Abortion and the Catholic vote

As MPs are denied the opportunity to debate abortion reforms, Diane Abbott points the finger at Cath

Disappointed pro-choice politicians and protesters have accused the government of double-dealing - trading women's rights for the 'Catholic vote' and Northern Irish support for extending pre-charge detention.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act is debated in final House of Commons for the last time today but proposed amendments to provide legal abortion services in Northern Ireland will not be heard – because the discussion has been pushed to the bottom of the agenda.

Standing with chanting demonstrators, MP Diane Abbott said: “I feel really disappointed. It would be one thing if we had the debate and lost, but now we’re not even allowed to have it, thanks to this shabby and undemocratic move.

“The government have argued it would endanger the peace process, but the paramilitaries in Northern Ireland really aren't going to start digging up their weapons and begin fighting again over this. There is also an issue of the influence of the Catholic church over Scottish politicians. Scottish MPs are usually quite progressive but not when it comes to women's rights ”.

Lisa Hallgarten, Head of Policy and Communication at Education for Choice, was similarly frustrated. She said: “The government did a deal with the DUP [Democratic Unionist Party]- 'if you support 42 days without trial we won't touch the abortion bill'. In Northern Ireland abortion is the one thing the two opposing parties agree on and so the government are scared to touch it”.

The DUP's position on abortion is unambiguous. The party's Chief Whip at Westminster, Nigel Dodds, recently told parliament: “The DUP believes in the rights of the unborn child. We will resist any and all attempts to introduce a liberalised abortion regime to Northern Ireland.”

Earlier this year, nine of his party's MP votes proved crucial in passing the government's controversial proposal to allow detention of terror suspects without trial for up to 42 days. At the time, many MPs on the defeated side were quick to claim that a deal had been struck – despite vehement denials from both the DUP and the government.

Abortion Rights campaign organiser Louise Hutchins remains angry. Speaking yesterday, she said: “Opinion polls consistently show that three quarters of people support women's right to choose. It is such a shame as this was the first opportunity for a debate on women's rights and it has been lost thanks to an anti-abortion lobby who represent the minority with an anti-woman agenda.

“It is outrageous in that in 2008 there are parts of the UK [Northern Ireland] where women are denied basis health care”.

Each year an estimated 2,000 women travel from Northern Ireland to the UK where they can pay £2,500 to have an abortion – after which they often do not receive any follow-up care.

Other proposed amendments to the bill include a reduction in the number of doctors required to authorise terminations from two to one and a call to increase the number of practitioners authorised to carry out early abortions. Also up for debate were a number of more restrictive amendments such as imposing counselling and 'cooling off' delays for women considering abortion.

Conservative MP Nadine Dorries and Labour's Frank Field, who have both previously called for a reduction for the upper time limit for abortion, said that more time was needed to adequately debate the issues.

They tabled an amendment ahead of today's debate, calling for a 17 strong balanced committee of both Houses to investigate all the issues surrounding abortion and to make recommendations back to parliament - a proposal which is now unlikely to be debated.

This was welcome news to one pro-life campaigner, who also protested outside parliament yesterday. Armed with a flashing cross, life-long Labour voter Sister Ruth said would reconsider her political choice in future: “There shouldn't be a debate at all as it goes against good socialist politics of the right to life for all”.

But debate or not, the issue will persist. Louise Hutchins insisted: “We will continue to build a mass movement to defend and support women's rights”.

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.