Northern Ireland

Abortion: Brandon Lewis 'will not change NI regulations'

Brandon Lewis Image copyright Reuters

The government will not change the regulations governing abortions in Northern Ireland in response to an assembly vote, Brandon Lewis has said.

On Tuesday, a majority of MLAs backed a DUP motion rejecting the imposition of the laws by Westminster.

It highlighted that they extend to "all non-fatal disabilities, including Down's syndrome".

But Parliament has committed to regulations that must comply with a UN convention., said the NI Secretary.

Mr Lewis said that if the executive can agree on amendments, they have the power to change the legislation.

However, any changes they make must also comply with the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

The recommendations, made in 2018, said abortions should be allowed in Northern Ireland where there is "severe fetal impairment", but that provision should not "perpetuate stereotypes" towards disabled people.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Interim abortion services can be carried out by health trusts in Northern Ireland but they have yet to be fully commissioned

The DUP has said it wants to overturn the regulations drawn up by the government and create new legislation.

Sinn Féin supports abortion provision - but not in the case of non-fatal disabilities.

Other parties at Stormont view abortion as a matter of conscience, meaning individual MLAs can vote freely on the issue.

On Thursday, the DUP raised the party's concerns about the regulations in the House of Commons.

The laws are due to be retrospectively approved in a vote by MPs next week, having come into force at the end of March.

Upper Bann MP Carla Lockhart accused the Northern Ireland Office of "riding roughshod" over the Stormont assembly and urged ministers to reconsider the legislation.

However, NIO minister Robin Walker said there was "nothing to prohibit" the executive making changes to the regulations, but so far they have failed to find a way forward that also satisfies human rights law obligations.

Former NI Secretary Julian Smith, who was in post when abortion was decriminalised in NI last year and led to the formation of the new regulations, urged the government to "keep pushing forward".

'No change to Brexit timetable'

Earlier, Brandon Lewis also rejected a call from the assembly for the government to extend its Brexit timetable.

The UK is due to leave the current transitional phase at the end of this year, whether or not trade talks with the EU prove successful.

On Tuesday, a majority of MLAs backed an SDLP motion which, in light of the Covid crisis and the unique impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland, asked the government to request "an extension of the current Brexit transition period beyond 31 December 2020 in order that businesses have adequate time to prepare for the implementation of new arrangements".

But the NI Secretary said the government would not be extending the Brexit timetable, arguing such a move could have an adverse impact on the UK's trade talks, removing the impetus for the negotiators to come to an agreement on a free trade deal.

The government had been given a very clear mandate at the general election and it was important ministers stick to the task, he added.

Mr Lewis said the UK has now left the EU and needs to get on with being a sovereign nation, which can trade with others around the world.

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