Secretary of State Brandon Lewis prepared to intervene on abortion services in Northern Ireland

The UK Government has announced its intention to prepare work on further regulations to ensure abortion services are available in Northern Ireland.

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis has set out the legislative options being explored in a written ministerial statement.

The Government said it is taking the step as it is becoming “increasingly clear that the Northern Ireland Department of Health will miss the deadline of the end of March to ensure abortion services in Northern Ireland are commissioned in full”.

Abortion laws in Northern Ireland were liberalised in 2019 following legislation passed by Westminster at a time when the power-sharing government in the region had collapsed.

However, while individual health trusts have been offering services on an ad-hoc basis, the Department of Health has yet to centrally commission the services.

The regulations being planned would place a further duty on the department to make abortion services available as soon as is reasonably practicable, and remove the need for Executive Committee approval before services can be commissioned.

The Secretary of State will have the powers to intervene directly following the Assembly election in May if sufficient progress has still not been made.

Mr Lewis is also immediately setting up a small team in the Northern Ireland Office with relevant health experience to work directly with the NI Department of Health on the issue.

He said women and girls “must have access to safe, high-quality abortion care in Northern Ireland”, and added: “It is unacceptable that access to basic abortion healthcare is not available as it is across the rest of the UK.

Anti abortion and Pro Choice activists take part in separate protests at Stormont in 2019 Credit: Niall Carson/PA

“It has become increasingly clear the Northern Ireland Department of Health will fail to commission abortion services in full by the deadline I set out last year, despite being given every opportunity to do so.

“I am determined to do everything I can to ensure full services are delivered.”

In October last year, a High Court judge said Mr Lewis had failed to comply with his duties by not expeditiously ensuring provision for full abortion services for women in the region.

But Mr Justice Colton declined to make any order compelling Mr Lewis to set out a timetable for the provision of the services following a judicial review launched by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission over the failure to fund and commission abortion services in Northern Ireland.

"Unacceptable delays" in the commissioning of abortion services have been criticised.

Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International UK's campaigns manager in Northern Ireland, urged Mr Lewis to act urgently.

"It has long been clear that further action by the Secretary of State would be necessary to ensure abortion rights here are fully realised.

"At every opportunity, the health minister has failed to prioritise delivery of this time-sensitive and essential healthcare," she said.

Grainne Teggart says the Health Minister has failed to prioritise delivery of this abortion services.

"Whilst the Secretary of State is preparing next steps to establish commissioned services, the reality is that his own deadline for this will now be missed, and we face further unacceptable delays," she said.

"Current provision will remain in a fragile state and those in need of this healthcare will be impacted most.

"We call on the Secretary of State to act urgently and without further unnecessary delay.

"Choice must be respected and protected - the only way to achieve this is through a service that is fully resourced and accessible to all who need it."

DUP MLA Peter Weir has described as "unacceptable" Westminster stepping in to legislate for abortion in Northern Ireland.

"We are a pro-life party, we believe in protecting the lives of all our citizens, including the unborn," he said.

"I think it is important that Stormont is in a position to deliver on some issues and I think from the perspective of Westminster simply trying to legislate over the heads of the people of Northern Ireland.

"That is not something that we support or find acceptable."

In a separate development, legislation around introducing 'safe access zones' around abortion clinics is set to pass its final hurdle in Stormont.

The Bill, sponsored by Green Party MLA Clare Bailey is unlikely to have enough opposition to be blocked in the chamber.