The Government’s eleventh-hour political solution to Stella Creasy’s abortion amendment to the Queen’s Speech could create an unhelpful precedent within the delicate balance of the devolution settlements. I have long opposed the abhorrent abortion policies both north and south of the Irish border, so my concerns about last Thursday’s funding fudge to allow women from Northern Ireland to receive funding for abortions in England via the Government Equalities Office are purely technical. While the decision will address one form of inequality, it will also highlight the many other inequalities across the borders.
The lack of understanding of our system of devolution is staggering. Devolved governments of every political persuasion, will, at some point, enact policies distasteful to other areas of the nation. Skirting the settlements to provide an alternative not only disrespects the nature of the devolution agreements, it also removes the incentive for the electorate to eventually punish the government in question at the ballot box.
Now that the UK government has skirted the devolution settlement once, it’s possible it could happen again. Take education as an example. Under the UN Convention on the rights of the child, governments are required to address children’s basic needs, including an education that allows children to reach their full potential. Yet all the devolved education systems have struggled to deliver consistently good outcomes by international standards, and Wales has had the most difficulty in stemming the decline over the last 20 years.
As the national signatory to this convention is the UK Government, on behalf of the whole of the nation, (the convention precedes the era of devolution by about a decade), parents from any part of the country could make representations to the UK Government Equalities Office stating that their children’s rights are being impeded by a poorly performing devolved government. Parents who live close to the Welsh border could, for example, demand alternative educational arrangements (along with the required funding) be made for their children in England. All parts of the UK are still represented in the House of Commons, and such a petition would be hard to ignore at a national level by even the most hard-line devolutionists.
Devolution in the UK is a continually evolving policy area, which aims to adequately reflect the varying histories and demographic requirements of each part of the UK, but the system is not flawless. Access to abortion in Northern Ireland is a compelling and emotive issue, which was presented to the House in extremely difficult and time-sensitive political circumstances. The solution the Government found did solve their immediate political problem, and made what was (in my opinion) the right decision to address an historic injustice in women’s rights.
But it was a manoeuvre that skirted the devolution settlement. There are many areas of inequality that exist across the UK’s internal political borders. These range from equal marriage rights in Northern Ireland, to continuing poor educational outcomes in Wales and governmental overreach in child protection measures in Scotland. A precedent has been set for bypassing devolved competences. I fear that ministers will now find it hard to resist using it for other issues.
Lauren McEvatt is the Managing Director of Morpeth Consulting and a former Wales Office Special Adviser