Chris Grayling said the new welfare plans are "grounded in common sense". Photo: BBC
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Government cries "common sense" as it refuses to debate Budget plan that could require women to prove rape

Leader of the House Chris Grayling has dismissed MPs' calls to set aside time to debate what has been described as an "incredibly distasteful" policy.

Following George Osborne's Budget announcements about limiting benefits and tax credits to two children, the SNP MP Alison Thewliss noticed a proposal that made her "utterly furious". It is the idea that women who have had a third child from having been raped will have to inform the government (DWP or HMRC) so as to avoid losing their benefits and tax credits for that child.

According to Thewliss, this is tantamount to rape victims having to "justify" having a third child and prove to the government that they have been raped.

Here is the offending passage from the Summer Budget document:

Click to enlarge.

The problem here is that, although the government is claiming "protections" for women who have had a third child through rape, the onus is on the woman to claim this circumstance in order to avoid being hit by the benefits and tax credits cuts.

This would put women in the distressing position of having to tell the authorities about having been raped, and would also introduce another level of potentially damaging intrusion from government departments into the lives of welfare claimants.

As quoted in the Guardian, the Women Against Rape campaigner Lisa Longstaff highlights this:

Asking women to disclose very difficult information and expecting them to be able to prove it – in what is frankly a very hostile environment when the DWP is trying to take your money away – will have appalling consequences.

Thewliss' colleague, Kirsten Oswald MP, brought this up during Commons Business Questions (watch from 39.20), the day following the Budget. She challenged the government to set time aside for a debate on the “incredibly distasteful” proposal. Chris Grayling, Leader of the House of Commons, dismissed her call for a debate, saying the policy would be carried out sensitively.

Here is the full exchange:

Kirsten Oswald: Can I ask the Leader of the House for a debate in government time on the incredibly distasteful statement in yesterday's Budget, which will mean that a woman who has a third child as a result of rape will need to prove this to DWP in order to be eligible for tax credits?

Chris Grayling: This is an issue she has the opportunity to raise in the Budget debate. The Chancellor was very clear yesterday that this provision will be designed in a way to handle difficult cases in the most sensitive possible way. But she must also understand the necessity of putting in place a system of welfare that is grounded in common sense, that is designed to help people back into the workplace, and she will know that there have been many, many examples of people with very large families who are absolutely overt in their statements that they have had large families in order to take advantage of the welfare system. That shouldn't happen; we want those people to have fulfilling lives in work as well as in their families. 

Afterwards, Oswald was "appalled" by Grayling's response to her proposal to debate what she describes as a "disgraceful plan".

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.