Presbyterian Church in Ireland warns Brandon Lewis ‘power grab’ may soon overrule schools on sex education

The Presbyterian Church says that a “power grab” by Secretary of State Brandon Lewis could soon take away the rights of schools to choose their own ethos on sex education - and warned that his actions are underminging devolved government.

By Philip Bradfield
Friday, 25th March 2022, 6:05 pm
Updated Saturday, 26th March 2022, 1:29 pm

Last year Mr Lewis laid The Abortion (NI) Regulations 2021 in Parliament, giving him power to direct the NI Executive and public health bodies to follow his directions on abortion provision and sex education.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) issued a statement today expressing “deep regret” and “grave concern” at what it termed “the continued undermining of devolution” by Mr Lewis.

PCI said it was making the statement after Mr Lewis signalled his intention this week to give himself further powers on the matters.

Sign up to our public interest bulletins - get the latest news on the Coronavirus

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis

In a joint statement, Rev Trevor Gribben, Clerk of the General Assembly and General Secretary of PCI, and Rev Daniel Kane, Convener of PCI’s Council for Public Affairs, said: “From the Secretary of State’s announcement on Thursday, we note that following May’s Assembly Election, he now intends to ask Parliament for a blank cheque which would confer ‘the power to do anything that a NI Minister or department could do for the purpose of ensuring that the recommendations in paragraphs 85 and 86 of the CEDAW report are implemented’.”

CEDAW is the United Nations Committee for Elimination of Discrimination of Women, which has made a series of recommendations on abortion and sex education provision in NI.

The clerics reiterated “grave concern that this power grab [by Mr Lewis] devalues NI’s purposely balanced system of negotiated government”. And they argued he could “take away the right of schools to embrace a particular ethos with regard to the teaching of Relationships and Sexuality Education, and do so over the heads of school governors, teachers, parents and their locally elected representatives”. Mr Lewis was invited to respond.

Mr Lewis has been invited to respond.

The church’s comments come the day after MLAs passed a bill to exclude pro-life protestors from around Northern Ireland’s abortion clinics.

The private members’ bill, brought by Green Party leader Clare Bailey, was passed  by 55 votes to 29, prompting a round of applause in the public gallery and later jubilant celebrations by Ms Bailey.

Pro-life activists had campaigned hard to get a 30th MLA to oppose the bill in the hope of blocking it with a Petition of Concern - which requires 30 signatures - but without success.The bill was opposed by DUP and TUV but supported by Sinn Fein, the SDLP, Alliance Party and UUP.The legislation aims to exclude pro-life protestors from the vicinity of abortion clinics across NI.

Ms Bailey said before the vote: “The deliberate and concerted campaign of harassment and intimidation against women has to stop. During my time as a volunteer with the Marie Stopes clinic, I was spat at, splashed with holy water, called a murderer, and watched a woman run into oncoming traffic to escape these people. This needs to stop, this is not protest as I understand it.”

During the assembly debate, TUV leader Jim Allister said: “It should be no surprise to anyone that there would be protest against the widespread facilitation of abortion. Though abortion, by its advocates, is constantly described in the House as a medical procedure, the truth and reality of abortion is that it is, by choice, the deliberate killing of a baby in the womb.”He added: “We really have reached a sorry pass if we are now in a society where the liberalism of some is so illiberal that they cannot abide the very articulation of a message contrary to their own.”

He added: “I will only regret that some who tell us that they are against the Bill would not take the step that would have saved their statute book from such unnecessary and inappropriate legislation.”The Green Party was invited to respond to his concerns.”

Mark Lambe of Abolish Abortion NI said the bill was “quite simply, bad legislation” and that his organisation would be launcging a legal challenge against it.

He added: “ It was clear during the Final Stage debate that many MLAs still had no real understanding of what this Bill does and does not do.”

“Essentially the Bill creates the new crime of ‘influence’. This broadly criminalises anyone who does anything within a zone around the clinic which has the potential to influence someone to not go through with having an abortion.”

Among the behaviours deemed criminal by this Bill, he claimed, are “preaching of the gospel, silent prayer, holding scriptural texts, handing out gospel tracts and the offer of assistance”.

He added: “Christian MLAs in the Alliance Party and Ulster Unionist Party were aware of this - they were warned about this thousands of times by email and telephone yet refused to take a stand for God and their pre-born neighbour by signing a Petition of Concern and killing this pernicious Bill.”

The Green Party, UUP and Alliance Party were invited to respond.

A UK Government Spokesperson said: “The Government has given the Northern Ireland Executive and the NI Department of Health every opportunity to bring forward measures to introduce the full provision of abortion services. Unfortunately, up to this point, they have failed to deliver for women and girls in Northern Ireland.

“The devolution settlement does not absolve the Secretary of State of his legal obligation to ensure that women and girls can access abortion services in Northern Ireland, as they can in the rest of the UK.

“That is why he is preparing work on further regulations to intervene again, if necessary to ensure all the recommendations in paragraphs 85 and 86 of the CEDAW report are implemented.”

MORE NEWS:

A message from the Editor:

Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.

With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our advertisers - and consequently the revenue we receive - we are more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription.

Subscribe to newsletter.co.uk and enjoy unlimited access to the best Northern Ireland and UK news and information online and on our app. With a digital subscription, you can read more than 5 articles, see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Visit https://www.newsletter.co.uk/subscriptions now to sign up.

Our journalism costs money and we rely on advertising, print and digital revenues to help to support them. By supporting us, we are able to support you in providing trusted, fact-checked content for this website.

Ben Lowry

Editor