No underhand tactics used to block Northern Ireland abortion reform: ministers

Ministers have denied using “underhand” tactics to block attempts to reform abortion and marriage laws in Northern Ireland.

Government whips were accused of using technical parliamentary procedure in a bid to prevent a Commons vote which, if successful, would require ministers to seek to make reforms to the region’s strict abortion laws and ban on same-sex marriage.

Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley denied this was the case and told MPs the emergency legislation making its way through Westminster, in response to the region’s powersharing crisis, was following “standard” procedure.

Labour MP Stella Creasy, who has campaigned for reform, argued the framing of the legislation meant the Commons would be “denied debate” on an important issue.

She said: “We understand that this is emergency legislation, we have no desire to delay this important legislation through the House, but because it is emergency legislation it is all the more important that where there are concerns about what it may include or may not include, the House is able to take a view and that members are able to decide.

“To see the programme motion today and discover that a crucial element of a programme motion, one that is in most other bills that we have, is missing is a concern to us.

“I am sure that this is an error that’s been simply overlooked rather than a deliberate intent by the whips to deny a debate.

She went on: “Whatever you think of the amendments tabled for today, to cross this Rubicon and decide that there are some matters on which the House should not be paramount is a dangerous move to make.”

Ms Bradley responded: “It’s exactly the same as the programme motion that was tabled for the Budget Bill that we did earlier this year, it is the standard programme motion used for these kind of emergency pieces of legislation, the Government is not trying to do anything underhand at all.”

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.

While the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill is designed to partly address the governance vacuum created by the collapse of powersharing, and provide breathing space for the region’s rowing politicians to resume negotiations, Ms Creasy and Labour colleague Conor McGinn are hoping to use it as a vehicle to deliver wider social change.

Conor McGinn
Conor McGinn

Their amendment seeks to force the Government, in the absence of devolved ministers, to act to reform Northern Ireland’s strict abortion laws and end the ban on same-sex marriage, insisting both run contrary to the human rights of local people.

Tory MP Anne Main (St Albans) criticised attempts to “bolt-on abortion legislation” within the proposals, adding: “We really, really should not be using this Bill for the vehicle to do such matters.”

Ms Bradley noted there were amendments on several matters but said: “This is not the Bill in which this should take place.

“This is a Bill to enable civil servants to take the decisions that are necessary to enable public services to continue to be run.

“Officials won’t take major policy decisions as a result of this Bill but they will act in the public interest.”

DUP MP Sammy Wilson (East Antrim), intervening, added: “Does she accept that while there may be some grandstanding by some members of the House today to try to force on to this Bill their particular policies they’d like to see implemented in Northern Ireland against the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland, that this Bill will not enable any public official to pursue that policy – regardless of whether or not the amendment goes on to the Bill.”

Ms Bradley said the Bill enables civil servants to act within the law “as it stands today” and does not give them the ability to change the law.