The on-going issues surrounding the chaos caused by Brexit are quite rightly dominating the headlines, but one very important announcement from the UK Government last week deserves further attention. That’s the news that their so-called rape clause proposal will be put out to consultation.
For those of you who haven’t heard of the rape clause, it is the outrageous and immoral idea that a woman with more than two children would have to prove that she had become pregnant as a result of rape in order to qualify for child tax credits.
It was my SNP MP colleague Alison Thewliss who first highlighted a sentence buried away in the small print of last summer’s UK budget.
As part of their proposals to restrict child tax credits to the first two children in a family, the budget document said that the UK Government would “develop protections for women who have a third child as the result of rape, or other exceptional circumstances.”
A bland-looking statement – but one with very serious, and frankly horrifying, implications.
The idea that any woman who had given birth after such a traumatic experience would then have to relive that experience, and prove to a government official that she had been raped, should have no place in a civilised society.
What kind of proof would women need to provide? Would there need to be a criminal conviction for rape, or would women be taken at their word?
It’s important to remember that – for all the progress that is being made – rape is still an under-reported crime, with a historically low conviction rate.
The Public and Commercial Services union, which represents the workers who could be tasked with deciding whether or not women would be given this exemption, have come out strongly against these plans.
The PCS said pointedly that “we do not think anyone should have to conduct such an interview” – and they’re absolutely right.
Even the suggestion that a social worker or a GP could vouch for a woman doesn’t seem very feasible – not least in smaller communities.
These are just some of the questions that Alison Thewliss has been trying to get answers to, but 15 months on from these plans being quietly revealed, there is still almost no clarity about how they would work in practice.
But it’s not for the lack of trying – Alison has raised this in the House of Commons on countless occasions, including asking two different Prime Ministers, and she also led a Commons debate on the issue.
She also had a private meeting with Lord Freud, the Welfare Minister, who couldn’t answer basic questions – and quite incredibly put forward the suggestion that physically and sexually abused women should just ‘flee’ from such situations.
Despite all of these requests, the Tories have been completely unable to give any clarity about how exactly they would aim to administer the rape clause.
So we can only come to the conclusion that, as well as being morally unjustifiable, the rape clause proposal is completely practically unworkable as well.
The fact that the UK Government have now decided to put these plans out to consultation suggests that they might – just might – be prepared to listen to common sense on this. That is welcome – but it is premature to assume that the battle against this proposal has been won.
It’s vital that the Tories hear a clear and unambiguous message that the plans should be ditched – and not just the rape clause itself, but the whole two-child policy.
Why should a family be punished for having more than two children?
I wish I could say that this rape clause is out of character for this government, but it always feels like whenever they want to save money, the Tories immediately look to the most vulnerable in society.
We’ve been here before – not least with the Bedroom Tax.
Of course, it was with the help of a concerted grassroots campaign that the Scottish Government was eventually given powers that would enable us abolish the Bedroom Tax.
So I would call on everyone reading this to think about responding to the UK Government’s consultation on their child tax credit cuts – and help ensure that this disgusting rape clause proposal is consigned to the dustbin of history.
And then let’s all keep making the argument that all – not just some – social security powers should be in the hands of the Scottish Parliament rather than Westminster.
This article originally appeared in the Evening Times.