- Ministers announce funding for NI women to have abortions in England, in attempt to head off Tory revolt in Queen’s speech vote
A decades-long struggle to give Northern Irish women access to terminations on the NHS in mainland Britain was unexpectedly won in the space of 24 hours on Thursday, as the UK government dramatically changed its policy in an attempt to head off a damaging Tory rebellion on the Queen’s speech.
Dozens of Conservative MPs were understood to have expressed to Tory whips their support for an amendment by the Labour MP Stella Creasy to allow Northern Irish women access to NHS-funded abortions in Great Britain.
Women from Northern Ireland are currently charged about £900 for a termination if they travel to have the procedure in mainland Britain, a policy upheld by a supreme court case earlier this month. Northern Ireland has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe and it is almost impossible for a women to have a safe, legal abortion there.
|Stella Creasy speaks after happily withdrawing her amendment|
In the end, no government defeat was necessary. Creasy withdrew her amendment, claiming victory. “I’m delighted at today’s announcement and satisfied by the commitments she has given,” Creasy said, as education secretary and equalities minister Justine Greening looked on, smiling. “Let us send a message to women everywhere that in this parliament their voices will be heard and their rights upheld,” she said, to cheers from both sides.
The Department of Health had previously defended its policy not to fund abortions for Northern Irish women in England, arguing in court that to do so would undermine Stormont.
However, the mood suddenly shifted in Westminster almost overnight when the case and Creasy’s subsequent amendment caught MPs’ attention. The result was a full capitulation from the government over the course of the morning, after Creasy’s amendment was selected by the Speaker for a vote, the first illustration of the new power of motivated backbench MPs in the hung parliament.
MPs from across the parties had begun to express concern last week that the deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists might implicitly tie the government’s hands against a future change.
One by one in Queen’s speech debates over the past week, influential Conservative MPs stood up to back a change of direction, including former cabinet ministers Nicky Morgan and Maria Miller and former minister Anna Soubry. In answers to questions from MPs, both home secretary Amber Rudd and leader of the House Andrea Leadsom gave strong hints that they wanted to see the policy reversed.
Other Tory backbenchers were also publicly supportive. Sir Peter Bottomley signed Creasy’s amendment and Dan Poulter signed a letter to Hunt. Many more spoke to their whips, urging a change of heart.
In a letter to MPs on Thursday outlining the new funding for abortion provision, Greening hinted she had personal sympathy with the issue. She wrote: “As minister for women and equalities, I share the concerns of many colleagues about the experience of women from Northern Ireland obtaining an abortion through the NHS in England.”
She added: “At present, women from Northern Ireland are asked for payment, and from now on it is our proposal that this will no longer happen. This is clearly a sensitive issue and one which has direct implications for equality in treatment of women from Northern Ireland.”
“Funding for the services will be made available through the government Equalities Office, allowing the Department of Health to commission services in England for those from Northern Ireland. The supreme court judgment made clear that we have the power to make these arrangements. The government’s position continues to be that we want to see safe abortion services provided for women who may need them – within the bounds of the law.”
On Thursday morning, Leadsom had signalled that a concession was imminent. The leader of the house said she was pro-choice, calling the abortion funding “an incredibly sensitive and important” issue. “To be very clear, it is my personal view that every woman should have the right to decide what happens to her own body. That is very clear,” she said.
In the debate the previous day, Rudd told Soubry the government was “absolutely committed to healthcare for women, and that includes access to terminations”.
Conservative MPs who sympathised with the amendment faced a dilemma, as many would have been unwilling to vote for an opposition Queen’s speech amendment that would signal no confidence in the government.
Creasy’s amendment had signed by more than 100 MPs across the House of Commons , including the Conservative MP Peter Bottomley, Liberal Democrats, Scottish National party MPs and the Green party co-leader Caroline Lucas.
The selection of the amendment by the Speaker for the vote in the Commons on Thursday evening and the real prospect of a damaging defeat at an already febrile time for the government forced drastic action. Greening’s department took charge, in negotiations with Jeremy Hunt at the Department of Health. Hunt has historically favoured tighter restrictions on abortions, previously suggesting the legal time limit be halved from 24 to 12 weeks.
Though DUP MPs were planning to vote against the amendment, privately the Guardian understands MPs did not make it an issue in confidence-and-supply talks with Downing Street. In a pointed intervention on Wednesday during the Queen’s speech debate, the DUP MP Ian Paisley Jr said: “I think it is important the house recognises this is not a matter for Belfast. This is a matter for NHS England.”
A Downing Street spokeswoman said change would cost an estimated £1m a year, based on numbers of women travelling for abortions in previous years. The government was committed to funding the excess if demand increased, a spokesman said.
Asked if the government was simply trying to avoid a defeat on Creasy’s amendment, the spokeswoman said: “Justine Greening has set out the reasons behind this. The ministers had concerns about the issue, it’s why we’re taking action. The supreme court ruling provided important clarity and now the decision has been made to do something about it.”
Campaigners in Northern Ireland have welcomed the decision, but warned that poorer women will still be disadvantaged because of the costs of travelling to the British mainland.
“It isn’t our intention at the moment to cover travel costs,” a Downing Street spokesman said.
Mara Clarke, director of the Abortion Support Network, which offers financial assistance to women in need of abortions said: “This is an incredible step forward. Anyone travelling for an abortion will save a minimum of £330, thanks to today’s announcement. However, they will still have to pay for flights and accommodation, childcare and time off work.
“And there will always be women who cannot travel. Women who don’t have someone who can watch existing children, or women made pregnant by controlling or violent partners. And no one should have to travel. We rejoice today – but the work will still be here tomorrow.”
The stark gap between abortion rights in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the UK was underlined by the decision the same day by three appeal court judges in Belfast ruling against a change the law in Northern Ireland to allow for abortion in cases where a woman is pregnant through rape or where the pregnancy is doomed due to fatal foetal abnormality.
The court said abortion reform should be left to the Stormont assembly, as it ruled that the law was compatible with existing provision. It said the complex moral and religious questions behind the issue should be determined by a legislature rather than a court.
The judgment overturns a previous one by Mr Justice Horner, who ruled 18 months ago that the ban on abortion in cases of rape and fatal foetal abnormality was incompatible with the European convention on human rights.