During Assembly Question Time on Tuesday 17 September, Northern Ireland’s health minister, Edwin Poots MLA defended his use of public funds for the appeal to the Supreme Court over gay adoption and the gay blood ban when asked a question put to him by Chris Lyttle MLA, one of the Alliance Party’s representatives for East Belfast asked the minister:
why he is using scarce public funds for legal cases against blood donation and adoption when his responsibility is to deliver a system that assesses the health and safety of blood donation and decides whether parental placements are in the best interests of a child. (AQT 75/11-15)
Minister defends use of funds
The DUP Minister responded:
I was not aware that I went to court with anyone. However, when someone takes you to court, you have to respond; it would be quite foolish not to do so. It is very interesting that public money is being used by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which is a publicly funded body, in taking the Government to court, and legal aid is being used. We await the outcome of one of those cases in the not-too-distant future. Let us just see what happens.
On the issue of gay adoption, let us be absolutely unequivocal: I am just after saying that we need to pay attention to the public when they speak. When the direct rule Minister held a consultation, it revealed that over 95% of the community was opposed to gay adoption. It strikes me that some Assembly Members would prefer the courts, as opposed to this House, to make decisions. With respect to the courts, the Assembly is elected to represent the people of Northern Ireland, and it is a crucial part of the democratic process. We would do well to pay attention to the democratic will, and that is exactly what I am doing. I have to say that my stance was further strengthened last week when a piece of Queen’s University Belfast research on looked-after children was published by the British Association for Adoption and Fostering. The longitudinal report, started in 2003 and published only last week, found that 99% of children who had been adopted here had stability — 99% of children in adoptive circumstances in Northern Ireland find stability.
That was because — the report included this — of the rigorous assessment process that takes place. So I make no apologies for not repairing something that is not broken in the first place.
Responding to the supplementary question from Chris Lyttle, Edwin Poots continued:
[It] is a matter for the courts in the decisions that they make and the arguments that are put. Let me be absolutely clear: the European Court of Human Rights has found that there is no human right to adopt. Let us just nail that at the outset. This is not about adopters; it is about the children.
In Northern Ireland, we are in a different circumstance from the rest of the United Kingdom, in that we do not have as many children on the waiting list for adoption as is the case in England, Scotland and Wales. Northern Ireland has a very robust adoption system, and I would have brought and am prepared to bring adoption legislation to the House to upgrade and improve it. However, because others decided to rush to court, that has been delayed. That is damaging to democracy, and I would have thought that Mr Lyttle should be a defender of democracy instead of trying to do down democracy. He may wish to do things through the courts; I would rather do things through the ballot box.
I don’t believe for one second that Chris Lyttle is not a defender of democracy, but the Minister seems to fail to understand that Northern Ireland is subject to laws that do not originate here. Although we have devolution from the Westminster Parliament, this does not give Northern Ireland ministers the right to ignore what the courts say.
Nearly £100k spent already
As for the costs, Green Party MLA, Steven Agnew has been told by the Minister that he has spent around £40k on defence of the ban on gay men donating blood and around £40k defending the case on adoption by civil partners, with £17k in addition appealing the decision by the High Court. Steven Agnew said,
The Minister’s stance, despite the weight of evidence against him, has generated considerable expense to the public purse with zero benefit to public health in Northern Ireland.
Thanks to Steven and Chris for their work on this
I must thank both Chris Lyttle and Steven Agnew for their work raising this issue in the Assembly. Exposing what the Executive is doing with public money especially when financial budgets are tighter than many would like is one role that our MLAs are very good at doing. Many thanks to both of you, keep up the good work!