The fragility of the minority Westminster government has been exposed after it was forced in to a major concession on the funding of abortions for women from Northern Ireland to avoid defeat on the Queen’s Speech.
Hundreds of women from Northern Ireland who come to England seeking terminations will no longer be asked to pay after equalities minister Justine Greening wrote to MPs saying additional funding would be made available.
The government had been facing an embarrassing defeat after the Commons Speaker selected an amendment to the Queen’s Speech from Labour MP Stella Creasy, which called for Northern Irish women be given access to abortions in England on an equal basis, free of charge.
Ministers were forced to accept what was the first backbench amendment of the parliament after it won significant support from Conservative MPs, as well as across the opposition benches.
Ms Creasy – who did not press for a vote on her amendment to the Queen’s Speech after getting assurances on the issue from the government – said the move would “send a message to women everywhere that in this parliament, their voices will be heard and their rights upheld”.
The Queen’s Speech, which sets out the government’s legislative plans for the next two years, was passed unamended by 323 votes to 309.
The 1967 Abortion Act, which established legal abortion, has never applied in Northern Ireland. Abortions are only allowed there if a woman’s life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious risk to her physical or mental health. Rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities are not covered.
The issue was an awkward one for ministers because the Tory minority government needs support from ten MPs from the Democratic Unionist Party, which opposes the relaxation of abortion laws in Northern Ireland.
The DUP said in a statement afterwards that the vote was a funding issue for NHS England and therefore an internal matter for the UK government.
In 2015, 833 women from Northern Ireland had private terminations in England and Wales, paying an average of £1,400 for the procedure. Many also travel to Scotland.
In a discrimination case involving a 15-year-old girl dating back to 2012, the Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that the UK government was not legally obliged to pay for terminations on the NHS for women from Northern Ireland.
The Scottish Government said it would “set out shortly” how it plans to ensure Northern Irish women are able to access abortions in Scotland “free from stigma”. Last year Nicola Sturgeon told MSPs she wanted Northern Irish women to be able to get abortions on the NHS in Scotland free of charge.
Liberal Democrat deputy leader and East Dunbartonshire MP Jo Swinson said: “I’m glad that Justine Greening has acted on this issue, but it is embarrassing that the health secretary had done nothing on this so far and only the threat of a defeat prompted change.
“Women deserve better than having their rights reliant on House of Commons arithmetic.”
Two other amendments brought forward were narrowly defeated by the government, one of them from the Labour Party to deliver a Brexit that prioritises jobs and delivers the “exact same benefits” of the European single market and customs union.
In what was a major rebellion against Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, 49 Labour MPs backed another amendment brought by Chuka Umunna calling for the UK to stay in the European single market and customs union after Brexit.
Labour MPs had been under orders to abstain on the measure, as party policy on Brexit is to end to the free movement of people from the EU and leave the single market. Three Labour frontbenchers were sacked last night and another resigned for supporting the amendment.
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said Mr Corbyn had “utterly betrayed” Remain voters who backed Labour.
Debate on the Queen’s Speech saw the Tories’ £1 billion deal with the DUP criticised by one of the party’s own backbenchers. Heidi Allen told the Commons: “I can barely put into words my anger.”
She said the Tories should have pushed ahead as a minority government without an agreement to secure the support of the ten DUP MPs, expressing her “distaste” for using taxpayers’ funds to “garner political control”.