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, and that during the passage of that Bill, which was opposed by every Northern Ireland MP who took their seat, it was made clear that the only reason Parliament was interfering in this issue was that there was no sitting Assembly at that time?”

She went on to say: “I know that the Secretary of State shares my support for the Union, but does he not understand that at the heart of the devolution settlement must be a respect for those areas that have been determined to be for the devolved authorities? There is still time for him to think again before he takes action which will undermine and further destabilise the devolved institutions. It is time for the Government to recognise the error of their ways, repeal section 9 and restore Northern Ireland’s life-affirming laws”.

In his response, the Minister claimed that he had a legal duty to take the actions he did earlier in the week, a position which was strongly refuted by a number of other MPs.

Carla Lockhart MP was followed by a large number of MPs who condemned Brandon Lewis for giving himself the power to impose expanded abortion on Northern Ireland.

Not wanted by the people of Northern Ireland

Conservative MP, Nick Fletcher, highlighted that “poll after poll shows that Northern Irish voters are against the liberalisation of abortion laws”.

The popular support in Northern Ireland for keeping their unique approach on the issue of abortion was echoed by Northern Ireland MP, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who said “We of course want women in Northern Ireland to have access to the best healthcare, but we also believe passionately in protecting the life of the unborn child in Northern Ireland. That view is shared right across our society and is the view of a majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly”.

He went on to highlight that abortion was a devolved issue that should be left to the elected representative of the people of Northern Ireland to decide: “The Government seek not only to impose abortion regulations on Northern Ireland but to direct the Northern Ireland Executive to implement regulations that they never signed up to. 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”.

No basis to claims that human rights obligations are being breached

Conservative MP, Sir John Hayes, highlighted that there was no basis to the claim that Northern Ireland is violating human rights obligations asking the minister “will he be clear that the assertion that Northern Ireland is violating human rights obligations is simply untrue? CEDAW reports are not binding in law and the CEDAW convention, which is, does not even mention abortion. Surely the Secretary of State must know that the imposition of this measure, against the express democratic wishes of the people of Northern Ireland, is not only unjust and unwelcome, but rooted in an entirely invalid assertion?”

Fiona Bruce MP, who is a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, said: “Is it not true that this legislation was based on an incorrect assumption that Northern Ireland was in violation of human rights obligations? Repeated assertions were made—they have been made even today in this place—that this is a matter of human rights law. Those were based originally, as I understand it, on the work of a small working group of CEDAW. May I ask the Secretary of State again: is it not correct that that CEDAW report is not binding in international law and that this Parliament chose to treat certain assertions in it as binding? Surely, that is no answer to the unwarranted and unwanted imposition of this legislation on Northern Ireland’s people now that their Assembly is back up and running”.

Union at risk

The Conservative MP for Gainsborough, Sir Edward Leigh, was deeply critical of the Government’s actions given that the Northern Ireland Assembly is now sitting and abortion is a devolved matter:

“Will the Secretary of State be honest and open with the House? He quotes section 9 of the 2019 Act. This House took the fact that the Assembly was not sitting as an excuse to impose its views on Northern Ireland. The Assembly is now sitting. The abortion industry talks about the right to choose; what about the right to choose of the people of Northern Ireland? What would happen if they tried to impose their views on us? The fact of the matter is that Northern Ireland can run its own Government as long as they keep doing things that we do not disagree with. This is not democracy. Whatever our views on abortion, the Secretary of State is putting the Union at risk. The fact is that the overwhelming majority of the people of Northern Ireland believe in the sanctity of life. They oppose abortion. They have their own devolved Administration. They should be allowed to run their own affairs”.

MP for Blackpool South, Scott Benton, echoed these comments saying “There is nothing more important than the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but this relationship needs to be built on mutual respect, not coercion. These abortion regulations are a democratic and constitutional assault on Northern Ireland”.

A decision for the Northern Ireland Assembly

Conservative MP for Harrow East, Bob Blackman, said “…the situation here is that we in this House imposed on Northern Ireland rules when the Assembly was not sitting. The Assembly is now sitting and considering what is appropriate for Northern Ireland. Would he not consider stepping back and saying, “Let us hear from the Executive and the Assembly,” and then dropping the powers that we imposed in the emergency?

MP for Belfast East, Gavin Robinson, was critical of the Government for not ensuring that there was a debate when the regulations were introduced on Tuesday: “Madam Deputy Speaker, may I pass on my appreciation to Mr Speaker for allowing this urgent question? In my view, the Secretary of State should have been in the House on Tuesday and he should have brought forward a ministerial statement”.

Moral obligation to defend the vulnerable

Northern Ireland MP, Ian Paisley, highlighted that the Government should have an obligation to defend the most vulnerable in society saying:  “The Secretary of State speaks very emotively and emotionally from the Dispatch Box today saying that he speaks for women and children—“for women and girls”, I think was his phrase—and that he has a moral obligation to do that. Where is his moral obligation to stand at that Dispatch Box and defend the most vulnerable of lives—the unborn life? When is someone from the Government going to actually do that and defend that vulnerability, or is the unborn life an unfortunate commodity that can be disposed of so lightly? That is the point that is being made”.

Right to Life UK spokesperson, Catherine Robinson said: “The Northern Ireland secretary has given himself sweeping new powers to directly undermine devolution to force expanded abortion on Northern Ireland. This is while there is a sitting Northern Ireland Assembly, which has been elected by the people of Northern Ireland to make decisions on devolved matters including abortion. This extraordinary move is essentially direct rule from Westminster”.

She continued, “The passing of the Severe Fetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment) Bill by such an overwhelming majority of MLAs and the huge public support behind this Bill shows that there is no appetite for further Westminster imposition of abortion on Northern Ireland. Sadly though, it appears the Government will hardly likely let a trifle like ‘the will of the people’ and ‘respect for sovereignty’ get in the way of their plans to expand abortion access at all costs”.