Gay blood ban: Edwin Poots responds to claims he broke ministerial code

Edwin Poots said the decision now lies with UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt

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The health minister has said that if he broke the ministerial code over a ban on gay men giving blood in Northern Ireland, he did it "unwittingly".

On Friday, Belfast High Court ruled Edwin Poots did not have the power to retain a lifetime ban.

The judge also ruled he had breached Stormont's ministerial code by failing to take the issue before the Executive.

Mr Poots said the retention of the lifetime ban in NI was based on sexual behaviour and not sexual orientation.

"My priority as health minister is the safety of blood, continuity in the supply of safe blood and public confidence in the safety of blood," he added.

The Northern Ireland Executive's ministerial code sets out the rules the Stormont politicians are meant to follow.

The code dates back to 1998 - the year of the Good Friday Agreement - but was amended, supposedly to eliminate loopholes, after the St Andrews' talks in 2006.

While some aspects of the code refer to a politician's commitment to "non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means" - clearly a primary concern in the wake of the peace negotiations - other aspects deal with broad principles on public life like openness and integrity, and how ministers deal with each other.

The aspect of the code that High Court Judge Seamus Treacy ruled Health Minister Edwin Poots has broken is a section that requires any controversial or "cross cutting" decision to be referred to the Executive for its general approval.

Paragraph 2.4 of the Code says any matter that cuts across the responsibilities of two or more Stormont ministers should be referred in this way. The judge regarded banning gay men donating blood as both controversial and cross cutting, given that it touches upon equality issues.

In practical terms, breaching the Stormont ministerial code means little unless a politician has lost the confidence of either their party leader or a cross community majority of the assembly.

If that happens then a minister can be removed from office. But neither condition applies in the case of Edwin Poots.

The DUP minister said the judge had found it was unlikely there was bias on his part and the lifetime ban was now a matter for Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

Mr Poots was responding to an urgent question raised in the assembly by Kieran McCarthy of the Alliance Party, who called on the minster to apologise and lift the ban.

The UK ban on gay men donating blood was put in place during the 1980s.

However, in November 2011 it was lifted in England, Scotland and Wales and replaced by new rules that allow blood from men whose last sexual contact with another man was more than a year ago.

Mr Poots maintained the ban in Northern Ireland on the basis of "ensuring public safety", but after a gay man brought a judicial review challenge, a High Court judge held on Friday that the decision to continue the lifetime ban was "irrational".

On Monday, Mr Poots told the Northern Ireland Assembly Assembly: "It is a matter for the department of health in England to decide what it wants to do next."

"The judge believes it is a decision for Jeremy Hunt. Jeremy Hunt didn't believe it was, but obviously the judge is contradicting the department of health in England and it's a matter for the department of health to take whatever action it believes it should."

His party colleague, First Minister Peter Robinson, said the ruling had ramifications for the Stormont Executive and for the department of health in London.

Constitutionality

The DUP leader said there was a question over the constitutionality of his party colleague's decision that would have to be examined.

Start Quote

Peter Robinson speaking in the assembly

If every single issue is brought to the Executive then there is no minister in this house who would be able to take a decision on their own”

End Quote Peter Robinson First minister

However, he cautioned against the suggestion that all decisions should go before the Executive.

In answer to a question from Sinn Féin's Ian Milne about the judge's ruling that Mr Poots had breached the ministerial code by failing to take the issue before the Stormont Executive, Mr Robinson said there would be major difficulties in having every decision brought to them.

He said it was important that major decisions came before the Executive but said no minister had asked for the blood ban to be discussed.

When pressed again by Mr Milne if he accepted and agreed with the ruling, Mr Robinson jokingly said: "Are you trying to get me into trouble?"

The first minister added: "I think those are obviously matters that can be considered by those from a legal background.

"If a department does not agree with it, then it can appeal that judgement.

"In terms of the ministerial code, I had been more content and felt that the Lord Chief Justice's ruling on that matter was a sensible judgement in that he indicated if there was a controversial or significant matter then it would be raised at the Executive committee.

"That meant that only if you like the 'nuclear issues' would start coming to the Executive rather than every single issue.

"Because if every single issue is brought to the Executive then there is no minister in this house who would be able to take a decision on their own - they're all going to have to come through the Executive committee.

"So before people start cheering to the rafters about this issue they should think about the ramifications of the judgement."

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