Meeting date: Tuesday, April 25, 2017
Meeting of the Parliament 25 April 2017
Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Child Tax Credit Cuts, Air Departure Tax (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Air Departure Tax (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Criminal Finances Bill, Decision Time, Earth Hour 2017
- Time for Reflection
- Topical Question Time
- Child Tax Credit Cuts
- Air Departure Tax (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1
- Air Departure Tax (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution
- Criminal Finances Bill
- Decision Time
- Earth Hour 2017
Child Tax Credit Cuts
The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-05282, in the name of Nicola Sturgeon, on child tax credit cuts. I call the First Minister to speak to and move the motion.14:19
Last Thursday, together with Kezia Dugdale, Willie Rennie, Patrick Harvie and many MSPs from across the chamber, I attended the demonstration against the rape clause that took place outside this building. At that demonstration, Sandy Brindley of Rape Crisis Scotland said that opposition to the rape clause is not about party politics; it is about basic human rights. I agree very much with that.
Of course, the rape clause has come about because of the two-child cap that was introduced three weeks ago by the United Kingdom Government. The cap means that child tax credits and universal credit will be paid only for two children in each family. I will talk about the rape clause in due course, but it is worth noting that the policy intention of the changes—not an inadvertent consequence but the intention behind them—is to reduce the income of low-wage families with children. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has set out the stark reality of that: 600,000 households across the UK will be £2,500 a year worse off, and another 300,000 households—those with four or more children—will be, on average, £7,000 a year worse off.
The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport today received a letter from the Department for Work and Pensions, which says that the reform is to ensure that people on benefits have to make the same choices as those who are supporting themselves through work. That really misses the point that around two thirds of the families who will be affected by the policy are working households. They are people who are already participating in the labour market but on low incomes. The UK Government therefore seems to be directly targeting the people it claims to want to help.
It is also important to know that the changes are part of a much bigger picture. In total, by 2022, approximately £1 billion a year will have been cut from social security spending in Scotland, only a fifth of which will have been the result of the changes that took effect this month. For the past seven years, the Westminster Government has systematically reduced vital social security safety nets—for example, by freezing the work allowance, cutting support for housing and cutting the income of people with disabilities.
Let me reflect on some of the consequences that those decisions have had. Sick and disabled people have seen their incomes reduced by around £30 a week due to cuts in employment and support allowance. Every week, right now, around 800 motability vehicles are being removed from disabled people across the UK as a result of changes to personal independence payments—a fact that makes Ruth Davidson’s decision yesterday to pose for photographs sitting on a mobility scooter all the more insulting to every disabled person who has lost that resource.
Young people aged 18 to 21 have also had their financial help with housing costs removed, and bereavement payments and the widowed parents allowance have been cut. More than 70,000 households in Scotland would, but for our action, have been hit by the bedroom tax, and more than 80 per cent of those households have at least one adult who is disabled. That is one reason why the United Nations has described the UK Government’s welfare cuts as “discriminatory” and “systematic violations” of disabled people’s rights. How shocking is that? The United Nations has described the attack on disabled people’s benefits as “systematic violations” of their rights.
Inevitably, those cuts disproportionately affect families on low incomes—those who most need support and assistance. There is overwhelming evidence that they also disproportionately affect women. As the women’s budget group has noted, five sixths of the cuts that the UK Government is making to social security and tax credits will come from women’s incomes. It is worth repeating that. Five sixths of the impact of the cuts is being borne by women. Surely no Government with a genuine concern for those who just about manage and the women who often have the responsibility of holding those households together could ever have chosen to reduce the deficit in that way.
The two-child cap on tax credits is, therefore, in some senses unsurprising although deeply regrettable.
Is the First Minister surprised to learn that this is, in fact, the second time that the Conservatives have sought to introduce this policy, after they were successfully blocked from so doing in the previous UK Parliament? Does she agree that it is yet further evidence that the Conservatives have gone too far?
No, I am not surprised to hear that, because I know that. While I oppose many of the benefit cuts, I think that this one—particularly the rape clause that flows from it—definitely goes too far in the wrong direction. However, it is the sort of policy that we have come to expect from the UK Government. The implications of this policy, as the rape clause so vividly illustrates, are truly abhorrent. The very need to provide an exemption from the two-child cap for women who have been raped shows the callousness of the cuts in the first place.
The rape clause is wrong in principle. The Equality and Human Rights Commission said at the end of last week that, because of this policy, there is a clear risk of the retraumatisation of rape survivors. No woman anywhere should have to prove that she has been raped in order to get tax credits for her child. I cannot believe that, in 2017, I am having to make that argument in the Scottish Parliament.
The policy is not just immoral, although it definitely is; it is also unworkable in practice. The proposal for third-party verification puts an unacceptable burden on health workers and rape crisis centres, as well as on officials from the Department for Work and Pensions. Rape Crisis Scotland, Scottish Women’s Aid, NHS Scotland and many others have quite rightly refused to collude with the rape clause. That is one of the reasons why, although it has now passed into law, no one in the UK Government is able to explain how it will work in practice. Many basic questions are still completely unanswered. What burden of proof is required? How will the claim be verified and recorded? How can the process possibly take place without the woman fearing that it will be hugely stigmatising for her and her child?
I ask Ruth Davidson not to dodge those detailed questions but to do what no one has done thus far—to answer them. As she does so, I ask her to imagine the trauma for any mother who is already a victim of rape who has to go through such a process. Imagine having to report the most personal and painful information imaginable and then having to go through a process of verification, and having that information recorded for years as a condition of one of your financial lifelines. The moment anyone considers all that must surely be the moment when the sheer inhumanity of the policy becomes clear.
Of course, the Tories’ argument today will be that we should just ignore the policy’s inhumanity and put up with whatever callous cuts the UK Government wants to introduce. According to the Tories, instead of arguing for the repeal of policies such as the rape clause on grounds of principle and common humanity, the Scottish Government should just apply a sticking plaster. I want to address that ridiculous argument head on.
First, let us be clear about the fact that the Scottish Government cannot abolish the two-child cap or the rape clause. We do not have the legal power to do so. Given the complexity of tax credits and universal credit, trying to mitigate the impact of these cuts would be significantly more complex than simply compensating people for the bedroom tax.
That is not the only issue. The real issue here is the financial impact of mitigation on other services. A key point is the fact that, when the UK Government makes such cuts, it does not pass Scotland’s share of the savings on to the Scottish Government. If it did, we could make our own choice about whether to reverse the cut or to follow the UK Government in spending the money elsewhere. The UK Government keeps the money from the savings. That means that any decision by the Scottish Government to mitigate one of these cuts involves taking money that has already been allocated to schools, hospitals and other services.
Notwithstanding that, we have mitigated where we have been able to. We should not have had to, but we have. Since 2013, this Government has spent £350 million mitigating the bedroom tax. Where we control benefits, we make our own choices—for example, we will not apply the two-child cap in our council tax reduction scheme—but we simply cannot accept a situation in which the Tories can implement whatever heartless cut they want to and the only answer is for the Scottish Government to take money from elsewhere to plug the gap, because where does that end? If we accepted that argument, there would be nothing to stop the Tories deciding to no longer pay any benefits for people in Scotland, pocketing the savings and looking to the Scottish Government to step in. It is a ridiculous and unsustainable argument. I say to the Tories that, if they think that the Scottish Parliament is better placed to take those decisions—I certainly agree with that—let us forget the sticking-plaster approach, let us devolve control of tax credits and universal credit and the budgets that go with them and let us then make our own decisions in this Parliament.
The only appropriate mitigation here is for the UK Government to abandon the two-child cap, which would then render the rape clause unnecessary. Just as the UK Government reversed cuts to tax credits two years ago in the face of mounting protests, it should ditch these policies now because they are unacceptable and unworkable. Let me make this clear as well: they are unacceptable and unworkable not just in Scotland but right across the UK.
The Tories here had a choice on this issue: to stand up for what is right or simply to be a mouthpiece for the UK Government in defending the indefensible. The fact that they have chosen the latter is to their shame. It proves that, if Scotland is looking for strong voices to protect all that we hold dear, the last place we should ever look is to the Scottish Conservative Party.
I said at the start of this speech that the issue is not fundamentally one of party politics but one of human rights and morality. The overwhelming consensus in this chamber demonstrates that fact. The vote on the motion today gives all of us an opportunity to reaffirm that and to reaffirm that, despite the differences that we have on so many issues, we all share a basic belief in social justice and recognise the importance of humanity, dignity and equality in our social security system. By doing that, we can add our voice, as Scotland’s national Parliament, to an outcry against the two-child policy and the rape clause that I hope will grow right across the UK. We can take a clear stand against a policy that I would argue has no place in any civilised society and we can reaffirm this chamber’s commitment to progressive values.
For all those reasons, I urge everyone across this chamber to support the motion in my name.
That the Parliament is fundamentally opposed to the UK Government’s imposition of the two-child limit on child tax credits and universal credit, which will push families into poverty; notes that the Institute of Fiscal Studies states that, across the UK, these cuts will lead to around 600,000 three-child families being £2,500-a-year worse off, and 300,000 families with four or more children being £7,000-a-year worse off, with on average two thirds of the families affected having at least one adult in paid work; utterly condemns the disgraceful and repugnant "rape clause", which will force victims of rape seeking to claim child tax credits to prove to the UK Government that their third child was born as a result of non-consensual sex; believes this policy to be unfair, unequal, morally unacceptable and deeply harmful to women and their children and a fundamental violation of women’s human rights; supports those third sector and healthcare organisations that will not be third party assessors on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions, and calls on the UK Government to urgently change its position and remove the two-child cap and therefore scrap the "rape clause".
I call on Ruth Davidson to speak to and move the amendment in her name.14:32
First, let me say that I welcome this debate today, not because it is about an issue that is easy to discuss in public—something so appalling never is—but because it is only right that issues of difficulty and passion like this are debated in our Parliament here in Edinburgh.
