This week ANDREW PELLING looks back to how – and why – our local MPs voted at Westminster on the sensitive topic of abortion, a headline-grabbing matter that went entirely under reported by Croydon’s other media outlets
In the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta HMS Pinafore, The Rt Hon Sir Joseph Porter, KCB, First Lord of the Admiralty, puts his good political progress down to his ability to be an unthinking voting automaton:
“I always voted at my party’s call,
And I never thought of thinking for myself at all.”
Most MPs, it’s fair to say, still take this route to career progress at Westminster. When the bells ring for a vote, they just trail through to the room (the “lobby”), that their party’s officers (or “whips”) tell them to go to, the “lobby fodder”, voting without having heard a single word spoken of the preceding debate.
However, MPs aren’t always allowed such blissful freedom from personal decision-making when items, usually of personal conscience, come up before the House of Commons. Then, they do have to think for themselves. For some, it can be a challenging experience.
Such an occasion seemed to be coming up when the backbencher Nadine Dorries proposed an amendment to government legislation that required that women seeking a termination should be given counselling independent of the abortion clinic itself.
Our three Croydon MPs all voted against the amendment, which failed by 368 votes to 118.
If you are one of the dwindling band who still bother pay for a Croydon newspaper, you might not know that our MPs had been dealing with such a serious issue on behalf of local residents. Male belly dancing seemed to be a more important concern in last week’s Sadvertiser.
To give them their due, the Sadvertiser did get a story about how the NHS is planning to go back on the pre-election promises made by Croydon Central MP Gavin Barwell to keep the A&E department open at the Mayday Hospital.
Despite the absence of coverage of the Commons vote in the small circulation local newspaper, abortion ought to be a potent concern for Croydon. According to Department of Health figures, there were 1,901 abortions performed on Croydon women in 2010, more than Sutton and Merton combined (1,678). Croydon had the highest rate of abortions on under-18s in London – with 128 last year.
Malcolm Wicks, Croydon North’s MP, was the Director of the Family Policy Studies Centre before entering Parliament. He concedes that, while the teenaged pregnancy figures swing around from year to year, the numbers are high and are a “social indicator that is not good in Croydon”.
The vote on the Dorries amendment was not as free as it might normally be. Conservative MPs were encouraged not to support the amendment when the Prime Minister hastily backpedalled. Guildford’s Tory MP Anne Milton, the health minister, irritated Dorries by putting round a letter urging opposition to the amendment.
There is a good deal of form between Cameron and Dorries. Posh public school boys in the House rather look down at Dorries as being “a bit common”. Such tensions were exposed when the Bullingdon Boy put Liverpool-born Dorries in her place at Prime Minister’s Questions with his innuendo about Dorries being “extremely frustrated”.
The mocking laughter was fuelled by some MPs who resented having to fly their colours on an issue that stirs up controversy back in the constituency but that they’d rather avoid. They would rather Nadine just wouldn’t talk about it.
Dorries battled on through the mockery to table her reasonable-sounding amendment:
“8A (1) A local authority must make available to women requesting termination of pregnancy from any clinical commissioning group the option of receiving independent information, advice and counselling.”
Paul Barratt, the pastor at Croydon’s Jubilee Church, holds strong views on the failure of the amendment. “No other industry would be given such an exclusivity on marketing as clinics do when it comes to their so-called counselling of vulnerable girls and their partners seeking a way through what is a huge crisis for many,” says Barratt, who is an influential player in the Croydon Churches Forum.
Barwell explained his decision to vote against the amendment being concern around the wording of the amendment. Barwell, who works closely with Croydon evangelical churches on “Big Society” themes, is a bright politician who appears able to express sympathy with a cause and yet vote in the exact opposite direction.
“Sympathy with view that counselling should be independent but advice from even some pro-life groups that wording defective,” Barwell Tweeted.
Clare Murphy works for bpas, originally known as the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, a registered charity which has provided an abortion service since just after legalisation. She is excoriating in responding to the churchman’s criticisms.
“We welcome the fact that Croydon’s MPs voted against this amendment. This was not ‘a modest proposal’, but an attempt to undermine women’s access to the support and services they need when faced with an unintended pregnancy.
“We are not ‘an industry’, we are a not-for-profit charity, and our only interest is in supporting women as they make the decision that is right for them,” Murphy said.
“We believe the evangelical churches that offer pre-abortion counselling may well provide a valuable service to some women, but that they should be much clearer in their own marketing as to who they are and what they stand for.”
