Jeremy Hunt has no evidence for his abortion stance

Health Secretary says 24-week limit should be halved to 12 weeks. But where's his evidence?

Jeremy Hunt appears intent on proving as controversial in his new job as he did in his old one. In his first newspaper interview since becoming Health Secretary, Hunt declares his support for halving the legal time limit for women to have abortions, from 24 weeks to 12. He tells the Times (£):

I'm not someone who thinks that abortion should be made illegal. Everyone looks at the evidence and comes to a view about when that moment is and my own view is that 12 weeks is the right point for it.

It’s just my view about that incredibly difficult question about the moment that we should deem life to start. I don’t think the reason I have that view is for religious reasons.

Hunt voted in favour of a 12-week limit in 2008, so this isn't the first time he's expressed his views on the subject, but his promotion to Health Secretary means they have taken on a new significance. Downing Street has emphasised that Hunt was expressing a personal view and that it has no plans to change the current law, something that would require a free vote by MPs. But at the very least, Hunt's status as Health Secretary affords him a powerful platform to argue for a lower limit and, upsetting the Tories' pre-conference preparations, he has chosen to do so.

In response, health professionals have warned that a 12-week limit would effectively end testing for conditions such as Down’s syndrome and force women into having terminations before they are ready. Just eight per cent of abortions currently take place after 12 weeks.  Kate Guthrie, spokeswoman for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, told the Times:

If everybody had to have abortions by 12 weeks, my worry would be that women would be rushed into making decisions: ‘I have to have an abortion now or I can’t have one.’ That’s an absolute shocker. You will absolutely create mental health problems if you start dragooning women into making decisions before they have to.

The paper's columnist Alice Thomson points out (£):

The vast majority of those whose abortions take place after 12 weeks have a good reason for the delay and are the most complicated cases. It’s the women who have abortions before 12 weeks who tend to be more likely to be using abortion as a lazy contraception. The cases after 12 weeks tend to be young girls who didn’t realise they were pregnant or suspected that they were but were too afraid to discuss it, or women in their late 40s who believed they were menopausal and are worried about the risks of late motherhood.

One searches in vain for any consideration of these points by Hunt or any "evidence" in favour of a 12-week limit. The Health Secretary is entitled to his views - would we rather he concealed them? - but he will be judged accordingly.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said "my own view is that 12 weeks is the right point for it". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.