Government U-turns on NHS abortions for Northern Ireland women

The Government is heading off a possible defeat on the issue at the hands of Labour

Jon Stone,Rob Merrick
Thursday 29 June 2017 14:58
Philip Hammond indicates NHS will fund abortions for Northern Irish women

The English NHS will provide free abortions for women visiting from Northern Ireland, the Government has announced.

Chancellor Philip Hammond announced the policy change in the House of Commons after Labour proposed an amendment to the Queen's Speech that would have forced the change.

The amendment, proposed by MP Stella Creasy, was picked for a vote later today – and was expected to be backed by some Tory backbenchers.

Many hundreds of Northern Irish women make the journey across the Irish Sea to Great Britain to have abortions because of the province's restrictive laws.

There, terminations are illegal in almost all cases, even when a woman has been impregnated through rape or incest.

The forced move is likely to annoy the Conservatives' newfound allies in the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), who are staunchly anti-abortion on religious grounds.

But the Tories minority government status means that even with DUP votes the Government is vulnerable to rebellions by just seven of its own MPs if opposition parties gang up against it.

The latest episode could be a prelude of the difficulties that Conservative whips will face passing legislation in the coming parliament – a hurdle reflected in last week's threadbare Queen's Speech, which was stripped of most major Tory manifesto promises.

More than 100 MPs backed the amendment tabled by Ms Creasy demanding that Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, acts.

UK taxpayers are currently being denied access to abortion services in England and Wales, which is a matter for English and Welsh MPs to decide,” Ms Creasy told The Independent.

Women from Northern Ireland – where abortion is illegal, except in very rare circumstances – typically pay £1,400 for a private termination in England, Scotland or Wales.

Official figures show 726 Northern Irish women paid for the operation last year, but the true figure is thought to be higher, because others gave a false address on this side of the Irish Sea.

Equalities Secretary Justine Greening said this afternoon that the move would be funded from the Government Equalities Office so that "no English health service user is disadvantaged as a result of the change".

The Health Secretary had previously said a “consultation” about scrapping the charges was underway but there was confusion after Department of Health officials played down Mr Hunt’s claimed.

In the Commons, former Conservative Cabinet minister Maria Miller signalled her support for the amendment when she labelled the current access to abortion in Northern Ireland as “wrong”.

“The High Court has ruled this law contravenes human rights law - which is a responsibility of the UK Government, not a devolved matter,” Ms Miller said.

In reply, Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom said it was “an incredibly sensitive and important issue” which the Government was “discussing and looking very closely at”.

The Chancellor announced the change in the House of Commons on Thursday afternoon

Under the terms of confidence and supply agreement, the DUP must vote in favour of the Queen's Speech, even if abortion amendment is passed.

However, it does not appear to be a deal breaker for the Northern Ireland party. One of its MPs, Ian Paisley Jnr, agreed whether to provide free terminations was a matter for Westminster.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that Northern Irish women are not entitled to receive free abortions in England.

However, two of the justices said the current situation, nonetheless, breaches women’s rights – piling pressure on the Government to act.

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