AMID SO MUCH CONTROVERSY, you can understand Wicks’concern about it being “difficult to have an intelligent debate” about such a sensitive issue. Wicks says he is “not relaxed” that the “abortion rate is too high”. He declares himself a strong believer in counselling, for both women and men. His bottom line though is “the woman’s right to choose within the law”.
He could not, though, find himself supporting the amendment for fear of opening the door to the “anti-abortion lobby” and “fundamentalists”, offering “counselling that would be biased”. Wicks prefers to see resources spent on counselling young men and women with good quality advice on sexual health care and education. He said there were lessons to be learnt from America, where the debate had been dominated by religious fundamentalists.
Yet despite the MPs’ decisive vote against the amendment, the momentum of the debate is going in Dorries’ direction. In the Commons, Minister Milton said that the government supports the “spirit of the amendments” on independent counselling and that, “We intend to specify in regulations that local authorities must ensure that part of what they commission is a choice of independent counselling”.
Milton also said, “There are indeed no quality standards for abortion counselling, and women are not always offered the opportunity to have counselling.”
The government will now look at consulting publicly on counselling measures at abortion clinics, and most likely our Croydon MPs will be asked to vote on the matter again before the next election. If the issue becomes too hot to handle, watch out for Parliament being bypassed and the matter being dealt with by regulations left un-debated by Parliament.
If you feel strongly on the issue ask to see your Croydon MP who, if they are good, will be pleased to hear your views on a subject that they genuinely do find difficult to make judgements upon. I reckon that two out of the three will see you.
WE ARE UNABLE TO BRING TO YOU Richard Ottaway’s commentary on how he came to his decision to vote against the amendment, or to shed any light on whether he even thought about the issue at all. When asked about the sensitive issue of the abortion counselling debate, Ottaway’s office stated, “He won’t give any interviews for Inside Croydon.”
So it’s complete radio silence from the yachtsman so vilified by the Mail for abandoning his constituents for the attractions of Cowes after the rioting in Croydon South.
That’s a shame, as we’d have liked to put to the absentee MP the very strong criticism of his good-self by his Purley constituent, Antonia Tully, from the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC).
A long-standing member of her local Conservative party, Tully says she has never voted for Ottaway over his position on encouraging contraception in the developing world to tackle the birth rate and reduce the spread of HIV.
Closer to home, Tully spoke of “the many sad cases” SPUC had dealt with of women who greatly regretted going through a termination on what she saw as “a conveyer belt” at clinics, “without reflection” on the psychological long-term effects.
Though grateful to Dorries for highlighting the issue, Tully said the amendment was “a bit of a curate’s egg” which did not give enough re-assurance that advice would be sufficiently and genuinely independent.
Of course, defining quite what “independent” might mean would depend on which side of the debate you might take. For instance, all counsellors used by Marie Stopes International, another organisation which has clinics providing terminations, are members of the British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists. Counselling is offered to all Stopes patients, but is voluntary.
Stopes state, “There are no targets or incentives for counsellors to promote abortion as an option above any other.” And according to Stopes, approximately 90 per cent of those women it sees make their decision about an abortion without choosing to speak to a counsellor.
We spoke to one Croydon woman who had undergone a NHS-funded termination, and who thought that the Dorries debate lacked any understanding of the women confronted with such a decision. “What was Dorries really trying to achieve with her amendment?” said the Croydon woman, who asked to remain unidentified.
“Does she think that women who seek a termination go in to it without weeks of agonising, often talking it through with their partner and family as well as their GP? No one takes such a decision lightly, and few without some regret.
“It looked to me to be an attempt to place a barrier between women and their right to choose, or maybe she is just exceptionally patronising of other ‘ordinary’ women?
“When I was referred to a nearby clinic, I arrived mid-morning and the waiting room was full. The women there were from all walks of life and a range of ages – there were a couple of teenagers evidently there with their mothers, but there were also middle-aged women in smart business wear. Generalisations and assumptions do not apply here.”
Let’s hope that Ottaway shows the maturity of his fellow Croydon MPs in future and talks about important concerns to Croydon residents that deserves measured and sensible debate, through Croydon’s best-read and most influential independent website.
Inside Croydon wants to foster debate about the key social concerns in our town on issues that are sometimes sadly lacking in other local media. Counselling is, after all, about talking things through, and even Richard Ottaway should realise that talking does you no harm.
- Inside Croydon: brought to you free of charge, an independent voice standing for freedom of speech for the people of Croydon
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