The operators of Northern Ireland's first private abortion clinic are to register with UK health regulators in a bid to increase public confidence in their services.

Representatives of Marie Stopes International told a Stormont committee it had voluntarily worked with the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA)

It is working with RQIA to establish a means by which its care provision could be assessed independently.

The organisation's UK director, Tracey McNeill, and other staff, including the Belfast clinic's director Dawn Purvis, were at Parliament Buildings.

The group were in Stormont in an effort to assure committee members that it was operating within the strict abortion law in Northern Ireland.

Despite repeated questioning from MLAs, Ms McNeill declined to reveal how many, if any, abortions had been carried out in the clinic since it opened last year.

She declined to comment citing the importance of patient confidentiality.

However, the delegation from the clinic did reveal that abortions had been refused.

Ms McNeill claimed: "The numbers of women we treat I think is largely irrelevant." 

She continued: "What's really important is the numbers we are treating are going to be very, very low.

"I think what is important and why we are here today is to answer questions about do we meet the legal criteria for those women that we do treat and we know it's going to be very, very small numbers because of the criteria."

Legal abortions in Northern Ireland can only be carried out if there is an immediate risk to the woman's life.

The other ground is if it can be established that having the baby would have a serious impact on a mother's long-term physical or mental health.

During an at times charged two-hour evidence session in the Senate Chamber, Ms Purvis told committee members that a factor in locating the centre on Great Victoria Street in Belfast was to make it accessible to clients travelling from the Republic of Ireland.

"The location of the centre was something that was paramount when I was looking at sites in Belfast because, yes, I was thinking of clients from all over the island coming to avail of our services and I wanted to assure there were good transport routes," she said.

On the issue of the RQIA, Ms McNeill said: "It has been, it always will be, without question, our goal to work with the RQIA in order to become regulated by that body to ensure that politicians and, importantly, the public can have confidence that our centre and our services provide the highest quality and standards of care within the law as it currently exists.

"And I am pleased to announce to this committee today that we have found a way forward with the RQIA and we have submitted an application for registration recently."

During heated exchanges, the clinic's imminent link-up with the regulators was met with scepticism by some MLAs, who claimed the body could only assess standards and not whether abortions were being approved within the legal criteria.

The DUP's Jim Wells said the RQIA had no role in the "interpretation, implementation or sanctioning" of the law on the termination of pregnancies.

Ms McNeill replied: "They have a role in terms of ensuring that a healthcare facility operates in a professional and clinically approved way, that it has the proper governance and audit arrangements in place and that healthcare professionals employed are qualified and suitably trained to make those judgments about anybody's health."

But Mr Wells insisted: "You could carry out an illegal abortion in that clinic and still tick all of those boxes, because that's not the RQIA's role."

The UK director insisted that would not happen.

"The role of us today is to try and assure both yourselves and the public that we are categorically working within the law and we are working with those statutory authorities that we are required to."