I would like to begin on a note of consensus. As politicians, I suspect that we all know survivors of rape. Indeed, I know that there are even those among us here who have been subject to sexual violence ourselves and who find the issue and even the word difficult to articulate. In the past two weeks, as this debate has emerged into the public domain, I know that many of us—me included—have spoken to women who are recovering from their ordeal. We know the awful circumstances that they face: not just the terror of the attack or attacks but the indignity of the criminal justice system that faces them if they report the crime, the prospect of a protracted court case to follow, the criminal injuries compensation process and the lengthy spell afterwards when women who have been attacked—and, in some cases, men, too—have to try to pick up the broken pieces of their lives and confront the world anew.
In the past few weeks, when we have talked about how we should help women in such circumstances, we have used words such as “sensitive” and “compassionate”. I agree that those words do not even begin to cut it; they shrivel next to the enormity of the violation that the women have suffered. That is even more the case when we face women whose rape has resulted in the birth of a child. Perhaps we do not have the words for it at all; certainly, I struggle to find them.
I would like to use my speech here today to try to place this issue in context. The issue of the so-called rape clause arose as a result of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, which was passed in the House of Commons in 2015. The proposed changes to welfare spending were introduced in the wake of the 2015 general election, when my party set out in its manifesto a clear plan to try to put the UK’s public finances back on solid ground.
We all know that the UK continues to spend more than it can afford, borrowing to the tune of £69 billion last year. It is the view of members on these benches that, in order to restore public finances, we must eliminate that deficit and then reduce the debt mountain that we as a country have allowed to build up over a period of years. Otherwise, future generations will have to pay our debts.
Will the member give way?
Will the member give way?
I am sorry, but I have a lot to get through and I will not be taking any interventions.
I do not think that this issue should be subject to the knockabout that we see here in the chamber daily.
Of course, there is a political judgment, which any Government has to take. Labour and the SNP would not seek to curtail the growth in spending as we would, and that is their right; but it is our judgment that we need to reduce the deficit in order to demonstrate that the UK can withstand any future shocks that might come our way and can build an economy that continues to sustain our public services.
Will the member give way on that point?
Inevitably, that means examining many budgets, including the welfare budget. It has meant, for example, removing child benefit from higher earners. The issue that we are debating today revolves around further decisions that have been taken by the UK Government to limit child tax credits to the first two children. It is worth stressing that the measure will not apply to existing claimants.
Will the member take an intervention?
In other words, parents of three or more children who are currently claiming tax credits will still continue to do so.
Will you not defend your own policy?
I accept that, for many MSPs, the change is far from welcome. These are difficult judgment calls. When, in 2015, the UK Government initially proposed cutting tax credits, I spoke out against it. I did not think that ministers had got the balance right. Those measures were scrapped.
However, the two-child tax limit was not something that I spoke out against. Indeed, nor did others. I recall the then interim leader of the Labour Party, Harriet Harman, also making it clear that she felt that it was something that should be considered. She said:
“We’re not going to be voting against the Welfare Bill, we’re not going to be opposing the Household Benefit cap, we’re going to be understanding the point about more than three children”.
Will the member give way?
I agreed with her then, and I still do.
The First Minister gave monetary examples, so let me put them in context. A one-parent family with two children where the parent works 16 hours a week on the minimum wage can claim monetary benefits of just under £19,000 a year. Added to salary, that comes to the equivalent of an earned income of £32,000. I cite those figures only to give context to the numbers that the First Minister gave.
The package of reforms was voted through the House of Commons—and I note in passing that many Labour MPs abstained at the equivalent of stage 2. It was during the consultation phase, prior to implementation, that the question of exemptions was raised. In respect of multiple births, children who are adopted and the rare cases in which the birth of a third or subsequent child is the consequence of rape, the UK Government agreed that the two-child restriction should not apply. I support those exemptions. Indeed, I cannot imagine that there is a single member of the Parliament who does not. There may be many who disagree with capping child tax credits at the first two children, but surely not with such exemptions to the cap being put in place.
We then come to the question of implementation. I am sorry to say that, on this issue, too many people have simply not been clear with the facts. I have heard members of the Parliament say on television that women must complete an eight-page form in order to receive the exemption. That is simply not correct.
On the detail of how it works, I quote the Department for Work and Pensions consultation response on the matter, published in January. It says:
“Neither DWP nor HMRC staff will question the claimant about the incident other than to take the claim and receive the supporting evidence from the third party professional.”
On a point of order, Presiding Officer.
It adds that
“women are not placed in the position of having to give details about the rape to DWP or HMRC officials”.
I am sorry, Ms Davidson, but there is a point of order from Mr Findlay.
Presiding Officer, I was under the impression that this was a debating chamber. Is it not appalling that the leader of the Opposition in the Parliament is unwilling to take a single intervention to defend one of the most heinous policies that we will ever debate in the Parliament? She should be ashamed of herself.
That is not a point of order. All members know that it is entirely at their own discretion whether to take an intervention or not.
There is absolutely no requirement to report rape as a crime, to provide proof of rape or to provide proof of conviction. A woman writes her name and a third-party professional who is helping the mother is asked to set out the rest.
Will Ruth Davidson take an intervention?
That third-party model already exists in the benefit system to support victims of domestic violence.
Members: Give way—go on.
The third-party professionals—
Members: Give way!
Order. The member is not taking an intervention.
It is important that we do not wilfully misrepresent the process, causing fear and alarm. Let me outline the process to members again. The woman writes her name and a third-party professional who is helping her sets out the rest. The third-party model already exists in the benefits system to support victims of domestic violence. The third-party professionals, such as healthcare or support workers, are also able to provide, or signpost claimants to, additional support.
In her speech, the First Minister talked about workability. Citizen’s Advice Scotland, which has been very critical of the third-child restrictions—
There is another point of order.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer, is it not the case in this and any Scottish Parliament debate that the facts should be clearly represented?
Miss Davidson said that the applicant only had to fill out their name and sign the form. I am reading page 5 of that form—page 5 of eight pages—where the applicant is required to put their name, national insurance number and address. They are asked to declare that they
“believe the non-consensual conception exception applies to my child”.
They have to give the child’s name and sign that declaration, and sign again to
“confirm that I am not living with the other parent of this child”
even if the other parent was the person who raped the applicant.
Above all else, having accuracy in a debate is surely in our standing orders.
I understand that emotions are running high, but that was an intervention, not a point of order.
I refer again to the third-party model and the fact that it already exists in relation to domestic violence. It is the third-party model that is being used to fill out the pages of the form.
Let me come back to the point that the First Minister raised in her speech about workability. Citizen’s Advice Scotland, which I absolutely accept has been critical of the two-child restriction of the policy, said:
“Citizen’s Advice Scotland is content with a third party evidence model being sufficient to enable the exemption to the two child restriction where it is likely a child has been conceived as a result of rape.”
I hear the concerns that have been raised by other charities in the sector who do not agree with the policy and I take them seriously. That is why our amendment also says that the implementation of the exemptions must be closely monitored as we go forward.
I will conclude with two points. The first is in relation to the First Minister’s motion, which points out the impact of the two-child policy. I do not dispute the sources that she quotes, but I ask members to examine the issue of welfare reform in the round.
At the moment, the UK employment rate is the highest on record. In the past year, the number of disabled people in work has increased by nearly 300,000. There are nearly 1.3 million more women employed since 2010. Also since that time, there are 828,000 fewer workless households. Income inequality in this country has fallen, because the incomes of the lowest paid are rising. The latest Office for National Statistics data show that the lowest-paid workers are seeing their pay go up by the most, which was more than 6 per cent last year. Median household disposable income for the poorest fifth rose by £700 last year, whereas the incomes of the richest fifth fell by £1,000. We are helping people keep more of what they earn. Because of that, the proportion of people living in relative poverty is near its lowest level since the 1980s. Since 2010, there are 300,000 fewer people across the UK in poverty, and 100,000 fewer children in poverty. Around the UK, we continue to spend £90 billion a year on supporting families, people on low incomes and job seekers.
That is the record of the UK Government on welfare and if people in the UK do not support that approach, they have the opportunity on 8 June to ask someone else to do it.
However, for the Scottish Parliament, the question is deeper. The question facing us is: what is this Parliament for? Is it to be a soapbox to sound off against the policies from London that MSPs do not like? Is that what Scottish politics has become? Or, given the enormous powers that this Parliament now has, is it to act?
If there is something that some in this chamber feel is “abhorrent” or “repellent”, there is surely something behind it, otherwise those words lose all meaning. Powers over welfare—and over the taxation to pay for decisions—were demanded and transferred precisely so that devolved Scottish Governments could make different choices. I do not believe that any member in the chamber disagrees that women who have children in the very worst of circumstances should be exempted from restrictions on tax credits. I do not want to believe that any member would wilfully misrepresent the process, thereby causing fear and alarm—
However, I believe that there are many members of other parties who would wish away tax credits being restricted to the first two children, and I point them towards the legislative powers of this Parliament.
For my part, I will continue to monitor how the policy works on the ground. The First Minister and her ministers use strong words such as “shameful”. She has the power to act, and if she chooses strong words but chooses not to act, that would indeed be shameful. We will continue to monitor the policy.
I move amendment S5M-05282.4, to leave out from “is fundamentally” to end and insert:
“notes that the UK Government has a duty to manage public finances carefully for future generations; considers that the UK Government has sought to curb increasing welfare spending by reducing benefits to those on higher incomes, such as child benefit; notes that the two-child limit on child tax credits will not apply to current recipients; considers that the Scottish Government has the power to reverse the two-child limit on tax credits by using newly devolved powers if it so chooses; further considers that exemptions to the two-child policy, such as that given to women who are victims of rape, must be implemented as compassionately as possible and monitored closely, and believes that more must be done to help women in Scotland in these circumstances by, for example, increasing the number of sexual assault referral centres that are available.”14:45
Politics is a life that we choose because we think that we can do some good. More than that, it is because we think that our opinions and views about life should shape the world that we live in. We think that they could help those who feel left behind or forgotten, or who are struggling, and give them a voice and a belief that their opinions also count. Yes, we are all here in the chamber because we are in the business of doing good.
What an ideal—and what an absolute joke in the eyes of the Scottish Conservative Party. For 10 years, the Tory Government at Westminster has slashed at our valued social security system in a deliberate act of sabotage. The question that I would have put to Ruth Davidson if she had bothered to take any interventions is a question of judgment. She should tell us why rape victims have to pay the price of the deficit while the Tories give tax cuts to the richest people in our society.
