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The Stormont Executive is not doing enough to protect and support women in Northern Ireland, the secretary of state has said.
Brandon Lewis said ministers needed to move further and faster on issues around violence against women and girls and domestic abuse.
Responding, Stormont Justice Minister Naomi Long said her department is delivering “tangible and positive difference for victims of domestic and sexual abuse”.
Mr Lewis also said the “abhorrent” delay in rolling out provision of abortion services in the region was another example of where urgent action was needed by the devolved administration.
The Executive remains deadlocked on the sensitive issue of abortion, with full services yet to be rolled out across the region two years after MPs legislated to liberalise Northern Ireland’s strict abortion regime.
He signalled he would intervene if the Executive missed the March 2022 deadline he has imposed for the move, and directly instruct health trusts to provide the treatment.
Mr Lewis also made clear there was no place in the Police Service of Northern Ireland for anyone involved in sexual harassment.
His comments followed criticism of the service this week for the way it handled a complaint made by a civilian member of staff against a serving officer.
Mr Lewis visited Women’s Aid and Victim Support NI in Belfast to hear about their work.
Stormont ministers have committed to bring forward strategies to deal with violence against women and girls and stopping domestic and sexual abuse.
Mr Lewis said that work needed to be ramped up.
Speaking to the PA news agency Mr Lewis said: “I think the Executive does need to move further and it needs to move much more quickly around legislation to give support and protection for women, whether it’s the violence against women and girls strategy, whether it’s around domestic abuse, actually even on access to healthcare.
“I’ve spoken quite openly this year that I think it is pretty abhorrent that women in Northern Ireland cannot access healthcare, particularly for abortion services, in the way that they can across the rest of the UK.
“So I think there’s a number of issues there across the Executive where we need to see Stormont moving more quickly to deliver for women and their needs, whether it’s healthcare, or as we’ve been talking about and looking at today, around abuse and the criminal justice process.”
Ms Long said: “The department has already taken forward an ambitious agenda of activity and new laws including the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act, which will protect those most at risk of abuse from partners or family, which were completed ahead of the corresponding legislation for England and Wales.
“The new domestic abuse offence will cover behaviour that is controlling or coercive or amounts to psychological, emotional, technological or financial abuse. It will capture patterns of physical and/or psychological abuse, by a partner, ex-partner or close family member and will also include behaviour that is physically violent, threatening or intimidating. The new domestic abuse offence is intended to close a gap in existing law to help people that are experiencing this form of domestic abuse.
“A Domestic Homicide Review model has also been introduced to Northern Ireland. The overarching purpose of a review is to help prevent future domestic homicides by learning and sharing good practice to improve responses to victims of domestic abuse and their families.”
On the PSNI’s handling of sexual harassment claims, Mr Lewis said: “There’s no place for anybody in the service who behaves in a way that is breaking the law or creating harassment or abuse of anybody, there just isn’t a place in the police service for that, because people need to have absolute confidence in the police and that’s one of the things we’ve got to see developing both here in Northern Ireland and more widely across the UK.”
Northern Ireland’s abortion laws were liberalised in 2019 following legislation passed by Westminster at a time when devolution had collapsed.
However, Stormont’s Department of Health has yet to centrally commission full services due to an impasse within the devolved administration.
The anti-abortion Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has blocked consideration of central commissioning at the Executive.
This led to the Government introducing new powers to allow Mr Lewis to intervene on the devolved issue to formally direct Stormont to roll out the services.
He has used the new powers to direct ministers in Belfast to take the steps necessary to deploy abortion services across the region, with a deadline of the end of March 2022.
Asked whether he would go further if the deadline was missed and directly instruct health trusts to roll out services, Mr Lewis said: “I think this has taken far too long.
“What I’ve always said is I want to give space, this is a devolved area, I want to give space to the Executive to try and work through this, I was understanding around the challenges of doing this through the heat of Covid but we’ve got to get on with it.
“Not only have we got a legal duty in the UK Government and me as secretary of state but this is a matter for women in Northern Ireland having access to healthcare.
“And if it becomes clear to me that the Executive’s not going to move forward on this in the timeframe that we set out, which is they’ve got through to the spring of next year, if it is clear they’re not moving on that within that timeframe, then I do not rule out taking further action.
“I’m not prepared, we’re not prepared, to continue to see women in Northern Ireland being deprived of access to healthcare, which means you get some of the most harrowing stories around how women have to access this either in mainland GB or in a way that is just not acceptable here, with arguably illegal structures.
“So we’ve got to make sure that that healthcare is there, I think to not do so is just abhorrent.
“So if it becomes clear to me that the Executive is not moving this forward in a meaningful way, then I don’t rule out taking action and, yes, we will.”
Sinn Fein MLA Caoimhe Archibald said: “There is now a legal entitlement to modern, compassionate healthcare services for women but those services have still not been put in place by the Department of Health.
“Sinn Fein believes the focus should now be on addressing that deficit. We are calling on the Health Minister (Robin Swann) to end the ambiguity by putting the appropriate services in place for the benefit of women and healthcare providers.”