As the world watched Donald Trump’s inauguration on 20 January, the UK Department for Work and Pensions quietly announced that a controversial policy would be moving forward despite considerable concern and debate. The so-called ‘Rape Clause,’ originally announced within the 2015 budget by then chancellor, George Osborn, came into force on 6 April without a parliamentary vote. This clause is an exemption to the two-child limit for tax credits, one component of a multitude of welfare reforms that aim to cut 1.3 billion pounds from the UK’s social security spending by 2020. The clause allows women to claim tax relief beyond the two-child cap if their child was the product of rape or a coercive sexual relationship. The woman must then prove that this child was the result of such relations to a third party professional, and name the child, if they are to receive the tax credits worth up to 2,780 pounds a year. Additionally, credits are only available to women who are not living with the partner that they are claiming raped them or coerced them into a sexual relationship. The eight-page document that must be completed requires the woman to sign the declaration, ‘I confirm that I am not living with the parent of this child.’
This policy has aroused considerable debate and outrage. Scottish National Party (SNP) MP Alison Thewliss has driven the charge in opposing the rape clause, which she has described as ‘a vile policy in total chaos.’ The leader of the SNP, Nicola Sturgeon, has joined Thewliss in opposition, placing the party at the head of the campaign to eradicate the policy. In fact, the SNP was the driving force behind a protest against the rape clause in Glasgow on 13 April, which attracted hundreds to George Square and united the previously disparate Scottish left. As the protest took place in the square that held huge importance during the 2014 independence campaign, and with the looming promise of a second referendum, this event was particularly charged for the SNP. MP Mhairi Black, who shocked the country when she won her seat at twenty years old in 2015, claimed that the clause was a policy being imposed on Scotland by ‘a government we never voted for.’ This moment has thus served as a golden opportunity for the SNP, who have increasingly been given the chance to lead the opposition against Conservative austerity at a time when the Labour Party has never seemed more divided and unfocused. This leadership is likely to bolster their campaign for a second independence vote at a time when much of Scotland feels alienated by Theresa May’s Tory government.
The SNP are not alone in opposition to the rape clause. Women’s charities and NGOs across the country have united in condemning the policy. Many have taken issue with the stipulation that a woman cannot claim exemptions if she still lives with her rapist, emphasising that the majority of rapes occur within domestic violence relationships. These assaults are very difficult to prove or substantiate, and compelling a woman to leave her assailant could be both dangerous for her and harmful for her children. Isabelle Kerr, the manager of the Glasgow Rape Crisis Centre, has stated that this policy places women in a perilous situation where she would be compelled to leave an abusive partner, ‘perhaps knowing the level of danger she faces, in order to have enough money to feed and clothe her family.’ Battered women are thus forced to juggle the benefits tax relief with the repercussions of ending a relationship.
However, it is the requirement that a third party must substantiate rape allegations that is the most troubling for many advocates and impoverished women. Conservative ministers have claimed that the level of proof that a rape had occurred would not be high, but that professionals would simply have to judge whether the claim is plausible rather than seek specific details about the assault. However, the implications of this policy have appalled the Royal College of Nursing, who have stated that nurses and midwives should not be responsible for judging the validity of rape-related benefits claims. Many have claimed that this policy is both intrusive and insensitive, forcing women to relive the trauma of sexual violence through proving that they conceived a child through rape before appointed ‘experts.’ The government has yet to clarify how this requirement will be fulfilled with respect and discretion for the victims of rape, and has not identified whom the ‘third party professionals’ responsible for processing the claims will be. In Northern Ireland, the policy has some specific legal implications. As it is a crime to not report a serious crime in the region, women who have not reported a sexual assault prior to claiming the exemption could be drawn into criminal investigations. This could pose particular challenges for women who are currently in or have previously had sustained sexual relationships with abusive partners.
The rape clause is entwined in a larger debate surrounding the UK’s dwindling social welfare system and its implications. A United Nations inquiry into the benefits system in 2016 determined that the Conservative government’s continual austerity measures had violated the human rights of the disabled. Last year’s award winning film, ‘I, Daniel Blake,’ has brought global attention to the issue through its stark portrayal of the plights of a single mother and sickly man navigating the sparse benefits system. Naturally, women and children have been particularly punished by these austerity measures. It is predicted that April’s round of cuts will push a quarter of a million British children into poverty. Single mothers have had a particularly hard time coping with the realities of austerity, and limiting their access to tax credits for their children is likely to exacerbate this reality. While the rape clause was an attempt to lift the pressure on women placed in perilous circumstances against their will, its implications are invasive and offensive for survivors of sexual assault. The two-child tax exemption cap and the ambiguity of the rape clause are simply the product of a system that is systematically failing Britain’s most vulnerable.