The disabled, the poor, the ill and the carers of our society have all been victims of Tory austerity. Not content with that, the Tories have now turned their grasping, grubbing, miserly attention to the tax credits system—one of Labour’s finest achievements. Is there no end to the Tories’ desire to ensure that those with the least have even less? As the casual victims of that clawing meanness, women who have two children but who have had a third as a result of a rape are now at the mercy of the harsh diktats of a Government that is intent on dismantling the vital safety net of benefits.
A woman must either admit to being raped and to having a child born of that physically, mentally and emotionally scarring crime, and get the financial help that she needs, or she must go without. Without a doubt, the Tories’ family cap is arbitrary and unfair, and the rape clause that accompanies it is utterly horrific and abhorrent.
I look across the chamber at Ruth Davidson, Jackson Carlaw and others, many of whom I know have not always agreed with decisions that their own party has taken in Westminster in the past. Yet not one of those so-called different, detoxified Tories will speak out against this latest abomination. Not one will stand up and say that asking rape victims to declare on a form that their child was the result of an appalling crime is just wrong. What is worse is that they even try to defend it.
There is nothing fluffy about David Mundell—a man who cannot answer when asked on radio whether he feels comfortable asking rape victims to fill in such a form. He then has the brass neck to accuse those of us who abhor the rape clause of playing politics with people’s vulnerability and misery.
There is nothing brave about tank-driving Ruth Davidson when she fails to tackle her own Government on this appalling issue and hides behind a spokesman for days.
Here is someone who is brave. I have a letter from a woman who wrote to me to tell her story about her rape and how this barbaric policy would have affected her. I have her permission to read it in full; I have removed only the references to the child’s gender and age. The Tories may not want to listen to me, but they surely cannot ignore her. The letter says:
“Four years ago, one of my closest friends—someone I trusted—raped me.
It happened once. I used emergency contraception but still fell pregnant.
For lots of reasons I decided I couldn’t terminate the pregnancy and went on to have a baby.
The speculation about the father was awful. I accepted that I would be labelled sexually promiscuous as a result; I was prepared for that.
I expected—and received—horrendous treatment from my husband’s family; I was prepared for that.
I was prepared for the financial hardship, having just been made redundant; I was as prepared as I could be for life as a single parent.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the impact the labelling would have on my three existing children, born into wedlock and brought up in a stable family home.
I wasn’t prepared for the shame I would feel.
I wasn’t prepared for the fear of anyone finding out and refusing to believe me.
I wasn’t prepared for the feeling that suicide was the only way out.
I certainly wasn’t prepared for the amount of hatred and resentment I would have for my own child.
Years on and I have a happy, healthy child. They are worshipped, not just by me but by my extended family and even better my husband, a brave and loving man.
My child doesn’t know where they came from and if I have anything to do with it, they never will.
Nobody knows, aside from me, my husband and the mental health nurse who helped me through this living hell.
Though far from perfect and with challenges of its own, I hope the secrecy will give them the chance to live as close to a normal life as possible.
There have been so many pleas to take legal action or to widen the circle of trust to allow those who love me to provide support during the difficult times, but this is a risk I could never take; my need to protect my children from the truth came above all other considerations.
The wider the circle of midwives, consultants, family, the less chance I had of protecting myself and my children from the permanent and damaging stigma attached to rape.
I claimed Tax Credits from birth to eleven months old; the hand up I needed when I was at my most vulnerable to allow me to re-stabilise my family.
Tax Credits kept our heads above water, a buffer between us and the food bank; for that I am eternally grateful.
There is no way I could complete that awful form of shame, no matter what the consequences.
Looking back, that really could have been the thing that tipped me completely over the edge; the difference between surviving to tell the tale and not.”
That is the reality of the Tory rape clause, or the “awful form of shame”, as the letter writer puts it. That is the burden that this Tory Government wants to put on victims of rape because it does not want to pay for more than two children in a poor family.
It is an absolutely sickening state of affairs, but it is not the author of that letter or any other rape victim who should feel shame; it is those on the Tory benches here and in Westminster who refuse to act. I urge every single Tory MSP to stop and think about the ordeal that they are asking women to go through. Oppose this clause and finally do some good.
I move amendment S5M-05282.1, to leave out from “supports those” to “Pensions” and insert:
“further condemns any government that forces women to relive a horrific event in their lives to access social security for a third child; notes the many organisations that have called for a reverse of the two-child cap, including the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which states that these changes will result in an additional 200,000 children in the UK being pushed into poverty; supports those third sector and healthcare organisations that will not be third party assessors on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions, and condemns the pressure being put on them to carry out a procedure for which many will not be trained”.14:53
I am grateful that Parliament is debating child tax credit cuts, although I am dismayed that such a debate is necessary and that such a law has been made by the United Kingdom Parliament, through Conservative votes and backing.
The Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016, which limits entitlement to the child element of child tax credit and universal credit to a maximum of two children as from the 6th of this month, is the latest in an onslaught—I use that word deliberately—of UK legislation that has negatively impacted on women and children.
Ruth Davidson, in a desperate defence of the indefensible, asks that we look at welfare reform in the round—let us do that. Engender tells us that 86 per cent of the £26 billion of cuts that will have been implemented between 2010 and 2020 will have been made to women’s incomes. That is the context in which we debate today—and we were some way from gender equality before severely gendered austerity was inflicted upon us.
In its analysis, the Resolution Foundation concludes that the
“Poorest third of households will be worse off from tax and benefit changes starting”
from 6 April, “despite a £1bn giveaway”. That giveaway from the public purse sees
“the better-off half of households receiving 80 per cent of the tax cut windfall, and the poorest third of households shouldering two-thirds (67 per cent) of the benefit losses”.
The Resolution Foundation also tells us that
“the overall package of reforms add up to a significant transfer from low and middle income households to richer ones.”
Matthew Reed, the chief executive of the Children’s Society, said:
“The announcement to limit child tax credits to two children is effectively a two child policy for the poorest families.”
The Equality and Human Rights Commission in its letter to the DWP said that:
“There was no evidence provided to support DWP’s assumption that the measures will incentivise families to only have two children if they cannot afford to have more.”
As we have heard, the policy takes no account of the fact that families’ situations change—jobs are lost, family members become unwell and require care, many parents are required to work part-time so that they can also care for an older relative.
The fact is that the child tax credit limit, along with the overall cap on welfare benefits, fundamentally distorts our means-tested social security system, which is a system based on assessing peoples’ needs and their ability to meet them. What the child tax credit limit means is that family need will be assessed, and even when it is concluded that a family requires additional support, that will be withheld.
The Children and Young People’s Commissioner for Scotland is right when he says that, when it comes to new benefit cuts,
“For the UK Government, some children appear to matter more than others”.
It is no surprise that he has raised concerns regarding the rights of children affected by benefit cuts with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. Needs will not disappear simply because Westminster has legislated.
We have heard that there are several exceptions to the two child limit, including when there is a multiple birth and in cases of adoption, but let us look at the clause that we have discussed today in most detail. I have no way of knowing whether the person who first thought of that exemption, now known as the rape clause, felt that it was a compassionate one. However, when they got to the stage of asking women to prove that a child on behalf of whom they are claiming is a result of rape—a single brutal attack perhaps—or was conceived during an abusive, coercive and controlling relationship, surely they would have come to the conclusion that the implications of the legislation and its impact on the wellbeing and privacy of women and children were completely unacceptable?
For many women, it will be personally difficult and traumatic to complete that form. It will also be practically difficult, if not impossible, because Scottish Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis Scotland whole-heartedly oppose the limit and the exception, and they cannot and will not collude by acting as third-party reporters for the DWP. The Royal College of Nursing tells us that they were not approached by the DWP in advance of its consultation on the exception, and that they
“do not believe it is appropriate for a nurse or a midwife to arbitrate whether a child is likely to have been conceived as a result of rape.”
A requirement of the entitlement to tax credit for the child conceived as a result of rape is that the claimant is not living with the perpetrator, so those women who are unable to leave a coercive and abusive relationship but have conceived as a result of rape will have the same pressing financial need to support a third child, or more, but will not have the means to meet the requirements of that abhorrent clause. That wrong policy makes life even harder for those women.
We know from the low reporting rates for rape that many women do not wish to disclose the information. I am wholly supportive of efforts to encourage the reporting of sexual assault and rape, but we know that many women are reluctant to take that step, and we know why. There is so much work yet to be done on that front, and yet we expect women to fill in detailed forms for the DWP.
In their briefing, Scottish Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis Scotland told us:
“We are in no doubt that this policy will inflict harm on rape survivors, by removing their control over whom and when they speak about their experience. This control is known to be a critical element in a woman’s recovery from rape, removing this control risks re-traumatising women.”
The Equality and Human Rights Commission has written to the DWP explaining its concerns regarding the cap and the operation of the exemption. With regard to the cap, the commission pointed out that children have a right to adequate living standards, and that those are international rights owed by the state to the children themselves. Those rights are not dependent on the choices or circumstances of their parents. The commission rightly criticised the DWP for the lack of a properly detailed impact assessment. The on-going cumulative impact of cuts affecting women and children is a scandal and it has to stop.
The Scottish Government has the power to take action to mitigate—to make something bad less severe, as the dictionary would have it—and, of course, it must and will look at ways to ensure that support for those affected is available. However, I campaigned for a Scottish Parliament and joined Scotland Forward before I joined the Scottish Green Party. Ruth Davidson asks what a Scottish Parliament is for. It is not simply to mitigate the policies of the Conservatives at Westminster. My vision of devolution is proactive, with politicians in Scotland working together for the good of people in Scotland. Ruth Davidson, Adam Tomkins and many others appear to have no vision of what this Parliament should be about.
I support the SNP motion and the Labour amendment, and I move amendment S5M-05282.2, to insert after “Pensions”:
“; agrees with Rape Crisis Scotland, Engender and Scottish Women’s Aid’s view that these changes are ethically unjustifiable; believes that women’s rights and equality are integral to developing a social security system in Scotland that is just and fair; condemns the two-child cap as yet another welfare cut that the UK Government knows will hit women hardest”.
