There's a 'rape clause' in the tax credit system. Here's why it's wrong

The Palace of Westminster in London.Reuters

At the beginning of April this year the UK Conservative government amended its tax credits policy by adding a two child limit for payments.

There are two types of tax credit welfare payments. The first is Working Tax Credits for those in low paid work, which supplements their low paid work to ensure they can afford to live. The second is Child Tax Credits which are for those either in low paid work or those who are unemployed and have children. There is also a childcare element to tax credits that allows some families to get vouchers (worth up to 80 per cent of the cost of childcare) to enable parents to work. Tax credits are different to Child Benefit and are often worth thousands to families. Many acknowledge that without tax credits they would be unable to afford to work, feed their children or survive. Seventy per cent of families in receipt of tax credits are in work.

The tax credit two child limit means low income families will only be eligible for tax credits for children born after April 5, 2017, if they are a first or second child. Third, fourth or other subsequent children will not be supported via the tax credits system. However, the government has a number of exemptions to this policy: twins, triplets and other multiple births (where they form the first or second children in a family), children who have been adopted or are being cared for by family or friends and children who have been conceived without the consent of the mother. This includes if the woman 'did not, or could not, consent to the act that led to the conception of the child' or if the woman was 'in a coercive or controlling relationship with the other parent of the child at or around the time of the conception'. The government has created an eight-page form for this 'rape clause' which women must complete to enable them to gain tax credits for their child. They must also provide third party evidence from support services, police or other agencies in order to prove their claim.

I have been working with women who have been subjected to abuse by a partner for over seven years. I work to prevent abuse through the DAY Programme and to equip practitioners (including those within churches) to effectively support those who have been subjected to abuse through Spark. The two child limit and the by-product of the 'rape clause' have had limited coverage in the mainstream media and few people outside of the women's sector are aware of its existence.

Why should this policy be of interest to the general public? Surely it affects very few people? And isn't it good that the Conservative government is recognising that coercion and abuse exist? These questions and others lay at the heart of why this policy has not gained wider coverage across the UK. We all hold misconceptions about sexual violence, poverty, social security and the status of women. And I want to correct these misconceptions.

Misconception 1: Women will complete the 'rape clause' form

The 'rape clause' gives women two brutal choices: be unable to afford to properly care for her children OR publicly declare that her child's very existence is a result of violence and abuse. There is a reason women have not publicly shared how this clause would have affected them, because it would mean destroying something sacred, the very identity of their child (or children). Women will not complete this form because few women can even comprehend that their child exists only because someone violated them. Being forced to articulate this anywhere, including on a factual form, is a violation of theirs and their child's human rights.

Misconception 2: This is a niche issue that affects very few people

Most women with two children are at risk of having a third child through failed contraception. And no woman is able to rule out that they may be impregnated against their will. It would be great to live in a world where men do not rape women, but sadly that world does not exist. The 'rape clause' offers provision for children fathered by a coercive or controlling man. At least 25 per cent of women will be subjected to abuse by a partner while 72 per cent of girls under 16 will be emotionally abused by a partner. A significant proportion of those women and girls will be coerced into pregnancy. That is not a minor issue, it affects thousands of women and children in our communities.

Misconception 3: Women are always willing and able to recognise abuse and rape

It is rare that anyone self-identifies their partner is abusive. People are socialised to see women who are abused as weak and stupid; therefore they never want to see themselves as one of 'those women'. The psychological processing required to recognise abusive behaviour and accept having been subjected to it is a long and painful process.

Misconception 4: It's easy to leave an abusive partner

In order to be eligible for tax credits under the 'rape clause', a woman must no longer be in a relationship with the father of the child. This assumes that it is easy to separate from an abusive partner, especially whilst pregnant with (or mothering) his child. This could not be further from the truth. Women who leave an abuser are at a high risk of him stalking, harassing, hurting or killing them. Most women who are murdered by a partner are murdered at the point of leaving or soon afterwards, whilst men's abuse often escalates during their partner's pregnancy. Believing that the abuser may change, that children need to be born into a family with two parents, that single motherhood is failure all prevent women being able to leave. The physiological process of trauma bonding can make leaving almost impossible, and due to other Conservative policies, there are few refuges or support services available if women were able to find a way to leave the abuser.

