Dozens of Conservative MPs were understood to have expressed to Tory whips their support for an amendment by the Labour MP Stella Creasy to allow Northern Irish women access to NHS-funded abortions in Great Britain. It was due to be voted on this afternoon.
And Philip Hammond told the Commons that the government would fund abortions in England for women from Northern Ireland.
Women from Northern Ireland are currently charged around £900 for a termination if they travel to have the procedure in mainland Britain, a policy upheld by a supreme court case earlier this month. Northern Ireland has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe and it is almost impossible for a women to have an abortion legally there.
In a letter to MPs outlining the new funding, the education secretary and equalities minister, Justine Greening hinted she had personal sympathy with the issue. She wrote: “As minister for women and equalities, I share the concerns of many colleagues about the experience of women from Northern Ireland obtaining an abortion through the NHS in England.”
She added: “At present women from Northern Ireland are asked for payment and from now on it is our proposal that this will no longer happen. This is clearly a sensitive issue and one which has direct implications for equality in treatment of women from Northern Ireland.”
Greening said that the Equalities Office would fund the payments for the terminations with additional funding for health services. “This will mean no English health service user is disadvantaged as a result of this change,” she wrote. “Funding for the services will be made available through the government Equalities Office, allowing the Department of Health to commission services in England for those from Northern Ireland.
“The supreme court judgment made clear that we have the power to make these arrangements. The government’s position continues to be that we want to see safe abortion services provided for women who may need them - within the bounds of the law.”
On Thursday morning, the leader of the house, Andrea Leadsom, had signalled a concession was imminent, telling MPs the Department of Health and the equalities office were discussing the issue.
The Creasy amendment to the Queen’s speech, which would force a change in the law if carried, was selected by the Speaker to be put to a vote on Thursday afternoon.
The proposed amendment came as three appeal court judges in Belfast have refused to change the law in Northern Ireland to allow for abortion in cases where a woman is pregnant through rape or where the pregnancy is doomed due to fatal foetal abnormality.
The court said abortion reform should be left to the Stormont assembly, as it ruled that the law was compatible with existing provision.
It said the complex moral and religious questions behind the issue should be determined by a legislature rather than a court.
The judgment overturns a previous one by Mr Justice Horner who ruled 18 months ago that the ban on abortion in cases of rape and fatal foetal abnormality was incompatible with the European convention on human rights.
The former Conservative equalities minister Maria Miller had expressed her concern in the Commons. “It’s wrong that women in Northern Ireland don’t have the same access to abortion as women in England, Wales and Scotland,” Miller said. “When will the government be making a statement to show how this wrong will be put right?”
Leadsom said she was pro-choice, calling the abortion funding “an incredibly sensitive and important” issue. “To be very clear it is my personal view that every woman should have the right to decide what happens to her own body. That is very clear,” she said.
It was understood Labour whips would not instruct the party’s MPs to vote in favour of the Creasy amendment, but would allow a free vote because abortion is considered a conscience issue.
The amendment was signed by more than 100 MPs across the House of Commons, including the Conservative MP Peter Bottomley, Liberal Democrats, SNP MPs and the Green party co-leader Caroline Lucas.
“Parliament has an opportunity today to turn concern about inequality into real action for change. For too long our Northern Irish women have been denied a basic right,” Creasy said. “Members across the house have told me they agree this is wrong. Today is our time to end this injustice.”
Conservative MPs who sympathised with the amendment faced a dilemma, as many would have been unwilling to vote for an opposition Queen’s speech amendment which would signal no confidence in the government.
In the Queen’s speech debate on Wednesday, the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said there was a consultation about the change – which MPs later said they had not been informed about. “I agree that all women, in all parts of the United Kingdom, should have the same rights to access healthcare,” he said.
“I note that a consultation on this matter is about to happen. The most important thing is that the voices of the women of Northern Ireland are listened to in that consultation.”
However, the Department of Health said afterwards it was still trying to clarify exactly what consultation Hunt was referring to.
MPs from across the house raised concerns that the government might have a tacit understanding with the DUP not to change the law in England because of the Conservatives’ supply and confidence agreement with the Northern Irish party.
But the Guardian understands DUP MPs were unhappy at this suggestion and did not appreciate being subtly painted as an obstacle to the policy change.
In a pointed intervention on Wednesday during the Queen’s speech debate, the DUP MP Ian Paisley Jr said: “I think it is important the house recognises this is not a matter for Belfast. This is a matter for NHS England.”
The home secretary, Amber Rudd, signalled on Thursday she was sympathetic to the calls for change, in response to a question from the Tory MP Anna Soubry, who said there was “much concern on both sides of the house about the situation pertaining to women who live in Northern Ireland who seek terminations”.
Rudd said Soubry was “absolutely right … We are absolutely committed to healthcare for women, and that includes access to terminations.”
Three Tory MPs also signed a letter to Hunt calling on him to end the charges. They were the former cabinet minister Nicky Morgan, Dan Poulter and Bottomley.
Hunt has historically favoured tighter restrictions on abortions, previously suggesting the legal time limit be halved from 24 to 12 weeks. The letter to Hunt is also signed by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the Royal College of Midwives and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, as well as the Fawcett Society and Amnesty International.
At least three other Tory MPs were known to have made private representations to Hunt or Conservative whips on the issue. One Conservative MP, who has not publicly voiced their concerns, told the Guardian: “None of us are going to vote for amendments to the Queen’s speech for very obvious reasons, but quite a lot are saying to the whips this is weird, it’s silly, it’s not something we should get into a fight over.”