We now move to the open part of the debate.15:00
I am profoundly sad to say that the child tax credit cuts yet again show the harsh and cruel nature of the Tory Government—a Government that always seems to find a new low to stoop to when it comes to attacking the dignity, living conditions and income of the vulnerable.
Let us be clear: the two-child family cap is nothing less than malevolent social engineering. In December 2014, Iain Duncan Smith suggested that imposing the cap would “help behavioural change”. Think about those words—words that carry the sinister suggestion that poor people should not have the impudence or moral right to breed. Iain Duncan Smith has four children, but, then, he is rich and a member of the Tory elite, so he is not likely to ever call on the welfare state that he has such loathing for. Those words deliberately plant a seed in people’s minds that parents on lower incomes are being irresponsible. We might be shocked by that, but we should not be surprised. It is, after all, the latest twist of the knife from a Tory Government that already thinks that it is okay for it to tell people where they can live; how many bedrooms they can have; whether they get support for their disability; whether they can maintain their independence through the use of a mobility car; what and how often they can eat; how often they can heat their home; whether they can get housing support to keep a roof over their heads, which is a particular issue for the under-25s; and, now, if and how they might extend their family, should they dare to do so. It is the worst kind of social engineering: it is beyond reactionary, beyond unfair and, frankly, beyond belief.
However, one part of the policy is perhaps the most disgusting thing that we have seen from the Tories yet. I am talking about the so-called rape clause—the Tories’ one exemption from their three-strikes-and-you’re-out child tax credit policy. That clause is nothing less than a barbaric assault on women who have suffered the life-changing consequences of having had a child as a result of non-consensual sex.
My tenacious colleague Alison Thewliss MP found the rape clause buried in the welfare reforms some 21 months ago, but the Tory Government has ignored all her calls for sense and compassion to prevail. The Tories’ own Jackson Carlaw has described the policy as “awkward”. Awkward for whom—for his Tory party, hoping to slip it through without the inconvenience of arousing hostile public interest, or for Ruth Davidson and her other colleagues, now performing excruciating contortions in a bid to sidestep taking responsibility for this barbarism? I say to Mr Carlaw, Ms Davidson and the members on the Conservative side of the chamber that, for those who will find themselves trapped, humiliated and impoverished by this vicious and punitive piece of sophistry, it is a good deal more than awkward—it is devastating. I ask them to imagine themselves or a member of their family, having already suffered rape or domestic violence, finding themselves having to deal with this and allow the state to use an eight-page form—yes, an eight-page form—to snoop into the deepest recesses of their hurt and trauma. I ask them to imagine that they had not reported the rape because they just wanted to bury the awful memory; or that they are still living with the abusive partner who raped them; or that they are in Northern Ireland and their application results in a report to the police; or that they are the child who is named on that form.
We do not have to imagine it, however, because this is not some dystopian story that we are talking about; it is actual Government policy—right here, right now, in this so-called civilised United Kingdom. It is deeper than disgusting: it is a deliberate, calculated attack not just on women—who so often bear the brunt of Tory welfare cuts—but on women’s human rights, yet the Scottish Tories here in this Parliament squat down in the bunker and hope that the firestorm will pass.
Ruth Davidson will not even apologise or explain. She even has the audacity to suggest that this Parliament should mitigate the damage by protecting Scottish families from the mean-minded nastiness of her party at Westminster. That proves one thing: where there is muck, there is usually always a brass neck, and there is plenty of that in here today.
Deep revulsion with the policy stretches to the horizon and beyond, from politicians, faith leaders, Women’s Aid, Zero Tolerance, Engender, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the trade unions, child poverty campaigners and even the House of Lords.
If Ruth Davidson and her colleagues want us to believe that they are capable of even an atom of compassion, they must insist that this corrosive, demeaning, divisive and bitterly unfair legislation is scrapped straight away.
I want to live in a civilised country—a nation that shows its people respect, compassion and care, not one that treats its needy with suspicion, heartlessness and contempt. Today I say loud and clear to the Tories: “We do not want your child tax credit cuts and your rape clause here or anywhere in the UK. Scrap it now.”15:06
Survivors of rape have been to hell and back. Their very being has been violated. Women who have reported being raped will have been subjected to the indignities of the criminal justice system and may face the daunting prospect of a protracted court case. They will have experienced shame, isolation and the most complex inner turmoil that most of us cannot even imagine, and those emotions will never fully dissipate during their lifetime. To say that this is a sensitive subject that must be treated carefully may be true, but that does not even begin to cut it. In the rare cases when the rape results in the conception and birth of a child, the issues are even more fraught. That is the context in which I want to place my remarks this afternoon.
Will the member take an intervention?
No, not at the moment.
One of the first duties of government is the responsible stewardship of the nation’s resources. However, when the Conservatives returned to government in 2010, we found that Gordon Brown’s outgoing Labour Administration had failed in that regard. “Sorry, but there is no money left.” That is what we were told—
Kezia Dugdale rose—
The Minister for International Development and Europe (Dr Alasdair Allan) rose—
Mark McDonald rose—
Sorry, but I am not going to give way at the moment.
Will members please sit down. Mr Tomkins is not giving way.
That is what we were told in that famous note left in the Treasury.
Will the member give way?
No, I will not give way at the moment.
Putting the nation’s finances on a sound footing has been the core mission of the Conservative Government over the past seven years. Responsible stewardship of the nation’s resources is why we turned coalition into majority in 2015, and it is why we will turn a majority of 12 into a majority many times greater than that on 8 June. It is the right thing to do. It is what having an economy that works for everyone means.
Mark McDonald rose—
Getting the balance right between the responsibilities of the taxpayer—
Mr McDonald, please sit down.
I am sorry, Presiding Officer.
I was asking Mr McDonald to sit down. Please continue.
Getting the balance right between the responsibilities of the taxpayer to contribute and the rights of claimants to benefit is a judgment. All responsible politicians have to make that judgment. It is our judgment that the right thing to do is to restore fairness in the benefits system between those receiving benefits and those paying for them, with families relying on public support making the same financial decisions as those supporting themselves solely through work.
Sandra White (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP) rose—
Will the member give way?
Not at the moment.
That is why, from 1 April this year, child tax credits are limited to the first two children in a family. That will apply only to new claims; no-one currently receiving tax credits will see their benefits reduced—that is the important point.
I readily concede that not everyone will share our judgment that this is the right thing to do.
Jeane Freeman rose—
Please sit down.
If a majority of MSPs thinks that we have got the balance wrong and that a different policy would be the right one for Scotland, we have all the powers that we need to do something about it—not to shout and scream but to act. We have the power to top up any reserved benefit, including child tax credits, and we have the resources to pay for it if that is what we choose to do.
Kevin Stewart rose—
Mark McDonald rose—
Please sit down.
At the same time as deciding that we should limit child tax credits to two children in a family, we immediately saw that there must be exemptions. What if there is a multiple birth? What if children are adopted from care? What about those rare cases when a birth is the consequence of a rape? Just as I support the underlying decision to limit child tax credits, so too do I support those exemptions. Because of the issues that I referred to at the beginning my speech, it is obviously the case that the exemption as regards children who are conceived as a result of rape is extraordinarily sensitive. It is unfortunate therefore that there is such misinformation surrounding it. I have heard it said that women will have to prove that they were raped. That is not the case. I have heard it said that the exemption will apply only where there has been a conviction for rape. That is not the case—there does not even have to be a charge, never mind a conviction.
Will the member take an intervention?
Please sit down, First Minister.
Even the oft-repeated claim that a woman has to fill in an eight-page form reliving the horror of her assault and violation is not true.
Andy Wightman (Lothian) (Green) rose—
Will the member give way?
I would like the courtesy of being able to hear Mr Tomkins, please.
Is there more that we can do to support the survivors of rape and sexual assault in Scotland? Of course there is. We could, for example, increase the number of sexual assault referral centres. As Annie Wells pointed out earlier this year, there are 43 such centres in England and six in Wales, but in the Scottish National Party’s Scotland, there is just one.
Gillian Martin rose—
Please sit down.
It is also the case that more than 90 per cent of projects aimed at tackling violence against women and children have suffered cuts in Scottish Government funding.
It is sometimes said that the Conservatives target the poor. In a sense, that is correct. Since 2010, we have lifted 1.3 million lower-wage workers out of income tax. At the same time, the national living wage has given a pay rise to 1.7 million people. Our welfare reforms hit higher-income families first—not those who are worse off—by removing child benefit from families who pay income tax at the higher rate. Whereas the Labour Party had a lower rate of tax for the very richest in society, Conservatives have ensured that the wealthiest pay a greater share of tax. Under the Conservatives, income inequality is falling.
Judgments about the relationship of tax to spend and decisions about getting the balance right between the responsibilities of taxpayers to contribute and the rights of claimants to welfare benefits are difficult and require tough choices. In stewarding the nation’s resources, limiting child tax credits to the first two children in a family is the right thing to do. Exempting some families from that, including in cases of rape, is also the right decision. I support the amendment in Ruth Davidson’s name.
I would like to hear all members in the debate. I know that it is tense and that everybody is committed, but I and other members would like to hear what members have to say.15:13
Like many members, although perhaps not those on the Tory side of the chamber, I entered politics because I really believe in equality and social justice, and not in punishing the poor and rewarding the rich, which the Tories over there are doing through the benefits system.
I find it difficult to broach this subject, and I will give members a wee bit of background to explain why. I am a member of a large family. My mother worked part-time and my father worked until he was 73. Sometimes we had to rely on free school meals and the help of friends and family. The reason why I am struggling with this barbaric, disgusting and disgraceful policy, which has been proposed by the Tories at Westminster and defended by the Tories here in the Scottish Parliament, is because of where we would be if it had been introduced when I was born or when the rest of my family were born. Where would my nieces and nephews be? Where would any family who had more than two children be? I will tell members where we would be. Even though we were hard-working families, we would be struggling and poverty stricken.
My extended family is the reason why I find it difficult to speak about the issue. For the people who are struggling just now, this measure will make things worse than ever. Many of the people who are in low-paid employment—low-wage families—are not scroungers and they are not on welfare or benefits. They are working really hard and the Tories are punishing them because they are low-paid, and because they are women. I will come on to give some statistics about that.