Misconception 5: There's not enough money, this is just a hard decision the government has had to make

No political decision has to be made. Every political decision is based on an ideology. In 2015, the entire cost of tax credits to the UK was £30 billion and only £290 million will be saved through capping benefits. According to the UK Government tax evasion costs the UK £36 billion, whilst independent estimates place the figure to nearer £119 billion. Alongside this, the reason the 70 per cent of tax credit claimants who are working need tax credits is because their work is low paid or part-time. Surely better solutions would include insisting employers increase wages and making flexible full time work a realistic solution for parents?

Misconception 6: This policy is about fairness

Last week Theresa May defended the 'rape clause' (and the Two child limit) by stating that it was based on a 'principle of fairness'. She said that, 'people on benefits have to decide whether they can afford more children, just as people in work have to decide'. Leaving aside her ignorance about tax credits being primarily an in-work benefit, it is impossible to call a policy fair that forces women to declare their precious children's existence to be a result of violation. Or that the policy will almost exclusively affect women and children. There is nothing fair about that.

Misconception 7: People shouldn't have children they can't afford

Given that no contraception is 100 per cent guaranteed, this suggests that couples who can't afford children should either abstain from sex or should be prepared for the woman to have multiple abortions. Is this a humane, ethical or workable situation?

Misconception 8: Women who complete the 'rape clause' form will be given support

The government has promised that those who claim tax credits under the 'rape clause' will be supported. However, due to cuts to domestic and sexual violence services, legal aid, housing benefit and other welfare cuts, there are few support resources available. The government has pledged no funding towards the support they say will exist. There has been no pledge made by the government to provide long term counselling to children who discover their existence is a result of rape as a result of this policy, and child and adolescent mental health services are being decimated by government cuts. The lack of comprehension by the government about the inevitable fallout of their policy is callous and ignorant.

Misconception 9: Rape shouldn't be politicised

Rape is political. While women cannot live their lives freely or safely, then rape continues to be a political issue, given that women are over 50 per cent of the UK population. And it is the government that has further politicised rape by pursuing the Two child limit and the 'rape clause', not its detractors.

Misconception 10: This policy needs to be approached practically, rationally and unemotionally

Rape is an emotional issue. When men rape they destroy women's lives. When policies are brutal and inhumane, rationality will not suffice. Practically the policy is unworkable. No sexual or domestic violence services will collude with the policy by providing evidence of rape. No woman will be willing to complete the form. And perhaps men will see this as legitimising rape. 'If I rape you, you'll be able to get financial support.' As Desmond Tutu famously said, 'If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.'

Misconception 11: It's a compassionate policy that recognises the violence women are subjected to

This policy is not compassionate and does not understand domestic or sexual violence. To enact a policy that requires women to choose between feeding their children and admitting their child's conception was a form of violation is cruel. The wider Two child limit will save the government very little money and will leave women and children in greater poverty. It is a policy that seeks to bolster anti-woman prejudice about poor women who have more than two children. Playing on 'Little Britain' stereotypes of promiscuous women having multiple children to get council housing is loathsome, not compassionate.

Misconception 12: You can support the Tax Credit two child policy and be pro-life

This policy will lead to more abortions. When women are raped or their contraception fails. When their partner secretly pricks holes in their condoms or hides their contraceptive pill. When he lies and says he's had a vasectomy or takes the condom off secretly during sex (so called 'stealthing'). When he manipulates and coerces her into pregnancy or controls her so much that she is unable to say no. When that happens and she already has two children or more, she will not be able to continue the pregnancy, even if she really wants to. Because doing so will harm her existing children. This policy will not reduce the number of conceptions in the UK. All it will do is drive women to feel abortion is their only option. And if you are pro-life, this policy should be driving you to the streets in protest. It should be informing whether you vote and who you vote for in June. If you are at all concerned about reducing abortion rates, then getting this policy abolished should be your top priority

This policy is not a solution to the budget deficit. The ongoing cuts that affect the poorest in the UK have not reduced the UK's deficit, which continues to rise at the same levels as it did under a Labour government. It may seem like this policy affects a tiny minority of women, those with two children who conceive a child because of an abusive, violent or controlling man. Yet it attacks the human rights of women and their children and as such, affects us all.

Democracy is a chance to shape the type of government we want, in voting and lobbying our MP and parliament. We must get this policy abolished. The lives and wellbeing of thousands of women and their children are depending on us.

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