Campaigners pushing for reform of Northern Ireland’s abortion and marriage laws have hailed an “historic day” after MPs approved moves to better monitor equal rights compliance.
Labour MP Stella Creasy’s amendment to emergency legislation linked to the Province’s power-sharing crisis was approved by 207 votes to 117 – majority 90 – following a debate in the Commons.
The Walthamstow MP’s latest proposal does not end Northern Ireland’s abortion ban nor end the ban on same-sex marriage, instead focusing on issuing guidance to increase accountability of the Northern Ireland secretary and senior officers of Northern Ireland departments over their role in ensuring human rights compliance.
While the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill is designed to partly address the governance vacuum created by the collapse of power-sharing, and provide breathing space for the Province’s rowing politicians to resume negotiations, Ms Creasy and Labour colleague Conor McGinn wanted to use it as a vehicle to deliver wider social change.
The move was opposed by the DUP, while Tory MP Anne Main (St Albans) criticised attempts to “bolt-on abortion legislation” within the bill.
Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley voiced concern over amending the bill and noted it enables civil servants to act within the law “as it stands today”, but does not give them the ability to change the law.
Tory MPs were given a free vote on the amendment.
Following the vote, Green MP Caroline Lucas wrote on Twitter: “Congratulations to all involved – this is an historic day for equal rights across the UK.”
Katherine O’Brien, head of policy research at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (Bpas), added: “It represents an important step forward in the cross-party effort to ensure that the women of Northern Ireland have their basic rights monitored and upheld.”
Richard Bentley, Marie Stopes UK’s managing director, said: “We are heartened by this show of solidarity with the people of Northern Ireland. For too long they have been treated as second-class citizens, with women and girls denied healthcare in breach of their human rights.”
During debate of the Bill, Ms Creasy urged MPs to stop the rights of Northern Irish people being used as a “political football”.
She said 28 women a week are travelling to England and Wales for abortions – which the Supreme Court has called “cruel and degrading” – and 84 same-sex couples had a civil partnership because they could not marry.
Ms Creasy said: “That’s the very human impact of these very ancient pieces of legislation that we crafted in this place.
“People in Northern Ireland need to hear that their lives are not going to be the casualty of the chaos we’re seeing right now in Northern Ireland.”
Conservative former minister Anna Soubry called the current ban on abortion “barbaric and antiquated”, and gave a graphic description of what women in Northern Ireland have to go through because they are unable to terminate pregnancies.
She told MPs she had met a woman whose third IVF treatment had resulted in pregnancy but she was then diagnosed with foetal abnormality syndrome in the 23rd week – too late to travel to England for an abortion.
“She carried that child for 11 weeks and then her baby did die in her womb,” she said.
“She carried a dead baby in her womb for three days before finally she was induced and she gave birth to a baby girl who was decomposing.
“That is the situation that parents in Northern Ireland are left in.”
Conservative Fiona Bruce (Congleton) opposed the proposal and said it has the “potential to undermine devolution”.
The DUP’s Sir Jeffrey Donaldson also said the amendment interferes with the devolution settlement, noting: “I take with some degree of concern this notion that what is proposed is really not about interfering with the devolution settlement. I fear that it does.”
The legislation will give civil servants greater clarity over what decisions they can take in the ongoing absence of ministers; enable UK government ministers to make a number of stalled public appointments; and remove a standing obligation on Mrs Bradley to call another snap Assembly election.
The bill later received a third reading and will undergo further scrutiny in the Lords.