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British government to fund abortions for NI women

The Court of Appeal ruled that abortion laws should be decided by Stormont
Arj Singh and Sam Lister, Press Association Political Staff

The British government has announced it will fund abortions in England for women arriving from Northern Ireland in a concession to see off a bid to amend the Queen's Speech.

Ministers were facing a headache over an amendment tabled by Labour MP Stella Creasy, calling on the British government to provide funding so women from Northern Ireland can have abortions in England without having to pay.  

It had the formal backing of one Tory MP, Sir Peter Bottomley, while others expressed concerns over the issue, as abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland except where the life or mental health of the mother is in danger.

The British government's move, announced by Chancellor Philip Hammond in the House of Commons, will be expected to satisfy Tory MPs enough to ensure that Ms Creasy's amendment does not pass, or she withdraws it.

Reacting to the news, the Labour MP tweeted: "Sisters in Northern Ireland we will hear your voices - have asked for speedy meeting with govt to make this a reality!"

She added: "Thank you to MPs on all sides who supported call for change to help Northern Irish women have equal access to abortion."

The DUP did not respond to immediate requests for reaction, but the prospect of the amendment passing could have raised questions over its deal with the Tories to prop up the minority Government.

In that situation, the anti-abortion DUP would have been asked to vote for an amended Queen's Speech which would explicitly state that women from Northern Ireland could get free abortions in England.

Ms Creasy said: "The figure of £1,400 is what Northern Irish women were having to spend to get an abortion here in England and therefore it is welcome that the Government is now saying that they will correct this injustice.

"However, you will know, as everyone knows, the devil will be in the detail.

"So can I ask you if you will make a commitment on behalf of this Government to meet with myself and representatives of organisations like Marie Stopes and BPAS and the London Irish Abortion Campaign to look at how we can turn this into a reality so that those women in Northern Ireland today who have finally had their voices heard can use their services as soon as possible?"

Mr Hammond replied: "We will be funding her (Justine Greening's) department with additional funding so that she can make a grant to the external organisations who will provide these services.

"I think you will be satisfied when you have read the letter and understand the detail."

In a copy of the letter tweeted by SNP MP Alison Thewliss, Ms Greening wrote: "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.

"Following discussions with the Department of Health, we will ensure these payments will be funded through the Government Equalities Office with additional funding.

"This will mean no English health service user is disadvantaged as a result of this change."

She added: "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.

"None of this changes the fundamental position that this is a devolved issue in Northern Ireland. It is for the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly to decide on their policy going forward. This announcement does not change that position."

Ministers faced a headache over an amendment tabled by Labour MP Stella Creasy, calling on the Government to provide funding so women from Northern Ireland can have abortions in England without having to pay.

More than 50 MPs from major parties had backed the call.

The DUP, which is propping up the minority government after securing a £1 billion funding boost for Northern Ireland, oppose Ms Creasy's amendment.

If it had passed, it could have raise questions over the viability of the Tories' "confidence and supply" agreement with the DUP, which would then have to vote for a Queen's Speech amended on Ms Creasy's terms.

Earlier today Northern Ireland's Appeal Court said abortion reform should be left to Stormont's assembly.

It said the complex moral and religious questions behind the issue should be determined by a legislature rather than a court.

Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland, where abortions are illegal except where the life or mental health of the mother is in danger.

Anyone who performs an illegal termination could be jailed for life.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn is facing a potential rebellion from Labour MPs lining up to back an amendment tabled by former shadow cabinet minister Chuka Umunna on Brexit.

A total of 43 Labour MPs have formally signed up to Mr Umunna's amendment, which supports continued membership of the single market and customs union.

But Labour's official policy is to leave the single market in order to end the free movement of European Union citizens, while aiming to retain the "exact same benefits" of the trade bloc.

Mr Corbyn has ordered his MPs to abstain on Mr Umunna's amendment, raising the prospect of a rebellion which will expose Labour splits on Brexit.

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