Something else in the documentation that I find hard to believe is that a child who was born after 11.59 pm on 5 April 2017 will be brought up in a poorer family that is struggling and the children will be living in abject poverty. Just being born a minute after midnight will mean that that child and family will be living in abject poverty.
The Tory amendment gives the reason for pushing the measure forward. The amendment
“notes that the UK Government has a duty to manage public finances carefully for future generations”.
What future generations are they protecting? It is not the future generations of families who are on low pay and it is not the future generations of women. That is who the Tories are attacking and absolutely destroying. I find it disgraceful that any political party could think up something quite like this.
I said that I would give facts and figures to show that people are not benefit scroungers, as the Tories all seem to think. Of all in-work families who are receiving tax credits, 87 per cent of the recipients are women. Of in-work single parents, 94 per cent of the recipients are women. The word there is “in-work” not “workless”, which is itself an abomination of a word. I am talking about families and women who are in work, and all they are doing is getting a little helping hand to help if something happens to them.
I will go on to talk about the rape clause shortly, but nobody so far has mentioned what happens if someone is taking precautions and the condom happens to burst, or if a woman happens to be ill and the pill does not work. Does the eight-page document say what to do? No. What happens to those families? What happens to the women who are stuck with that? Do they have to go to their doctor and get a letter to say what happened, or will they actually have to produce the burst condom? What happens then?
I am not just talking about the kids who are being born. The right to dignity and respect is absolutely precious to human life and the Tories over there are taking it from people and defending the policy. They should be absolutely ashamed of themselves for not standing up and sticking up for the ordinary people and women of this country.
Lots has been said about the rape clause. Ruth Davidson and Adam Tomkins practically gave the same speech. They both used the word “violated”. If a woman has to go down to the DWP to fill in the form, is that not a violation of women’s rights? Is it not further violation? And yet, they defend it. I honestly despair. I thought that some of the Tories were decent people but, if they stand by this proposal, there is no decency left in them. Have they read the form? Have they even seen it? I am particularly talking to Annie Wells, because I saw in a newspaper today that she said that she will give the reasons why she defends the policy. Annie Wells has relatives living in the east end of Glasgow. She comes from an area where many people who have more than two children are living on low incomes. How can she possibly defend this and go out into her Glasgow constituency and say that she stands up for working people?
The eight-page form says that the Government believes in equality and diversity. Is that not something? It says that in a form that women who have been raped or domestically abused have to fill in. I say to the Tories that they do not believe in anything. All they believe in is looking after themselves and the rich, and the poor are the ones who will suffer, particularly the women. Women having to prove that they have been raped—the Tories should be ashamed of themselves.15:19
I pay tribute to Kez Dugdale and Sandra White for offering very moving personal testimonies, and I congratulate the Scottish Government on lodging the motion. I assure it of the support of the Liberal Democrats. We will support Kez Dugdale’s and Alison Johnstone’s amendments, as well.
Who can forget Theresa May’s inaugural words in her tenure as Prime Minister? In her Francis of Assisi moment on the steps of number 10, she said of families that rely on tax credits in particular:
“If you’re from an ordinary working class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise. You have a job but you don’t always have job security. You have your own home, but you worry about paying a mortgage. You can just about manage but you worry about the cost of living and getting your kids into a good school ... I know you’re working around the clock, I know you’re doing your best, and I know that sometimes life can be a struggle. The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours.”
In the two-child tax credit cap and the rape clause that underpins it, we see the measure of that commitment made flesh. I am certain that those words have now turned to ash in the Prime Minister’s mouth.
There are days in the chamber when we are debating welfare reform and social security matters in which I rise to speak with some trepidation and a recognition that there were times when my party, through dint of the coalition, participated in decisions and reforms that were distasteful to us as Liberals, but were far less egregious than those that our partners originally proposed. Members rightly lose no time in reminding me of that in colourful interventions. That is fair enough, but the untold story of our days in coalition is what never made it to the statute book thanks to Liberal Democrat resistance: regional pay, which would penalise any workers outside the south-east of England, inheritance tax cuts for millionaires and enhanced powers for employers to sack staff without notice or recourse to a tribunal.
As I told the First Minister in my intervention, the abhorrent policy that we are discussing would have been on the statute book for years had my party not taken a stand in coalition and blocked it. At no point has my party ever denied that welfare reform is needed; indeed, the Poverty Alliance has said for the best part of a decade that the old system is no longer fit for purpose. However, on the issue in question, as with so many other areas in the agenda, the Conservatives have got it far wrong.
The policy that we are debating has rightly grabbed national attention because of the rape clause, but it is the two-child cap, which is at the root of the policy, that will result in families drifting beneath the breadline. I do not need to remind members that, at present, the national outrage that is child poverty involves some 250,000 children or more, and that number is rising.
Next to the Lib Dem uplift in the income tax threshold, family tax credits have been the most effective way of addressing in-work family poverty.
Does Alex Cole-Hamilton think that even one Tory will have the dignity, honesty and self-respect to vote against their party at decision time?
I very much hope so but, sadly, I also very much doubt it.
With the pound weakening and the cost of living rising as a result of the Tory hard Brexit, mounting an assault on tax credits now would result in those numbers growing still further and far faster. That really does give the lie to the warm words of our new Prime Minister.
I described the two-child cap as the root of the rape clause because the clause could not exist without the cap. If a person were to suggest that such a cap is necessary—I utterly reject that it is—to bring in such a restriction without any exemptions would be unfair and inhumane in itself. That is what is so barbaric about the notion of determining public policy on the basis of an upward limit on childbearing. Any such policy would inevitably lead by necessity to a rape clause. If a policy necessitates a precondition whereby women must actively prove to an employee of the state or a third party that they have been raped, it has no place in a civilised society.
Let us speak truthfully about the landscape in which rape survivors currently find themselves in modern Britain. As we have heard, conviction rates in rape cases that reach court stand at just 33 per cent. To put it another way, if a person endures a rape, which is one of the most life-shattering, poisonous and dehumanising acts imaginable, and they can get enough evidence to press charges through the courts, they can expect to be believed around a third of the time; for two thirds of the time, people will not be believed.
Against that backdrop, we are saying to some of the most vulnerable women in our country two terrible words that sometimes stand between them and food on the table: “Prove it.” We are asking women to relive the trauma of that experience, in some cases years after the fact, when for many reasons they might not have reported the matter to the authorities, but through sheer financial hardship must now do so. For the first time, as we have heard, children—loved to the rafters as they may be—might come to learn the dark and violent origins of their parentage, due to a bureaucratic requirement in the DWP at Whitehall.
There is a human cost to all that we do in this place and in the House of Commons. There are times when economic circumstance might cause us to pass a policy with which we are uncomfortable and which might cause people harm, but there is a mace at the centre of this room on which are engraved four words around which we seek to instil humanity into all the policy that we pass. Those words are wisdom, compassion, integrity and justice, and I see none of those in the barbaric policy that we rightly condemn through the Government motion.15:25
I am obligated to remind the Parliament that I am a parliamentary liaison officer to the office of the First Minister of Scotland—a First Minister who is one of four party leaders who have led on this matter. She is one of the leaders in a Parliament of five political parties, and on this issue we have seen real leadership from the First Minister, Kezia Dugdale, Patrick Harvie and Willie Rennie, but not from Ruth Davidson, and not yet, sadly, from any other members of the Scottish Conservative party. To be a leader, one cannot just hold a title; one needs to show leadership. To be a leader, one cannot just think about one’s Tory tribe; one must stand up for what is right. To be a leader, one needs to stand up for the human rights of all the people one represents and not just to conform obediently to the UK Government and Theresa May by seeking to defend the indefensible.
There are many fundamental problems with the Tories’ imposition of the family cap. Most significant is that that senseless policy will increase levels of child poverty and have a disproportionately negative impact on women. According to the Child Poverty Action Group, 200,000 additional children will be pushed into poverty across the UK as a result of the policy, and according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies it will negatively affect around 600,000 families across the UK. That is the same as the population of the city of Edinburgh.
It is not only children on whom the Tory Government is turning its back. Across the UK, the family cap reveals the truth—that the Tories are hacking away at our benefits system in the full knowledge that their policies will adversely impact on women’s rights, as has been argued powerfully by Engender and Women’s Aid. The UK Government even admits that itself. Its impact assessment for the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 states:
“on an individual basis women may be more likely to be affected than men. Around 90% of lone parents are women, and a higher proportion of this group are in receipt of CTC. Therefore they are more likely to be affected”.
In effect, the UK Government feels that it need only give a cursory nod to the fact that women will be disproportionately affected, and that it can write a tokenistic impact assessment and then ignore the impact that the family cap will have on so many people.
Not only do all those factors make the family cap both illogical and inexcusable; the policy is also based entirely on a misguided presumption. The rape clause has rightly garnered much press attention because people struggle to understand how a political party—or how any people—can take such a callous attitude to other people, but we must not forget that the family cap is the overarching policy that has led to this outrage. Even by the Tory party’s absurd moral reasoning, the family cap is based on fundamental flaws. It has been pushed through with absolutely no evidence to support the DWP’s assumption that the policy will incentivise families to have only two children if they cannot afford to have more. The policy has been pushed through, as the Equality and Human Rights Commission has said, without a sufficiently detailed impact assessment to support proper scrutiny, without any mention of the public sector equality duty, without any mention of how its aims would be achieved, without any mention of how the potential impact of the policy will be monitored, and without any mention of how adverse impacts that are identified after implementation will be tackled.
In other words, the family cap and the rape clause that is part of it are not only immoral and indefensible but nonsensical and completely without foundation. The idea that it is in any way common for people to have children so that they can claim social security is a damaging and unhelpful myth that politicians—certainly those who want to call themselves leaders—should be challenging, and not pandering to.
The Tory family cap is based on a misguided and cynical world view and on a false premise about the motivations and circumstances of women and men in our communities. The Tories have completely ignored the fact that any family can be hit by redundancy, illness, separation or widowhood at any time—any of which can lead to a significant loss of income.
