Stormont proposals on abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities will be published early in the new year, the health minister has said.

Northern Ireland’s health minister Michelle O'Neill was responding to criticism on the length of time the executive has taken to formally respond to a review of the controversial issue by an expert working group.

The group, which was set up by former DUP health minister Simon Hamilton, handed its report to Ms O'Neill and Justice Minister Claire Sugden on 11 October.

The ministers subsequently passed the report to First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

The ministers are considering whether legislation should be changed to permit abortion when doctors have diagnosed that babies will not survive outside the womb.

Ms O'Neill told the Assembly: "The justice minister and I will continue to work closely on the matter and we hope to bring forward proposals early in the new year."

Last year, a High Court judge in Belfast ruled that the ban on terminations in instances of sexual crime or fatal foetal abnormalities were incompatible with international human rights laws.

Attorney General John Larkin and Stormont's Department of Justice appealed against that ruling. Judges are considering arguments made during the appeal hearing.

Mr Hamilton announced the working group in February. One of the issues it was to examine was whether legislative changes were required.

Critics accused Mr Hamilton of long fingering the issue beyond May's Assembly election so his party could avoid a pre-poll controversy on the divisive issue.

During Assembly question time, Ulster Unionist MLA Steve Aiken questioned the length of time it has taken to publish the report.

He claimed public confidence in the exercise was "rapidly waning".

"Many people are now calling out the establishment of this working group for what it was - a political whitewash that provided a convenient escape for the DUP when they needed one," he said.

Ms O'Neill insisted the work carried out by the expert group had been "invaluable".