A United Nations committee has recommended that a referendum be held on abortion in Ireland.

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights also urged the Government to adopt guidelines to clarify what constitutes a real substantive risk to the life of a pregnant woman.

Today's recommendations follow the committee's review earlier this month in Geneva of Ireland's compliance with the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

It criticises the Government for resisting earlier recommendations to incorporate the covenant into domestic law.

The Irish Family Planning Association has said there is an obligation on the Government to respond to the UN in respect of Ireland's abortion laws.

CEO of the IFPA Niall Behan said: "The strength and clarity of the UN committee's report leaves absolutely no doubt that a realistic response is needed on abortion access in Ireland.

"It is now incumbent on the Government to respond in a considered way to what the Committee has recommended to the State."

Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland Colm O'Gorman said: "We hope and expect the Government will accept this call.

"As Ireland gears up for a general election, all political parties should include solid commitments to holding a referendum to repeal the 8th amendment in their pre-election manifestos."

Meanwhile, the Pro Life Campaign has accused the UN committee of continuing to demonstrate that it is "incredibly biased on abortion".

In a statement it said the committee's recommendation that abortion laws should be liberalised shows no consideration for the rights of unborn babies throughout the full nine months of pregnancy.

The PLC's Deputy Chairperson Cora Sherlock accused the committee of continuing to ignore what it said was the well-documented cases of babies being born alive and left to die after botched abortions.

Committee says austerity policies must be 'temporary'

The UN committee also said austerity policies in Ireland must be temporary, must not increase inequalities and must include tax measures to ensure the rights of the disadvantaged and marginalised are not disproportionately affected.

It also urged the Government to consider introducing legislation to stabilise domestic rents and increase levels of Rent Supplement.

It recommends the Government cancel cuts on social benefit programmes for people with disabilities.

The committee calls for improvements of conditions in Direct Provision centres for asylum-seekers, by means of regular inspections and making their private operators accountable for their actions and omissions.

The committee also recommends that the Government take immediate measures to separate child patients from adults in psychiatric facilities.

To ensure quality health services, it calls for the Health Information and Quality Authority to be strengthened and for HIQA to "take effective measures without delay to reduce the disparity in health" status between Travellers and Roma and the general public.

It expresses concern at discrimination against migrant children and those belonging to religious minorities, criticising the Equal Status Acts for allowing schools to give preference, based on religion, to students applying to enrol.

The committee calls for a review of all schools' admissions policies with a view to removing all discriminatory criteria for enrolment and the establishment of a regulatory mechanism to monitor school policies, including admissions policies.

It recommends that the Government revoke the austerity measures which affect disproportionately disadvantaged children.

It expresses concern at the lack of free legal aid services, for people aggrieved in the areas of employment, housing and forced evictions, and social welfare benefits.

It recommends the Government expand the remit of the Civil Legal Aid Scheme.

The committee also recommends that the Government clarify the eligibility criteria for social welfare benefits and how they are applied so as to avoid a large number of appeals.

It urges that initial decisions on social welfare appeals be "made in a consistent and transparent manner and that appropriate training be provided to the public officers who make such decisions".

It also calls on the Government to intensify its efforts to expand broadband internet access to rural areas.

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties has called on the Government to heed the committee's expert conclusions and to immediately take targeted steps towards implementing the recommendations made.

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission endorsed the recommendations of the UN committee.

Chief Commissioner Emily Logan said: "The Commission welcomes the strong message in the Committee's recommendations that austerity measures should be gradually phased out and revenues to public services restored to pre-crisis levels."

Pavee Point said the observations "highlight the State's ongoing failure to protect and respect Traveller and Roma rights in Ireland". 

The Free Legal Advice Centres welcomed the committee's expression of grave concerns at the consequences of austerity measures.