Children are born for a multiplicity of reasons. What matters, therefore, is not just how loving and responsible their parents are, but how we as a society help them to grow and develop, to be all that they can be and to give all that they can give to the common good. To limit a child’s life chances and aspirations on the basis of their parents’ level of income is regressive. It is also remarkably misguided to imply that a person’s ability to raise and care for a family should be based on their bank balance, but the Tory family cap policy of ripping away state support from families on lower incomes who need that support is a shameful value judgment that does just that.
Human rights say that we do not have a hierarchy of humanity. To impose such an arbitrary and unjust policy is to show a lack of wisdom, compassion and integrity. I therefore urge all fellow MSPs, including Tory MSPs, to think carefully about the principles of this Parliament before they vote tonight and to do what is right—to support the Government motion, reject Ruth Davidson’s amendment and support the Labour and Green amendments. Let us all be leaders against the appalling and thoughtless family cap policy and the utterly abhorrent rape clause.15:31
I am glad to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate and add my voice to the coalition that is calling for the removal of the family cap and which is campaigning against the rape clause.
I am grateful to all the organisations that contacted members before the debate to tell us about the negative impact of the changes, and I am grateful to all the people who organised and attended last week’s rally outside Parliament. I acknowledge the work of Alison Thewliss MP in opposition to the rape clause. I have done what I can to support her work, including by responding to her consultation.
The welfare state was created to support and help people who are in the most vulnerable and desperate situations. The child tax credit system was introduced with a range of other measures to tailor welfare support for, and focus it on, where it is most needed. The system, which was introduced by a Labour Government, was always about supporting families, making work pay and tackling poverty. Creating a welfare system is challenging, but at the heart of the project must be the desire to support people and not punish them, to give people opportunities and not desperation, and to offer people hope and stability and not place them in precarious situations in which they cannot support themselves or their families.
A welfare system that does not function properly creates problems in the short term as well as in the long term. The growth of food poverty and food banks, poor mental health, poor aspirations and generational unemployment are the rewards of a punitive welfare system.
What will be the impact of the family cap? The Conservative Government has argued that it will save money and reduce the welfare budget, but the evidence shows that the burden must fall disproportionately on women and children. In its briefing for the debate, Engender tells us:
“86 percent of net ‘savings’ raised through UK Government cuts to social security and tax credits will come from women’s incomes ... Women who are lone parents will experience an estimated loss of £4,000 per year, a 20 percent drop in living standards, and a 17 percent drop in disposable income by 2020.”
The Child Poverty Action Group and the Institute for Public Policy Research estimate that, across the UK, up to 200,000 more children in families with more than two children will be pushed into poverty.
Perversely for a Conservative policy, 65 per cent of the families who will be affected are working families. The Conservatives claim that the policy encourages family planning, but it does not recognise the realities of modern life, whereby families can be hit—often when they least expect it—by redundancy, illness, separation or widowhood, all of which impact on income. American states that introduced the policy had to repeal it after recognising that it did not achieve its objective but only created greater hardship in their communities. The UK measures are so punitive to disadvantaged and marginalised groups that they risk breaching UN treaties.
The exemption to the rule that the Conservatives have introduced has only caused more concern and alarm. The exemption for women who have had a third or subsequent child as a result of non-consensual conception, which is known as the rape clause, has created more problems, difficulties and disgust than solutions. The UK Government must listen to Scottish Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis Scotland when they say that they are in no doubt that the policy will inflict harm on rape survivors. It demonstrates no understanding of a woman’s experience of rape; it fails to appreciate the importance of control of the experience and the information to a survivor; it risks compromising survivors’ trust in services; and it exposes the woman and forces her to declare a highly traumatic violent experience in order that she can access support for herself and her children.
Furthermore, the policy exception excludes women who live with their partner, thereby ignoring the prevalence of rape within the context of domestic abuse. It does not recognise the level of control and abuse that some women are living with in relationships. At a time when the Scottish Parliament is due to consider legislation on domestic abuse and to acknowledge the prevalence of coercive control, the policy flies in the face of that level of understanding. It also does not recognise that disclosure to a third party leaves a woman vulnerable to repercussions from the person who has raped her, who may be her ex-partner and may still have contact with her children. It also leaves the identified child vulnerable and stigmatised. No thought has been given to the reality for a woman of declaring her child the result of rape for an amount of money that is important to the financial survival of her family.
The role of the third party is also hugely problematic, and it is even more challenging in Scotland as organisations are making clear their intention not to provide the role. It places professionals in the role of gatekeeper to services: they have to verify a person’s claims and judge whether they are telling the truth, which is a terrible situation for a Government to be advocating in the context of rape. The third party also has no responsibility, training or expertise to support someone who has revealed a trauma. In a strong statement, the Royal College of Nursing Scotland has said that it does
“not believe it is appropriate for a nurse or a midwife to arbitrate if a woman’s claim is consistent with rape”.
Furthermore, Scottish Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis Scotland have announced that they will not act as third-party reporters. The policy is in crisis and is increasingly undeliverable in Scotland.
The UK Government has pushed ahead with its policy without considering the negative consequences—either that or it does not care about the negative impacts because it is so persuaded by its own thinking in the face of contrary evidence. I hear the Conservatives making their excuses and giving their explanations this afternoon, and I do not buy it. They would make better use of their influence by joining the rest of us in working to change the UK Government’s mind instead of trying to justify a policy that will push thousands of children into poverty and penalise women who have already endured traumatic and often violent experiences.15:38
The last time that I spoke on social security in the chamber, the United Nations had recently condemned Tory welfare reform as being a “grave and systematic violation” of disabled people’s rights. I did not think that I could feel angrier and I did not think that Tory policy could sink any lower. However, the two-child cap and the associated rape clause that we are debating mark a new and awful Tory low.
The two-cap policy is inherently wrong, grotesquely out of touch with most people’s experience of life and misguidedly punitive. Its stated rationale is to create a situation in which
“people on benefits have to make the same choices as those supporting themselves solely through work.”
What the Tories mean by that is that people on benefits should not have more children because they cannot afford the ones that they already have. That assumes that people choose poverty, low pay, irregular hours, redundancy, crisis and the pain of family break-up, relationship breakdown, illness or bereavement. It is not only a ridiculous assumption; it is a dangerous one. We cannot always plan for such things, predict the future or guarantee our circumstances.
The Tories want us to believe in the cruel and nasty notion of “the undeserving poor” because it suits the nasty agenda of some people in their party. However, only a privileged few in the chamber will be so wealthy as to have always been cushioned from the bumps in the road. For the rest of us, our welfare system is a safety net to support us in times of hardship and crisis. The Tory party is fundamentally out of touch with the reality of people’s lives, and it cannot be trusted with our social security system. The policy, like many other Tory policies, undermines the contract between the citizen and the state, and it further chips away at the safety net of our social security system. It is part of a wider set of ideological reforms that have in common the belief that claimants are to blame for their poverty and should be punished for being poor, or disabled, or ill, or women.
Of course, no one will be surprised to hear that this abhorrent policy disproportionately damages women and children. It is predicted that the two-child cap will leave more than 266,000 additional children across the UK in poverty by 2020. That is before we even get to the rape clause, which is the most detestable part of a generally loathsome policy. Despite the Tories’ best efforts to convince themselves and us otherwise, there can be no doubt that forcing women to choose between reliving emotional trauma and impoverishment is abhorrent. It is not “awkward”; it is shamefully abhorrent.
Ruth Davidson and the Tories are seeking to defend the indefensible. Trusted women’s organisations including Rape Crisis Scotland know how distressing and difficult it is for women to disclose rape. They know the importance of trust and non-judgment in their relationships with the women who seek their help. The Scottish Tories claim that the rape clause is the most sensitive way to administer the exemption. Let us get real: there is no sensitive way to force a woman, in order to obtain support to feed her children, to prove that she has been raped. Indeed, the women’s organisations in question find the rape clause so morally appalling and so damaging to their role as support organisations that they cannot and will not administer it: they will not be used as tools to get the UK Government off the hook and they will never participate in something that revictimises women and children. Their doing so would compromise and undermine everything that they stand for and believe in.
No health professionals are prepared to participate, either. The Scottish Tories are well aware of that, but they continue to spread misinformation to the press, to their constituents and in the chamber. They should be ashamed of themselves.
It has not always been clear whether the Scottish Tories actually support the policy or are simply unwilling to criticise the UK Government. I do not know which is worse. The Tories do not normally shy away from telling us whether they think that something is good or bad for Scotland. If they genuinely agree with the policy, they would have debated it: they would have extolled its virtues and engaged us with a convincing defence of the rationale behind it. They have not done that this week, and I have not heard a peep from them on that this afternoon. They have hidden behind spokespeople and have tried to convince us that the rape clause is Tory compassion in action. Most staggeringly of all, they have tried to deflect blame and responsibility for the policy on to the Scottish Government and have called on our Parliament to clean up their party’s mess, and for the people of Scotland to pay twice for social security. Some are attempting to defend the indefensible, and it is showing—we see them.
However, I look across the chamber and I see Tory colleagues who look deeply uncomfortable with the policy. I hope that they have been listening carefully to the strength of the arguments that have been made across the Parliament against the harmful two-child cap and the rape clause, and that some of them will be able to show the courage and the strength to vote with the rest of Parliament against the abhorrent policy.
I call Rachael Hamilton, to be followed by Gillian Martin, who will be the last member to speak in the open debate.15:43
In his summer 2015 budget, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, set out his plans for changes to the Welfare Reform and Work Bill. Eighteen months later, starting on 6 April this year, child tax credits were limited to the first two children in a family. I note that the benefits of families with three children or more who currently receive tax benefits will not be reduced.
I would like to set out the reasons for the changes. First, following spiralling spending by a previous Labour Administration, concerted efforts have been made by a Conservative Government to reduce the public deficit, to rebalance welfare spend and to restore fairness in the benefits system between those who receive benefits and those who pay for them, with families who rely on welfare support being able to make the same financial decisions as those who support themselves solely through work.
Will the member take an intervention?
I am afraid that I have only five minutes.
We have all heard stories from constituents who work and are able to provide for their families but have to make difficult financial decisions. Child tax credits are a small part of a large jigsaw of welfare reform that aims to protect the most vulnerable people in our society.
