UK government will ‘intervene directly’ to ensure abortion services are available in North

Brandon Lewis said regulations were being prepared which would give London the necessary powers

The UK government will "intervene directly" to ensure abortion services are made available in Northern Ireland following the Assembly elections in May.

In a written ministerial statement on Thursday the Northern Secretary, Brandon Lewis, said regulations were being prepared which would give London the necessary powers to directly commission the services if Belfast continues to fail to do so.

These include placing a duty on the North's Department of Health to make abortion services available "as soon as reasonably practicable" and removing the need for cross-community approval from Northern ministers, which has blocked their establishment.

“This means that the Department of Health will have no further barriers to commission and fund services,” Mr Lewis said.

He said he also intends to introduce regulations and directions which “confer on me the power to do anything that a Northern Ireland minister or department could do” to ensure the necessary requirements are implemented.

Additional oversight will be provided by a team with relevant health experience which is to be set up within the Northern Ireland Office immediately, and which will work directly with the department.

Mr Lewis said on Thursday it was “unacceptable that access to basic abortion healthcare is not available [in Northern Ireland] as it is across the rest of the UK” and he had a legal obligation to intervene.

Recent events such as the resignation of the former first minister, the DUP's Paul Givan, and the collapse of the Executive had created a "further obstacle to progress" and this "ongoing inaction" had left him no choice.

“If I assess the Department of Health is not complying with the duty I place on it, I am prepared to use my powers to intervene,” Mr Lewis said.

The department said it noted the written statement from Mr Lewis and would “take time” to further consider its implications.

DUP Assembly member Peter Weir criticised the intervention and said the DUP was "a pro-life party, we believe in protecting the lives of all our citizens, including the unborn".

The Sinn Féin vice-president and former deputy first minister, Michelle O'Neill, said abortion services should have been delivered at Stormont but this had been "blocked at every turn by the DUP".

The North's Chief Commissioner for Human Rights, Alyson Kilpatrick, welcomed the steps taken by Mr Lewis but said she remained "concerned about the impact the delay continues to have upon the human rights of women and girls".