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 senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.