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18 April 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 4:31pm

No, Esther McVey, the benefits rape clause is not “extra help” for women

Giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Social Security Committee, McVey called the rape clause “an opportunity to talk”.

By Alison Thewliss

I thought I’d heard it all from the UK government on the pernicious rape clause. It’s now a year since it came into force, and almost three since it was announced in the July Budget of 2015. But Esther McVey, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, proved me wrong. Giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Social Security Committee, McVey called the rape clause “extra help”, “an opportunity to talk” and “double support”. It is none of these things.

Since it was first announced, I have been questioning the rationale for both the “non-consensual sex exemption” – the rape clause – and the two-child restriction to working tax credits and Universal Credit, of which it is part. This caps payments to the first two children in a family, except in some multiple births, adopted family groups, or in cases of rape. It’s worth pointing out that most claimants of child tax credits are in work.

The two-child limit has been found by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission to have a disproportionate impact on ethnic minority and religious families. It discriminates against “blended” families. There is no retrospective element in the two-child restriction. This is particularly cruel, as families may already have had more than two children, when circumstances such as illness, death, redundancy or the break-up of a family mean that they are required to ask for support. So the rape clause is not extra support; it is a clumsy attempt to replace support removed by the UK government.

McVey’s comments to the Social Security Committee on the rape clause display disturbing ignorance about sexual violence. Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis organisations in Scotland have been clear from the start that the need for someone to declare they have had a child as a result of rape just to claim a benefit entitlement is completely unacceptable.

The process of filling out the form entitled Support for a child conceived without your consent and putting your child’s name on that paperwork is a barrier to begin with. Asking for a third party – a nurse, doctor, social worker or sexual violence counsellor – to verify that a woman’s circumstances are consistent with having conceived a child through rape risks re-traumatising vulnerable women. And for the child involved, their rights are violated by the stigma of having their name placed on that form.

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Experts in violence against women recognise that forced disclosure of abuse brings a significant risk of reliving that trauma. This should always be at a time of a woman’s choosing, not at the point where she has to make a choice about putting food on the table to feed her children.

As if all this was not enough, the UK government, in dangerous ignorance, asks a woman to confirm that she is not living with the parent of the child before she can receive the benefit. Women may not have access to contraceptives, be raped by their partner, face coercive control and financial abuse. There is a significant issue of shame, particularly in close knit communities, of admitting sexual violence in a relationship. Some women may not feel safe to leave – and given the way in which the Department for Work and Pensions has set up single household payments in Universal Credit, may have limited financial means of doing so. Leaving a relationship is also widely acknowledged to be the most dangerous time for woman – figures suggest that 50-75 per cent of women who are murdered by their partner are killed around the time when they try to leave. Forcing them to do so to just to get benefits puts women in serious danger.

Finally, I have serious concerns regarding the burden of proof. The DWP are not known for taking people at their word. Rape is still one of the most under-reported, under-prosecuted crimes; victims are regularly disbelieved and blamed. The form requires a third party to ask questions of a woman – but no training has been offered by the UK government on supporting victims of intimate partner violence. Professional credentials have to be given on the form. The British Association of Social Workers, Unison, the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nursing have all raised concerns about this, and expressed disquiet about where this leaves their members in terms of their professional status. We still do not know how this is meant to work in practice.

Women and third parties in Northern Ireland face a further barrier – the Criminal Law Act of 1967 Section 5(1) of the Criminal Law (Northern Ireland) Act states all crimes must be reported to the police. If women and third parties fail to do so, they risk prosecution. Northern Ireland has a separate form with a warning that the very act of filling in the form could fall foul of this. Women’s organisations in Northern Ireland have yet to have their specific concerns addressed by the UK government.

I am deeply distressed by Esther McVey’s lack of understanding or empathy for vulnerable women. I hope she will reflect on her words, and I invite her to hear from women themselves and those involved in supporting them, who know only too well how pernicious the UK government’s rape clause and the two-child cap is.

This whole policy is ill-judged, cruel, and has been declared by a House of Lords Committee to be unjust and unworkable. It will drive an additional 200,000 children into poverty. It has nothing to do with supporting women. It’s got to go.

Alison Thewliss is the Scottish National Party MP for Glasgow Central. 

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