Ministers deny shelving abortion reform to keep DUP happy as cross-party group of MPs hits out
Ministers have denied leaving Northern Ireland out of a key bill that could have paved the way for abortion reform for fear of upsetting the DUP.
Home Office minister Victoria Atkins insisted there had been “no change” to the Draft Domestic Violence Bill, which was published last week in a bid to improve the support available to victims of abuse and clamp down on perpetrators.
Labour MP Stella Creasy had hoped to amend the draft legislation to include reforms to Northern Ireland’s strict anti-abortion laws.
But it was reported over the weekend that the scope of the Bill was reined in at the 11th-hour to exclude Northern Ireland after an official spotted that it could upset the DUP, who Theresa May relies on for her parliamentary majority.
A Cabinet Office source told the Sunday Times: “A bright civil servant foresaw the potential for the legislation to cause problems for the DUP.”
Demanding answers in an Urgent Question in the Commons today, Ms Creasy said ministers had “drafted this bill not with the victims of domestic violence in mind, but their partners in the coalition”.
The Walthamstow MP said: “This bill shows the human consequences for women across the UK of the confidence and supply agreement. I know members across this House want to see action on domestic violence. And I know that those restrictions in Northern Ireland will trouble many. But not just the women in our constituencies - across the whole UK.”
Urging Home Office minister Victoria Atkins to “go back to the drawing board”, Ms Creasy added: “Minister: fight us fair and square on abortion rights in this place. Not through backroom deals and bargaining.
"Unless it will take a rape victim having to come to court to make this government do the right thing and not block this change, put DV [Domestic Violence], not the DUP, first."
The move also draw sharp criticism from the Governmment’s own side, with Tory MP Anna Soubry saying she “very much” shared Ms Creasy’s concerns about the new law.
“I’m gravely concerned that this is in effect a way of stopping what should be happening which is a fundamental reform of the laws in Northern Ireland so that women in Northern Ireland have exactly the same rights as women in my constituency,” the Broxtowe MP said.
But Ms Atkins insisted that the “landmark” bill had not been trimmed to keep the DUP onside.
“Contrary to the suggestion there may in the Honourable Member’s question, there has been no change in the territorial application of the bill compared with the proposals in the Government's consultation published last spring,” she said.
“This was made clear in the consultation paper and reflects the fact that the subject matter of the draft bill is devolved in Scotland and Northern Ireland.”
Ms Atkins said she was currently in talks with both the Northern Ireland Department of Justice and the Scottish Government about whether or not they wanted to adopt any of the provisions in the bill.
Northern Ireland has been without a functioning assembly for more than two years after a power-sharing agreement in the region broke down amid a major scandal over a botched energy scheme.
However, Labour MP Diana Johnson accused the minister of using “the problem of there being no assembly in Northern Ireland” to avoid acting “on the breach of women’s human rights in Northern Ireland which we have debated at length in this chamber”.
The row marks the latest phase in a long-running Westminster battle over the right of women in Northern Ireland to seek an abortion.
Late last year five ministers - including Ms Atkins - threw their weight behind a symbolic backbench bid to overhaul a law criminalising abortion in Northern Ireland that has been on the statute book since 1861.
But Downing Street has repeatedly stressed that abortion in Northern Ireland is a matter for the Stormont Assembly when it returns.