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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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn become historical investigations because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.