DUP aid Tory allies in first crunch vote

The stance of the DUP's MPs (seated on their benches) on abortion was questioned by a number of MPs
The stance of the DUP's MPs (seated on their benches) on abortion was questioned by a number of MPs

Theresa May’s minority Government has survived its first test of the new Parliament by defeating a Labour amendment to the Queen’s Speech – with the help of their new DUP allies.

Labour had called for an end to the public sector pay cap, the recruitment of extra police and firefighters, and more.

But the Conservatives, with the support from all the DUP’s 10 MPs, saw off the Labour proposal by 323 votes to 309 on Wednesday – a majority of 14.

Northern Ireland was mentioned a number of times during the debate – with the issue of its abortion laws getting particular mention, leading health secretary Jeremy Hunt to declare that Northern Irish women, like those elsewhere in the UK, “should have the rights to access healthcare” .

The Commons vote was the first in Parliament since the general election, which saw Prime Minister Mrs May lose her majority after gains by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour.

Independent Lady Hermon, who represents the Northern Ireland constituency of North Down, voted in favour of Labour’s amendment.

It followed a day of confusion over the Government’s approach to the public sector pay cap, with a senior Downing Street source initially signalling that ministers were ready to review the 1% limit on pay rises.

But Mrs May’s official spokesman later played down the suggestions, insisting the “policy has not changed”.

As the Queen’s Speech debate entered day five, senior Tories voiced their desire for change.

Among them was Sarah Wollaston, who chaired the Health Select Committee in the last parliament, who warned the pay cap has had a “significant impact on morale” in the health service and said it is time to “think again”.

Health secretary Mr Hunt said: “Whichever party is in power, you have to do the right thing for the economy.

“People will recognise that in the very difficult period we’ve just had, it would not have been possible to increase the number of doctors by nearly 12,000 and the number of nurses in our wards by nearly 13,000 if we hadn’t taken difficult decisions on pay.”

He said the government will listen to MPs before making any final decision on public sector pay.

During the debate Mr Hunt said women across all of the UK have the right to health after being asked about Northern Irish women’s access to abortion.

He added that a consultation on the issue is due to start shortly amid pressure from MPs to scrap charges for women from Northern Ireland who receive abortions in other parts of the UK.

The law on abortion is stricter in Northern Ireland than the rest of the UK, with abortion being allowed only if the there is risk to the mother’s mental or physical health.

Ex-shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper challenged Mr Hunt to end the NHS charges.

There were only a handful of DUP contributions in the evening’s debate, but one of them was from Ian Paisley, who said at one point that “it is important for the house to recognise that this is not a matter for Belfast; it is a matter for NHS England”.

Speaking at the conclusion of the Queen’s Speech debate, Mr Hunt said: “I agree that all women in all parts of the United Kingdom should have the rights to access healthcare.

“I note there is a consultation on this matter about to happen, and I think the most important thing is that the voices of the women of Northern Ireland are listened to in that consultation.”

Earlier on, Conservative MP Helen Whately (Faversham and Mid Kent) said she differed from the DUP’s “official party position issues of equality and women’s rights” – though she praised the party’s responsible attitude in supporting the Tory Government.

Former shadow minister John Woodcock, meanwhile, raised fears the DUP may try to water down the Government’s proposed bill on tackling domestic violence.

The Labour MP said that “when you have a majority which is propped up by another party that does not share the culture and the world view of many of the members opposite – whose views I respect on issues... like women’s rights – you do have to wonder whether there is actually some nervousness over what will be the definition of abuse”.