Northern Irish Women Win Access to Have Free Abortions in England

Labour’s Stella Creasy, whose amendment on abortion was winning the support of Tory MPs.
Photograph: Linda Nylind/for the Guardian

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.

Ahead of the vote on Queen’s speech, the business secretary, Greg Clark, said the government had listened to the concerns, praising Creasy. “She has brought to the House an injustice – and we will put that injustice right,” he said. “We can be united in protecting the rights she correctly defends.”

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.

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SOURCE: The Guardian, Jessica Elgot and Henry McDonald