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Bill granting new decision-making powers to Northern Ireland Civil Service passed

Secretary of State to provide guidance on laws including abortion

A bill to hand civil servants decision-making powers in Northern Ireland was passed 344 votes to 26 in the House of Commons last night and will now proceed to the Lords.
A bill to hand civil servants decision-making powers in Northern Ireland was passed 344 votes to 26 in the House of Commons last night and will now proceed to the Lords.
Mark Bain

By Mark Bain

A bill to hand civil servants decision-making powers in Northern Ireland was passed 344 votes to 26 in the House of Commons last night and will now proceed to the Lords.

The Bill passed with a controversial amendment from Labour MP Stella Creasy requiring the Secretary of State to provide guidance on the human rights compatibility of Northern Ireland's laws on abortion and ban on same-sex marriage.

MPs voted 207 to 117 to accept the changes, despite arguments against it from the DUP, whose nine voting MPs opposed the amended Bill.

During a heated debate, Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley said the legislation is "not about civil servants becoming lawmakers or senior policy deciders".

The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill will give civil servants greater flexibility when it comes to making decisions, supported with guidance from the Northern Ireland Secretary.

But the final decision will rest with civil servants in the absence of the Assembly, once ratified by the House of Lords.

Ms Bradley said: "I don't want to be introducing this legislation, but it is unfortunately necessary to deliver public services in Northern Ireland."

It will also enable UK Government ministers to make a number of stalled public appointments and remove a standing obligation on Mrs Bradley to call another snap Assembly election.

The Bill is designed to partly address the governance vacuum created by the collapse of power-sharing, and provide breathing space for Northern Ireland's political parties to resume negotiations.

Introducing her amendment on human rights, Ms Creasy told MPs: "This doesn't write any new legislation for Northern Ireland. But it does say that those human rights obligations, the things that we've all sworn to uphold in the Good Friday Agreement, matter. Therefore the Secretary of State should be looking to see what she can do to address them."

Conservative MP Anna Soubry called the current ban on abortion "barbaric and antiquated".

Ms Soubry said: "All it means is somewhere in the region of 28 women every week have to come to England and Wales, so the laws are not working in any event.

"It just makes it even more barbaric because women have to travel to exercise the same rights that my constituents have."

Ms Bradley replied saying the Bill before the Commons is not the platform in which that debate should take place.

"I support change on abortion and same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland; however, it's a matter for the Assembly," she said. "This is a Bill to enable civil servants to take the decisions that are necessary to enable public services to continue to be run."

DUP MP Sammy Wilson added: "There may be some grandstanding by some members of the House today to force onto this Bill their particular policies they'd like to see implemented in Northern Ireland against the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland. This Bill will not enable any public official to pursue that policy."

The DUP's Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the amendment "interferes with devolution", and the 2016 Supreme Court judgment on abortion "does not mean the law in Northern Ireland has to change".

He reminded MPs that it was the House of Commons that decided to devolve the issues of abortion and marriage to Northern Ireland, and says that most people in Northern Ireland "don't want the law".

"The party that is preventing the executive from dealing with abortion is Sinn Fein," Mr Donaldson said.

"If Sinn Fein had not blocked a return to Stormont, we would have dealt with these issues of the law by now. If they had agreed to come back to government they could have put same-sex marriage as the first item if it's more important to them than health or housing."

He also attacked Ms Creasy, saying: "We know this amendment is not the end game, it's a means to an end and that is to change the law in Northern Ireland. We're not running away from the issues, but they should be dealt with in the right place, and the proper place is in Northern Ireland."

Campaigners pushing for abortion and marriage law reform called the inclusion of the amendment "historic".

Katherine O'Brien, head of policy research at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, added: "It represents an important step forward in the cross-party effort to ensure that the women of Northern Ireland have their basic rights monitored and upheld."

And Richard Bentley, Marie Stopes UK's managing director, said: "This amendment is a significant step forward on the path to equality, holding Westminster accountable for monitoring and addressing these issues, and giving guidance to civil servants in Northern Ireland on the issue of abortion."

Meanwhile, claims of earlier underhanded tactics in an attempt to block reform attempts have been denied by ministers.

Government whips were accused of using technical parliamentary procedures in a bid to prevent the Commons voting on the abortion and same-sex marriage issues.

Ms Bradley denied this was the case and told MPs the emergency legislation making its way through Westminster in response to the power-sharing crisis was following "standard" procedure.

Belfast Telegraph


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