Pressure groups have warned against lengthy delays to extending abortion rights to Northern Ireland following a landmark legal amendment last week, after a government document said the process could take as long as 18 months to implement.
Downing Street has committed to introducing the abortion plan after an amendment to a separate Northern Ireland bill by the Labour MP Stella Creasy was passed overwhelmingly by the Commons.
Another amendment to the bill, tabled by Labour’s Conor McGinn, was also passed, extending the right of same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland, the only part of the UK where neither is legal.
The government has warned the technicalities of making the changes could be complex, without setting out a timetable.
But an internal government document on extending abortion rights said the necessary regulations needed to make the change might not be ready until the end of 2020.
“It is expected that setting up the new regime could take 12-18 months,” says the document, seen by the Guardian. The delay would be needed for policy development, a consultation on the process and then analysis of the consultation results.
The document added that officials should look into whether there would be a way to establish interim regulations on some areas.
Creasy’s amendment argued that while Downing Street claimed abortion and equal marriage were devolved matters, the long suspension of the Northern Ireland assembly and executive amid political deadlock meant women’s human rights over abortion were being infringed.
Les Allamby, the chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland human rights commission, which has strongly backed both changes, condemned the idea of a long delay for access to abortion.
“In the absence of a functioning assembly we welcome the interventions at Westminster to progress legislation on termination of pregnancy and same-sex marriage. The timeframe to deliver them should be swift and focused to prevent undue further denial of equality and human rights in Northern Ireland,” he said.
“The committee on the elimination of discrimination against women held there were systemic and grave violations of human rights as a result of the current law. It has given clear recommendations on what is required to provide termination of pregnancies in Northern Ireland in a human rights-compliant way.
“Any timeframe to change the law requiring a 12-month or longer implementation process in the commission’s view would be unacceptable.”
Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland campaign manager, said: “At a time when prosecutions are a reality in Northern Ireland, this simply cannot come quickly enough. We want to see abortion regulations in place by January 2020. Any attempts today to delay that must be resisted.”
The bill on to which the amendments were made, an otherwise largely technical measure connected to delayed elections and budgets for the devolved assembly, was being considered by the House of Lords on Wednesday, including a further amendment seeking to speed up the extension of abortion rights.
The new amendment, tabled by the Labour peer Alf Dubs, would set a January deadline for the change to be made. It would also place a moratorium on prosecutions for abortion-related offences from October – intended to stop the case of a woman who faces trial in November for obtaining an abortion pill for her daughter. If the bill is amended again it will return to the Commons next week.
A Downing Street spokesman said ministers were “actively considering how we act on last week’s votes, because the amendments as drafted do not function properly and so do not enable the government to deliver on instruction of parliament”.
He said: “We are in discussions with MPs and peers to discuss how best to take this forwards and ensure that any changes agreed by parliament can be delivered.”