AS an MP my job consists mainly of arguing against, amending and trying to protect people from cruel Conservative policy. There is a tidal wave of people suffering at the hands of this government who are seeking help from MPs, sometimes leaving us guilty of becoming desensitised to the horrific Tory agenda. Well, not this week.
On Thursday, the utterly vile non-consensual sex exemption in respect of child tax credits came into effect. It restricts families to claiming these tax credits only for their first two children – unless they can prove a subsequent child was conceived as a result of rape.
This is surely one of the most grotesque, invasive and downright stupid policies the Tories have ever introduced. It is a new low even for them. When my SNP colleague Alison Thewliss became the first to notice this nauseating policy in 2015, I can still remember her disbelief and horror when she asked me, pointing at some lines in the Tories’ Budget: “Does that say what I think it does?” Two years on, we know it means exactly what it said.
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Credit must be given to Alison for her campaign to scrap the rape clause. She has used every means available to her to raise and challenge this policy in the House of Commons, no fewer than 25 times, and the people of Glasgow Central should be incredibly proud of the tireless work of their MP.
Despite all of Alison’s efforts and, indeed, that of all of us down in Westminster to challenge this policy, the Tories have ploughed it through with very little scrutiny or debate. Child tax credits are paid to people that the Government accepts do not receive enough income to survive on. What does it say about the society we live in when that same Government is prepared only to provide that help for some children?
What else does it say about our society when the Government says they will only help you provide for a third child so long as they are the product of rape, and only if you can prove that you have been raped?!
I have heard all the arguments that “poor people” should not have children they cannot afford to look after. However, not only is this an incredibly callous assessment of the situation, it overlooks the fact that Scotland’s birth rate is declining and we basically need people to have more children.
There is also the fact that perhaps when a family had their children, they could afford to do so, only for circumstances to change, through redundancy, illness or even death.
The extra support tax credits provide could be all that stands between a family not having enough food to eat or the ability to pay their bills. Providing for people in such situations is the very essence of why social security exists. Debt charity StepChange stated that if the two-child policy was applied to current clients who have three or more children, 90 per cent of those families would have absolutely no money left at the end of the month.
All this again highlights the need for people to be paid a real living wage. Some 63 per cent of families who currently receive tax credits for a third or a subsequent child are in work. The Child Poverty Action Group notes that 42 per cent of those who claim child tax credits have only one child, 36 per cent have two children, 16 per cent have three and only seven per cent have four or more children.
The Government should not have to use taxpayers’ money to subsidise employers who are paying their employees an inadequate wage. That is where the real problem lies. The Government should be introducing a real living wage of £8.45 – and £9.75 in London. The Tories talk often enough about their supposed support for families.
To go back to the rape clause, aside from the obvious moral case against it, there are many other issues, ranging from impracticality to stigma and privacy. Will the individual be required to keep record in their home? What if this was discovered by other family members?
Presumably the information has to be held on a woman’s records with the Department for Work and Pensions and HMRC. Staff will have access to these – but which staff? Will they receive appropriate training? The Public and Commercial Services Union has also come out against the policy precisely because of the difficult position it would put its members in.
Secondly, tax credits may be required at different stages in a woman’s life. Alison Thewliss quite rightly asked if a woman’s claim would then be flagged up on any further occasion when a claim was made, or would she have to declare it on each separate occasion and relive the abuse she had suffered again and again? The Government has tried to persuade both MPs and concerned organisations that women making a claim under the rape clause will be treated sensitively. Asking a woman to describe such a horrific event over and over is not sensitive in any sense of the word.
The Government has claimed women will be able to go through third-party professionals such as nurses, doctors and social workers, rather than frontline staff, but answers to written parliamentary questions tabled by Alison exposed that there has been no training whatsoever in domestic violence or in the application of the policy to the 660,000 third-party professionals.
We often hear the Government benches arguing that Scotland has all these wonderful new powers and that if we disagreed with this policy so much then we should use them. However, this is the same endlessly inaccurate and deceitful argument that is always made. The powers being transferred do not allow us in Scotland to set the eligibility criteria for child tax credits because they are a reserved benefit.
The Scottish Government has already spent millions mitigating Tory policies that we actively rejected at the General Election but which are being forced on us anyway.
Think of the good that could be done if the Scottish Parliament had control of all the powers and could use them to build a better Scotland rather than always having to use the little power we have to put some kind of plaster on an ever-increasing gaping and bloody wound inflicted on us by the Tories.
On Monday, I had one of the worst moments since my election.
I have been working with Syrian refugees, trying to make sure they could support themselves and integrate into the community with as much ease as possible.
After hearing of the horrors from which these people had fled, I was left feeling complete shame and embarrassment when, at the end, a mother asked me about this policy.
This woman witnessed many horrors in Syria and has managed to escape to Scotland to build a better life for her children. She spoke incredibly highly of the people in Scotland, who have welcomed her with open arms and endless support. But when she asked me if the rape clause was real, she said it with a disbelief and rightful disgust.
I was truly ashamed that I had to explain to a woman, who has already seen the worst of humanity, that our UK Government is so caring that it will only help your child have a decent standard of living if you can prove he or she was conceived as a result of rape.
Scotland can do better than this. Women deserve better than this. We are better than this.