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Thursday, 29 June 2017

Hammond announces Government will fund abortions in England for Northern Irish women

Written by Harriet Line, Richard Wheeler and Lizzy Buchan

The Government intends to fund abortions in England for women arriving from Northern Ireland, Chancellor Philip Hammond has said.

His announcement follows a proposed amendment to the Queen's Speech calling for the Government to ensure adequate funding to allow women from Northern Ireland to have abortions in England without being charged.

Mr Hammond said the issue of abortion was "a matter of great importance" and that the Minister for Women and Equalities would be making an announcement "by way of a letter to members of this House explaining that she intends to intervene to fund abortions in England for women arriving here from Northern Ireland".

He said he hoped the House would find it a "sensible way of dealing with this challenge".

Commons Speaker John Bercow confirmed he has selected the amendment to the Government's legislative programme, meaning MPs will have a chance to vote on it at the conclusion of the Queen's Speech debate.

The Government was under pressure to look at the issue after Labour MP Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) tabled the amendment, which has cross-party support.

Sir Peter Bottomley, who backed the amendment, asked Mr Hammond whether "only the poor" women of Northern Ireland "should be denied lawful abortions".

Mr Hammond said: "I know this is a matter of great importance to members on both sides of the House and an issue which I know my colleagues on the Treasury bench have been looking for a solution to.

"My understanding is that my Right Honourable Friend, the Minister for Women and Equalities, either has made, or is just about to make, an announcement by way of a letter to members of this House explaining that she intends to intervene to fund abortions in England for women arriving here from Northern Ireland."

Ms Creasy (pictured) wrote on Twitter after the announcement: "Woah - Chancellor just told house going 2 fund abortions 4 NI women in England. No detail as yet so asking for clarity.. #MyPledgeHerChoice".

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 (Glasgow Central), 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."

'Landmark moment' 

Charities have welcomed the Government's decision to fund abortions in England for women arriving from Northern Ireland as a "landmark moment".

Chancellor Philip Hammond made the announcement as pressure mounted on the Government and its wafer-thin majority, which is reliant on the support of the anti-abortion Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

The move looks to have seen off the threat of Tory MPs helping to pass an amendment by Labour's Stella Creasy to the Queen's Speech, which would have put the Northern Irish DUP in an awkward position in the final Commons vote on the Government's legislative programme.

Abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland except where the life or mental health of the mother is in danger.

Reacting to the news a spokeswoman from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas) said: "We are absolutely delighted that the Government has committed to funding abortion care for women who travel from Northern Ireland to England.

"This is a landmark moment: for years the women of Northern Ireland, despite being UK citizens and taxpayers, have not been entitled to NHS-funded treatment.

"Clearly this is not the solution to the gross injustice whereby women in Northern Ireland are denied access to abortion care at home, and we look forward to seeing progress on that front. Nevertheless this is an important moment, and we commend all those who have worked so hard to make this happen."

A spokesman for abortion provider Marie Stopes UK said: "Any action on the situation facing women seeking abortion in Northern Ireland is both welcome and long overdue. As UK taxpayers, women in Northern Ireland should be fully entitled to access NHS treatment free at the point of care, including abortion services.

"This is a hugely positive step forward, but there is no reason why these services shouldn't be provided in Northern Ireland, saving thousands of women each year the cost and stress of travelling to the mainland. Until that becomes reality, we look forward to working closely with Government to ensure women travelling from Northern Ireland receive the equitable NHS treatment they deserve."

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