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Lords Committee criticises lack of public consultation on relationships and sexuality education policy in Northern Ireland

Friday 23 June 2023

In its 44th report of Session 2022-23 the cross-party House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee comments on changes made by the Relationships and Sexuality Education (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2023 (the Regulations) and highlights issues regarding their implementation, and suggests Government should postpone implementation.

These Regulations make relationships and sexuality education, including prevention of early pregnancy and access to abortion, compulsory for children in key stages 3 and 4 (ages 11 to 16) in Northern Ireland (NI).

The Lords Committee raises several concerns including:

  • The lack of a public consultation prior to the Regulations coming into effect. The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) told the Committee there was no legal requirement to conduct a consultation but that it had engaged with a range of stakeholders and statutory organisations. The report concludes that, given the controversial nature of this policy and the strong views expressed in submissions to the Committee (including from a range of religious denominations), a full public consultation would have been appropriate. The report also points out that other comparable policy changes, including when similar regulations were introduced in England, were subject to a public consultation before implementation.
  • Timely implementation of the policyWhile the Regulations were laid by the NIO, much of the detailed implementation of the policy will fall to the Northern Ireland Department of Education (DE). The Committee expresses concern that some aspects of the policy underpinning the Regulations, including procedures to allow parents to withdraw their children from sexuality education, may not be fully developed by the policy implementation date of 1 January 2024. The Committee believes that this will be of considerable concern to parents in NI.

In conclusion, the report draws the Regulations to the attention of the House on the ground of a lack of public consultation and suggests that the House may wish to press the Minister to push back the implementation date of 1 January 2024 to allow a full consultation and to ensure the policy can be developed fully.

Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick, Member of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee said:

This policy is highly controversial and of interest to a wide range of interested parties. It has united communities from across the religious divide in Northern Ireland and they have expressed their considerable concern in submissions to the Committee. Given that, we believe that it was wrong not to hold a public consultation, especially when a consultation was conducted prior to a comparable policy change in England. A full public consultation can result in much improved policymaking and would also increase public confidence in a policy.

One of the consequences of the legislation is that there is no guarantee that parents will be able to withdraw children from sexuality education from the implementation date of 1 January 2024. We have therefore suggested that the House may wish to press the minister to delay the implementation date to provide an opportunity for a full public consultation.

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