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Equality and Women’s Rights: DUP Discussions

Volume 626: debated on Thursday 6 July 2017

1. What discussions she has had with the Democratic Unionist Party on the Government’s commitment to equality and women’s rights. (900270)

8. What discussions she has had with the Democratic Unionist Party on the Government’s commitment to equality and women’s rights. (900279)

The UK has a proud record of promoting equality, and we have some of the strongest laws in the world to prevent and tackle discrimination. The Government will continue to champion equal rights.

We have seen the recent tangle on abortion policy that the Government got into with the DUP. Women with pre-existing medical conditions, such as uncontrolled epilepsy, who seek abortions need to receive treatment in hospital settings to access back-up medical care if it is required. Will the Minister commit to ensuring that women from Northern Ireland with complex medical needs who cannot be treated in a stand-alone clinic will be able to access funded care in NHS hospitals?

First, I recognise that this whole subject area is incredibly sensitive, and we need to approach it with some care and, indeed, some respect. I had a helpful first meeting with a number of the organisations, including charities, that are involved in this area. We talked about not only the core issues that were discussed in the House last week but some of the more challenging issues that women face when seeking abortion services. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will consider all those issues very carefully.

Equality and tolerance are important British values that we should all be proud of, so will the Minister work to overturn the ongoing ban on equal marriage in Northern Ireland? Does she believe that £1 billion is a fair price to pay for selling off such fundamental values?

I am proud to have been part of a Government who introduced same-sex marriage, and we should all be proud that we are in a Parliament that passed that Bill. The London Pride celebrations are taking place this weekend, and that will be a chance to celebrate the progress that has been made. We have to fundamentally win the argument on moving forward on LGBT rights. This is something that needs to take place throughout the country, including in Northern Ireland, where there is a democratic Northern Ireland Assembly. It is a debate we all need to engage in, but we have seen progress over many years and we can be proud of that. Nevertheless, as the hon. Lady sets out, there is still a lot of progress to be made.

In response to a 2005 Northern Ireland Department of Justice consultation, the Royal College of Midwives, the Royal College of Nursing and the Northern Ireland committee of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists all backed changes to give more women in Northern Ireland access to terminations. In the absence of a Northern Ireland Assembly, how will the Government deal with this issue?

What we can do is make sure that Northern Ireland women who are presenting here in the UK have the same rights as a woman from England would already have. To my mind, we need to ensure that whether someone’s address is Belfast or Birmingham, if they are here in England seeking abortion services, they have comparable service and comparable rights, and that is what we will seek to do. As my right hon. Friend sets out, though, there is also a debate to be had in the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is of interest that Ireland’s new leader has talked about bringing forward a referendum on abortion in Ireland next year.

It is good to see the Rainbow flag flying over the Foreign Office in Pride week. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that she and the Government will remain fully committed to protecting LGBT rights, both at home and abroad, where there is work still to do?

I can absolutely give my right hon. Friend that assurance. There will be no backsliding on LGBT rights from this Government. We aim to continue the progress that has been made working throughout the House and across party lines. We will seek to do that not only in the UK but around the world. I will be part of the London Pride celebrations this weekend and I am proud that since the election we now have, I think, more openly LGBT MPs in this House than in any other Parliament in the world.

I have spoken about equality and the rights of women in our party to my party leader, who is a woman, to my close constituency colleague and a Member of the Legislative Assembly, who just happens to be a woman, and to my most senior member of staff, who is my close adviser and who, shockingly, is also a woman. They seem to be satisfied. I ask the Minister this question: what discussions have been held with Labour’s sister party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, which has many of the same moral stances that we have, which is what I believe this question seeks to highlight?

The hon. Gentleman sets out the fact that there is a discussion and a debate to be had across political parties both here in this Parliament and in Northern Ireland. That is a debate and a discussion that I welcome, and I know that we can have it in a constructive way. As I said right at the beginning, it is important that we recognise that this is an important and sensitive issue and that the way in which we have that debate needs to be in accordance with how important it is to have a measured approach and an informed discussion about how we can continue to see women’s rights go forward.

I join hon. Members across the House in wishing a happy Pride to all those celebrating London Pride this weekend. Despite the fact that a number of promises were made during the election campaign on the need to strengthen and protect equality legislation, there was no such commitment in this year’s Queen’s Speech. People across this country have deep concerns that the Tory backroom deal with the DUP could undermine our equality here in the UK. What assurances will the Minister provide that progress on equality will not be sidelined for political expediency?

I think that I have given those assurances on a number of occasions. I will be very happy to come to this Dispatch Box and continue to give them, as they are important. I simply say to the hon. Lady that, as we have been so clear-cut that there will be no backsliding in this area, to continue to suggest that there will be is not a very helpful approach to achieving cross-party consensus to move forward on these issues.

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. The hon. Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) did not leap from her seat, but I think that she wishes to contribute.

DUP representatives have described homosexuality as repulsive, wrong, vile, immoral, offensive and obnoxious. Does the Minister agree that it is those hateful remarks themselves that are repulsive, wrong, vile, immoral, offensive and obnoxious and that they should have no place in our politics let alone in Government? The DUP once ran a campaign called, “Save Ulster from Sodomy”. Is it not time to save Ulster from bigotry?

The views that the hon. Lady sets out are absolutely not ones that I agree with or that are shared by this House. As I have said, it is important that we have this debate and progress continued improvements in LGBT rights, women’s rights and the rights of disabled people—and all sorts of people who face discrimination in our country—in a measured fashion and that, where we can, we find some consensus. It is in that fashion that we will steadily win the battle.