Today, we discuss what is, for many people, a sensitive and delicate issue. That is why there are a number of exemptions to protect those who are at risk. We have already discussed those who are at risk: children who are adopted from care or children who are living long term with relatives, for whom tax credits are important because the alternative would be local authority care. Another exemption is for women who have given birth to children as a result of non-consensual sex. That will ensure that those victims will not lose tax credits for their families through no fault of their own.
Will the member take an intervention?
Will the member take an intervention.
Can members sit down, please?
Notwithstanding the strength of feeling over changes to the tax credit benefit, I want to set the record straight over some of the misleading comments that have been made by the SNP and other parties over the past week. With an election looming, instead of protecting the vulnerable in our society, the Scottish National Party chose to use the policy that we are debating to demonise the leader of the Scottish Conservative Party and to twist an exemption that would help vulnerable persons into the opposite of what it is meant to achieve.
Will the member give way?
I have only five minutes—so no, thank you.
Please sit down, Mr Stewart.
The reality is that the SNP and others are choosing to debate an exemption to help people who have experienced something horrific. The purpose of the debate could be to oppose child tax credits being limited to two children; instead, the Government has decided to debate an exemption to that cap that would mean that it would not impact every woman, no matter their circumstances.
From the start, the SNP Government knew that it had the power to implement the two-child tax credit policy and thus the exemption, but it has chosen to ignore that option.
Will the member take an intervention?
Will the member take an intervention?
The member has made it clear that she is not taking interventions, so please sit down.
Those are new powers that the SNP Government has, but never uses.
Before a New York audience on her tour of the United States, the First Minister set out how Scotland could be different as an independent country, using the so-called rape clause as an example. What she failed to do is reveal that her Government already has the power to top up UK-wide benefits including tax credits. Given the SNP opposition to changes in child tax credits, surely it would be hypocritical for the SNP Government not to act. Why has the Scottish Government refused to say whether it would pay child tax credits for three or four children? What does the SNP Government do other than attack the Conservative Government for making tough decisions in difficult times?
Yesterday, the Scottish Parliament information centre reported that it would cost £200 million over the next four years to mitigate the cap. That amount of money is less than the £800 million that Derek Mackay found down the back of his sofa during his budget negotiations. Will the Scottish Government finally use the powers that have been granted to it?
As part of welfare reform, the Conservative Government has made more decisions that have been effective, including cutting income tax by more than £1,000 for the typical taxpayer.
Will the member take an intervention?
No, thank you.
Another decision by the Conservative Government was to increase the national living wage to give a pay rise to 1.7 million people and to make sure that work pays. Meanwhile, the Scottish economy is on the brink of recession, and education and health remain neglected by the SNP Government.
I have set out the hypocrisy of the SNP Government. I have highlighted its failure to come clean over the powers that it has to act in respect of changes to child tax credit. The Scottish Government consistently claims that it does not have enough powers and that independence is necessary in order to make the changes in Scotland that it wishes. However, the truth is that the SNP Government has the powers, but continually fails to use them. Instead, the SNP Government is continuing on a path of division and will use anything to demonise the main unionist opposition.
I call Gillian Martin, then we will move to closing speeches. You have five minutes, Ms Martin.15:48
This has not been a debate, has it? No interventions have been taken by any of the Tories and they have not asked to make any interventions. Most of them have been sitting with their heads down over their phones. This is the last of the open-debate speeches and I do not have much time, but I will give the Tories the opportunity to intervene on me, with one condition: that they take the chance to stand up and say “Actually, I have been convinced by the arguments put forward by the rest of the parties today and I’m going to stand up for women and families.” Any takers? No.
Members: Not one.
More than 1 million children will be affected by this dreadful policy that is set, as has been said, to save the UK Government £1 billion per year. How much do tax evasion and tax avoidance cost the UK a year? The answer is £34 billion. Adam Tomkins talked about the so-called little note that David Cameron reckoned that the Tories found in the Treasury that said that there was no money left. On the back of that note, did it say “Get it from the vulnerable and the poorest in society”? No, it did not.
The UK Government agreed to make all its laws in accordance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, when it was ratified in 1991. I argue that the policy that is before us directly contravenes that convention, which states:
“No child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy”,
yet a mother must confirm to a third-party stranger that she has raped in order that she can access funds for her child. Who is that third party?
Members are asking for more centres for support. The organisations that run the existing centres that provide support to women who have been raped—Rape Crisis Scotland and Scottish Women’s Aid—have refused to have anything to do with the abhorrent policy.
Has the Government considered the psychological trauma that will result from having to make such a declaration about a child, either at the point of assessment or later in life?
The UNCRC also states that “every child” should “benefit from social security”; it does not say that only the first two children of a family should benefit. The policy means that there is no link between a child’s need and the support that they get.
The UK Social Security Advisory Committee has commented that the DWP faces
“complex challenges in ensuring that the proposals are delivered in an effective, fair and safe way”.
It has flagged up concerns about privacy and the requirement that the woman is not living with the alleged perpetrator, and about how the third-party decision model will work in practice. The Church of Scotland, too, has condemned the policy. The clause is as unworkable as it is abhorrent.
The Tories say that the family cap will make families think about whether they can afford to have children. There is so much wrong with that statement that I could use up all my time on it alone. Let us just say that I agree with Christina McKelvie on that matter.
Let us assume that I have covered all the moral ground around who, according to the Tories, has the right to procreate and jump to this point. Regardless of the family’s situation at the time of conception, things can and do happen: a parent loses their job, a parent dies, a parent becomes incapacitated or a parent abandons the family, leaving them to struggle. Not many families in this country could handle the loss of one wage for more than one month before encountering severe difficulty. In the case of families in which there are terminally ill parents or who have just lost a parent, there is the dual assault being made on them by the Tory UK Government’s cutting bereavement support.
Last week, one of the architects of universal credit, Deven Ghelani, got in touch with me. He has produced a paper that assesses the impacts of tax credit cuts on third and subsequent children. The paper says that the
“Two child limit to tax credits”
“set to drive child poverty up by 10%”
in the next three years. Deven Ghelani continues:
“The behavioural impact of the policy remains unclear, but we know that the costs of poverty are significant ... The cost of the policy will ultimately fall on the children in the families affected.”
He was, of course, talking in terms of the UK population.
That is one of the reasons why I take massive exception to the stock response from Tory members here. To quote Ruth Davidson from last week,
“if the First Minister does not like the two-child tax policy, she can change it.”—[Official Report, 20 April 2017; c 11.]
Aside from the hypocrisy of the Scottish Government being asked yet again to clean up a Tory mess, that is a moral outrage. What of the children and families who are being driven into poverty across the UK? Who is going to speak for them? Who is going to stand up for them?
The policy needs to be scrapped at source: it needs to be scrapped for the sakes of women, families and children across the UK, and it needs to be scrapped for the good of all children who will be subjected to its effects.15:53
Like colleagues across almost all of the chamber, I am grateful that we have made time to debate the child tax credit cuts and the rape clause today, although I cannot describe my horror that we have to do so—that the Conservative Party has implemented something so cruel and so utterly revolting that even its own most extreme members can barely muster a defence.
Did Ruth Davidson’s contribution not expose that so well? The mask that she has carefully constructed to create an acceptable face of her party has well and truly slipped. She has spent years trying to convince voters that the Tories are the nasty party no longer, but when we cut through the tank-riding, bagpipe-playing bravado, we can see that Miss Davidson is just another cruel member of a cruel party—or worse, she disagrees, but the famously honest and plain-spoken politician is too cowardly to say so.
This is nothing new. Time and again, the Tories go after the most vulnerable people in society and impose the costs of austerity on those who are least able to bear them. The Tories have already hammered people who have disabilities. While Ruth Davidson poses on top of mobility scooters, her party takes away 800 mobility cars a week, which is leaving disabled people isolated. While she is out there claiming that Theresa May has helped women, the Tory party is forcing rape victims to jump over invasive bureaucratic hurdles just to claim basic support. As Alison Johnstone mentioned, 86 per cent of the £26 billion-worth of cuts implemented or planned for this decade have or will hit women.
The Tories have again become the party of child poverty. Nearly one in four children in the UK live in poverty, which is 4 million children in one of the richest countries in the world. Just today, a new report highlighted that 3 million children are at risk of hunger over the school holidays. The Child Poverty Action Group estimates that a further 200,000 children will enter poverty because of the two-child policy alone, but what does that matter when Tory party donors are getting their tax cuts?
I thought that it would be hard for the Tories to stoop even lower than the cuts to support for people with disabilities—cuts that have killed—yet they have managed to do exactly that. They are content to force women who have been through the horrific trauma of rape to relive it. They danced around that point today, but I will happily give Ruth Davidson some of my time if she wishes to clarify. Why does she want survivors of rape to potentially give up their anonymity and disclose their experience to a complete stranger? Why does she think that they need to relive the trauma? Will she tell me and the public why? There is no response, which is not surprising. It is cowardly, but not surprising.
There is a clear risk that people whom survivors of rape know will find out, such as friends and family whom they might not have wanted to find out. There is a risk that a survivor’s child will find out once they are old enough to understand the welfare system. So much stress and anxiety is being imposed on vulnerable women and their families just to take money away from children.
That is everything that I have ever seen the Tory party as, but rarely has it been so blatant. The policy undermines basic human rights to privacy and to family life, and the rights of children. I am aware that Alison Thewliss MP, who we must all thank for leading the campaign, has written to the UN to request another investigation of this Tory Government on human rights grounds.
The UK Government has claimed that third-party experts will handle the rape clause sensitively, yet many women’s organisations have ruled themselves out of that role, as has the Royal College of Nursing. The organisations have raised many valid concerns about how the policy would undermine their relationship with the people who they are trying to help and undermine the vital services that they provide to victims.
I ask Rachael Hamilton why Rape Crisis Scotland, Women’s Aid, the Royal College of Nursing, the Child Poverty Action Group, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and many others are wrong and the Tory party is right. Why is that, Miss Hamilton? There is no response.
