Since the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive in January 2017 the 106 elected MLAs have been unable to fully perform their roles. The current cohort of MLAs was elected in March 2017 and continue to work on behalf of their constituents, raising issues with government departments and public authorities. However, none of the mechanisms for making legislation and policy are currently operating and so we are now facing a backlog of issues that need urgent attention.
For example, the lack of a functioning executive has meant that:
– The proposed domestic abuse legislation for Northern Ireland fell, including law to criminalise coercive control. We are now the only part of the UK and Ireland without law to protect people from this type of abuse.
– The regulations on gender pay gap reporting have not been progressed so as employers elsewhere in the UK now undertake annual reporting on their pay gap figures and have to produce strategies to close the gender pay gap this is not happening in NI
– The childcare strategy has not been published despite the public consultation having closed a full year before the Executive collapsed. Officials in the Department of Education who take the lead on this area of work say they can’t publish this strategy without Ministers to agree it and there could be no budget allocated anyway.
– Our gender equality strategy ran out in 2016 and while work had begun on a new 5 year strategy this has completely stopped. The Department for Communities now holds responsibility for this strategy and they say they will not be working on it until a new Minister is in place – mainly because the last minister (the DUP’s Paul Givan) had suggested that he wanted to roll all equality strategies into one ‘social strategy’ something that the women’s sector is very much opposed to.
The list goes on and on! While some small progress has been made on things like stalking legislation and a law that would make upskirting a crime, for the most part our lack of government has left women’s rights and equality at a standstill.
WRDA previously provided an Assembly Update service to the women’s sector and these can be found in the list below.
In the three years that we’ve been without government in Northern Ireland we have been forced to look to Westminster to address serious gaps in women’s human rights, especially as the UK was being examined by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in early 2019. This international human rights body looks at all the issues that affect women’s rights from welfare cuts, to abortion access, to equality in the workplace and issues for women in immigration detention. The UK government is the primary duty bearer which means they have to act to address any failures to comply with CEDAW even if it has taken place in a devolved region like Northern Ireland. Usually it would be through the devolved institutions that steps would be taken to address issues raised by CEDAW but as we don’t have that mechanism for the foreseeable future we have had to call on Westminster to do more.
This has included:
– Calling for the Domestic Abuse Bill that is currently passing through Westminster to include measures to be enacted in Northern Ireland and prevent us falling even further behind in protections from domestic violence and abuse. This was successful but the bill is currently stalled due to issues relating to Brexit.
– Calling for Westminster to lift the ban on equal marriage in Northern Ireland. This was achieved through an amendment to the NI Executive Functions Bill and will be in place by January 2020.
– Calling for Westminster to lift the almost complete ban on abortion in Northern Ireland and legislate for abortion services that will meet the human rights requirements of the CEDAW committee. This was supported by MPs and will begin with the decriminalisation of abortion on 22nd October. There will then be a 6 month period where regulations have to be designed that will set out the conditions under which abortions will be available and what those services will look like. This process has to be completed by 31st March 2020.
However, other legislation passed by Westminster continues to have a negative impact on the lives of women in Northern Ireland, particularly in the area of welfare policy which has never been a devolved area although we currently have some mitigating measures in place in NI. These mitigations are due to run out in March 2020 and as a result of the concerns about how harshly this will impact on people in receipt of benefits, two Westminster Committees undertook a joint inquiry this year. MPs on the Work and Pensions Committee and the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee heard evidence from people in Belfast and took written submissions. They have published their report and are waiting for the government to respond. You can read more here.