Theresa May urged to give Tory MPs free vote on scrapping abortion charges for Northern Irish women coming to Britain

Conservative MPs are expected to be whipped to vote against free terminations – despite abortion issues being a 'matter of conscience'

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Tuesday 27 June 2017 17:18
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Pro-choice supporters protesting against the abortion ban in Northern Ireland
Pro-choice supporters protesting against the abortion ban in Northern Ireland

Theresa May is being challenged to give Conservative MPs a free vote on scrapping charges for Northern Irish women forced to travel to Britain for an abortion.

Scores of MPs will try to secure free NHS terminations for many hundreds of women who make the journey every year – typically paying £1,400 for a private operation – in a showdown vote expected on Thursday.

The bid comes amid growing pressure on the Government to act, after the Supreme Court ruled that Northern Irish women are not entitled to receive free abortions in England.

Many Conservative MPs are believed to be sympathetic to a change in the law, after two justices said the current situation, nonetheless, breaches women’s rights.

However, since the ruling, Ms May has signed a deal for the anti-abortion Democratic Unionist Party to prop her up in power.

In the Commons, Damian Green, the First Secretary of State, claimed the issue of abortion charges for Northern Irish women was “devolved to Northern Ireland”.

That raised suspicions that Tory MPs will be whipped to vote against the amendment – despite abortion issues normally being considered a “matter of conscience”, giving MPs a free vote.

Stella Creasy, the Labour MP who has tabled it, told The Independent: “This is not about what’s happening in Northern Ireland – it’s about what’s happening in our hospitals, on our doorsteps.

“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.

“The Government is wrong to say this is a devolved matter, because Jeremy Hunt, as the Health Secretary, has the right to refuse or allow that access.”

Ms Creasy pointed out that MPs were normally given free votes on all abortion matters, adding: “Will the Conservatives allow that to happen this time?”

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service has spoken of its optimism that Tory MPs want change, after the situation of women in Northern Ireland was put in the spotlight.

“It has brought the issue to the fore and we know that many Conservative MPs are very much on board in principle with this change in the law,” said Claire Murphy, a spokeswoman.

The Conservatives refused to set out its policy for the vote, telling The Independent: “We don’t go into whipping arrangements.”

The Speaker, John Bercow, is expected to select the amendment as part of the debate on the Queen’s Speech, because it has support from MPs of all parties.

Among the signatories is the Conservative MP Sir Peter Bottomley, who said he believed the signing of the DUP deal could push the Government to act on abortion charges.

“I think they are more likely to say yes to this change, which is a matter for England, to show they are not influenced by the deal on matters like this,” he said.

Ms Creasy said official figures showed 726 women from Northern Ireland had a termination in Britain last year – but the true figure was higher, because others gave a false address on this side of the Irish Sea.

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