(The below post was published in The Telegraph on 19th January 2016)
No woman should have to prove she was raped to be able to claim child tax credits. It’s a dramatic statement, and it’s one that has raised many questions – so perhaps it’s best to go back to the start.
Hidden away on page 88 of Chancellor George Osborne’s Budget in July was a small, almost innocuous sentence, which related to the Government’s plan to restrict the child element of tax credits and Universal Credit – child benefit, essentially – to the first two children:
“The Department of Work and Pensions and HMRC will develop protections for women who have a third child as a result of rape, or other exceptional circumstances”.
I read the sentence again. I re-read it. I showed it to the colleague sitting next to me. What did this actually mean? How would DWP and HMRC prove that a child was borne of rape?
The more I thought about this, the more furious I became. Rape is a very serious crime, but yet one of the most under-reported and under-convicted crimes there is. It exists in abusive relationships, it exists in marriage. For many women, is traumatic beyond description, and it is something they feel is shameful.
How vile that this Government would consider putting a woman, who may already feel extremely vulnerable, in the position where she had to confess to an Government official that her child had been born as a result of rape. How stigmatising, for that woman, for that child and for the family. Piling humiliation on top of pain is not the essence of “protection”.
I’ve raised this with Ministers at every level of Government, including the Prime Minister himself.
For all the questions my colleagues and I have asked since the July budget, there has yet to be an answer as to how this will work, and particularly the burden of proof.
The DWP and HMRC are not known for being organisations that will take you at your word; the casework I have seen in my office gives me no confidence in either the competence or the sensitivity of these departments. What hope does a woman in such vulnerable circumstances have? Will they accept her word, or will only a criminal conviction do? We don’t yet know.
However, the real problem at the heart of this is not even the rape clause; it’s the two child policy.
For me, it’s tantamount to social engineering. It makes children a financial commodity. It passes judgement and stigmatises.
It doesn’t respect the disproportionate impact on those of particular faiths or backgrounds where larger families are the norm. It’s also economic madness, as we need more children to counter our ageing population. And it runs counter to our Government’s obligations to treat children equally under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The two child policy has not yet been fully explained or justified by this Government, other than in the most tabloid of terms. I’ve heard some suggest in carelessly callous language that you should only have the children you can afford. It does not take account of the fact that you may well be able to “afford” three children when you had them, but not if your circumstances change: what if your partner dies, if you become disabled, if your marriage breaks up?
What happens in the case where families come together with existing children from previous relationships?
The Budget claimed multiple births would be protected, but not at which stage; if your first two children are twins, will the third still be eligible, or only if that happens the other way around?
These questions and more have been asked by MPs since July, but answers have not been forthcoming.
The campaign to scrap the rape clause is gathering pace and many people are already signing the petition, which had almost 6,000 names at the last count. This should, in itself, send a message to the Government that this policy is untenable.
I very much hope that the Government has realised the mess it has got itself into, and scrap not only this outdated and potentially damaging rape clause – but the whole two child policy itself.