Secretary of state 'does not expect health to act' on Northern Ireland abortion services

Secretary of State Brandon Lewis has told a Westminster committee that while he wants the Department of Health in Northern Ireland to fully commission abortion services, he does not expect that will happen.

Mr Lewis has been addressing a committee in the next stage of his attempt to introduce legislation for the commissioning of abortion services in Northern Ireland.

MPs at Westminster voted to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland in 2019, but full services have not been established. 

Health Minister Robin Swann has argued that he needs the support of the Stormont Executive to commission abortion services.

The secretary of state has said he will step in to act if the health minister does not and is now preparing to do that.

Brandon Lewis told MPs: "To ensure that I have all the information required in the circumstances that I will need to take action myself and I suspect I will be taking action, a small team has been established in my office, the NI office, to work alongside the Department of Health to take this forward.

"I can't give a specific date right now, but I have brought a team of experts into the NI Office to work on how to commission and what those services will be.

"As much as I would like to see them deliver this in the next few weeks I am not necessarily expecting that, as soon as our team have developed the commissioning and the work that needs to be done to commission the services, if the Department of Health have not already acted, we will take action immediately ... I envisage that happening quickly."

The secretary of state also confirmed to MPs that between 31 March 2020 and 31 January 2022, a total of 2,794 abortions were able to take place in Northern Ireland.

DUP MPs at the Seventh Delegated Legislation Committee at Westminster have been questioning the secretary of state about his planned action.

Ian Paisley MP asked Mr Lewis if he agreed that the regulations being voted on "take the law in Northern Ireland far beyond what applies in England and Wales".

Mr Lewis said he recognised some people do have concerns, but the decision made in 2020 was made as the most appropriate way of ensuring women were given the same rights at those in the rest of the UK.

The DUP's Carla Lockhart MP also argued that the move by the secretary of state meant the "constitutional settlement is being changed" and that abortion legislation was a devolved matter for the Northern Ireland Executive to decide on.

The Alliance Party's Stephen Farry said he supported the secretary of state's move, but said there was some frustration at the time being taken to act.

Mr Farry said the health minister "has been dragging his feet and I don't think that is tenable or sustainable".