Ruth Davidson called for the facts to be clear. I agree, so I have to point out to Miss Davidson and Adam Tomkins that they made incorrect statements in the debate—through ignorance rather than malice, I assume. They said that women do not need to report their rape as a crime to claim tax credit, but that is not entirely the case. Under the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967, it is mandatory to report serious crime, so what situation will women in Northern Ireland now be in?
Conservative members have talked a lot about the powers of this Parliament—powers that they never wanted us to have—and they expect us to act, but this Parliament was not designed to act as the final line of defence against the cruelty of Conservative Governments in Westminster. That is not our role. This Parliament’s role is to improve the lives of the people of Scotland, not to implement desperate last-minute measures to prevent those lives from getting even worse.
Some Conservative colleagues are here because of their belief in the union, rather than because of an enthusiastic conservatism. I respect that, but is this policy what they wanted to spend their parliamentary careers defending? Did my colleagues in the west of Scotland—Jamie Greene, Maurice Corry, Maurice Golden and Jackson Carlaw—really come here to defend the rape clause? I do not believe that that is why Jackson Carlaw is here, because he admitted this weekend that the policy is “awkward”. As Christina McKelvie pointed out, it might be politically awkward for the Tories, but it is an intolerable trauma for rape victims around the country.
Policies that are designed to limit families to two children exist in only a few places—Vietnam, Iran, China, Singapore and now the UK. Do the Conservatives want to go down in the history of the Scottish Parliament as having voted in defence of the policy? They were elected on the banner of being a strong Opposition. If they cannot oppose the rape clause, what on earth can they oppose?15:59
How did the Tories get themselves into the position of defending a clause that is now, and for ever will be, known as the rape clause? How did the Tory leader find herself in full flow this afternoon—for about two minutes, I think—discussing the inadequacies of the criminal justice system for rape victims? How do the Tories now find themselves at odds with all the agencies that would be the third parties that are meant to report on and administer the clause? How could any right-thinking person ask those agencies to judge whether a woman has been raped if she has not gone to court? You could not make it up.
As many women and men have said in the chamber, the Tories just cannot see it—it is excruciating to watch, to be perfectly truthful. The policy is a full-frontal attack on women and women’s lives; on the poorest women; and specifically on poor women who have been raped. Why cannot the Tories see that?
Some Conservative members in the chamber seem to understand the high sensitivity about the issue of a rape victim who falls pregnant; I do not doubt that. However, they will not make the jump to understand the insensitivity of asking that woman to complete a form and go through the ordeal again by coming forward and saying that she was raped.
Kezia Dugdale read out a letter from a woman who had written to her. I am pretty sure that there are many women who would not be prepared to put themselves through the process of filling in the form, not just because of their ordeal but as a matter of principle. I think that the policy will fail.
Tories who are in the chamber today have been reduced to arguing for more sexual assault centres. We all agree with that, but is that really their defence? As Sandra White mentioned, it is interesting that the Tory amendment states that the policy is designed to protect “future generations”. If that is what the Tories believe, I find that ironic, to say the least, because if the policy has the desired effect, the future generation will certainly be a lot smaller. In our debates in the chamber on Brexit, we have discussed the need to grow the population and support the growth of families. In Scotland, one of the big issues for the economy is the reduction in the population; it is quite staggering.
In defending the clause, Tories have completely overshadowed the two-child policy that they were trying to defend in the first place. The IFS says that families can expect to lose about £5,000 of income by 2020-21—that is an 18 per cent reduction in pay—and that is measured by assessing what pay would have been if the 2008 crash had not happened. As I said recently, wage stagnation is at its worst in Britain since the 1830s, and that is pushing more and more families—who were not responsible for the financial crash—into poverty. Ben Macpherson made the important point that any one of us can find ourselves in a situation in which we are no longer in our job and have been made redundant, and in which we might need child tax credits.
The child tax credit system is probably the biggest single measure that is lifting children out of poor lives. Removing such support will ensure that thousands of families find themselves in poverty. That is unfair, but it is also stupid at a time of economic uncertainty.
I want to clarify one point. Members will all have seen the “Support for a child conceived without your consent” form—I am holding it up now—in advance of the debate. It is clear that people have to fill in their name and national insurance number, give their address and declare:
“I believe the non-consensual conception exception applies to my child”.
As Claire Baker and Ruth Maguire pointed out, a stigma could be attached to a child born as a result of rape who is listed in the form, and it beggars belief that a Government policy would encourage that.
On multiple births, I had to read the guidance on exceptions at least three times to see whether I had read it correctly. It says:
“For example, if you already get Child Tax Credit for 2 or more children and you have twins, you’ll get the child element for one of the twins. If you have triplets, you’ll get the child element for 2 of the triplets.”
I mean—seriously? The policy is in crisis. Wherever it started off, can the Tory members not see that it is in crisis? This is about women who have been raped or coerced. If a woman has not had the courage to leave an abusive relationship, what makes the Tories think that she will have the courage to come forward and complete this shameful form? It is just unbelievable.
The Parliament has the powers to do something about this—yes, undoubtedly it has. Devolution has been a protection from many policies. Rachael Hamilton said that the other parties are accusing or trying to demonise the Tories, but I think that the Tories are making a good job of that themselves, to be perfectly honest.
Theresa May wants to look at families who are just managing. Let us not forget that the families who are affected by the policy are the very families who are just managing. Let us do the right thing for the country, the right thing for women and the right thing here in this Scottish Parliament—let us speak up for Scottish women. I ask the Tories to reconsider their position at the vote tonight.16:06
As I close for the Scottish Conservatives in what has been an emotional and passionate debate, I acknowledge that none of us here today can overstate the appalling, brutalising nature of rape as a crime. It is without doubt devastating for the victim and I simply cannot add to what others across the chamber have said about its traumatic effects. Making any changes to a support system such as tax credits was always going to create fierce discourse, but all of us should bear in mind that we are talking about real people and the effects of policy upon them. Those people are not served by partisan politics or by exaggerated statements about how specific aspects of the new policy will work in practice.
I would like to set a few things straight, because some things have been said and continue to be said that require correction or, at the very least, require to be put in context. One phrase that has been used, with which I take issue—indeed, it finds its way into the Government motion—is “proving rape”. Let me describe what “proving rape” means to me, in the light of working in our criminal courts when first training and then helping to prosecute sexual offences as an advocate.
To successfully convict an accused of rape, there must be proof beyond reasonable doubt. That is the very highest standard of proof that our law can insist upon. It is well known how difficult it is to secure convictions in rape trials—Alex Cole-Hamilton gave the statistics. However, it is worth reminding members what happens when the victim of an alleged rape gives evidence in court.
Although the court is normally closed to the public and the victim gives evidence shielded—
Will the member give way?
No. I am not going to give way.
One of you should.
The victim gives evidence shielded from the accused—[Interruption.]
Please let us hear the member. [Interruption.] Let us hear the member—have the courtesy to hear his arguments.
Although the court is normally closed to the public and the victim gives evidence shielded from the accused by screens, she will remain in full view of the jury, not to mention lawyers and staff. She will remain in full view of 15 men and women—[Interruption.]
Members may think that the description of a rape victim giving evidence—[Interruption.]
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. We are here today to discuss very serious issues; I do not think that any of us is here to listen to a lecture about the justice system. We are here to deal with the nonsense of the child cap and the rape clause. Could the member please address that?
Please sit down. I understand that the member will link that into his points in the debate.
The expression “proving rape” is what I was considering and asking the chamber to consider.
I stress that I make these points not to contrast them with what is required by the policy here. These are plainly different processes with different purposes that cannot properly be compared in practice. However, context is critical, and my plea today is for a sense of perspective, however hard that may be when dealing with such sensitive and complex issues—
James Dornan (Glasgow Cathcart) (SNP) rose—
Please sit down.
—not just in terms of the substance of the arguments, but in the words that we use and the language that we deploy.
Will the member take an intervention?
The Government motion is fundamentally wrong when it says that the policy
“will force victims of rape seeking to claim child tax credits to prove to the UK Government that their third child was born as a result of non-consensual sex”.
Please sit down, Mr Harvie.
With respect, it does no such thing. No one is forced by the form to do anything, let alone
“to prove to the UK Government that their ... child was born as a result of non-consensual sex”.
I am sorry—just a minute, Mr Cameron.
For the avoidance of doubt, it is up to the member, and no other, whether he takes an intervention. If he does not want to take an intervention, he does not need to.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. You will understand that I raise this point with great caution. I do not think that Mr Cameron had the opportunity to say to Mr Harvie whether he was going to accept or reject the intervention. May I be so presumptuous as to say that I thought that perhaps you jumped in a bit early?
You are being presumptuous, Mr Swinney—do not tell me my job. I could tell that Mr Cameron was not prepared to take that intervention and time is tight. If I was wrong, Mr Cameron will clarify that. Were you going to take the intervention?
He was not.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. The Presiding Officer of this Parliament is engaging in a discussion around parliamentary reform, which is a very important issue. Is the behaviour of the Conservative Party members in this debate not something that the Presiding Officer should look at? The leader of the Opposition, a professor and an advocate have all been unwilling to take any interventions from anyone in the debate. That brings this Parliament—[Applause.]
That is not a point of order, Mr Findlay. Please sit down. I have been in this Parliament for many years and I have been in many debates in which members have never taken interventions. It may not be a happy situation—that is a matter for members and I make no comment.
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
I accept, unequivocally, that the form requires a declaration by the claimant of child tax credit that the exception applies and that the child in question was born through non-consensual conception, including rape, but that is not the same as proving rape to the UK Government.
Let us be clear about what is required of the third-party professional, too. The third-party professional, having been contacted by a claimant, must confirm that
“the claimant’s circumstances are consistent with it being likely that the claimant conceived through an act by another person to which the claimant did not agree by choice.”
Will the member take an intervention?
Likewise, that is not a matter of proving rape to the UK Government. Further, far from being abhorrent, the third-party professional model as a means of supporting women is already being used to support victims of domestic abuse, and it is proven to be effective. Third-party professionals support domestic abuse victims and signpost them to benefits, such as housing benefit for a refuge.
We all know that one of the inevitable aspects of Scottish politics is the relationship between Holyrood and Westminster. On the Conservative benches, we are all used to the criticism that has been levelled at the UK Government over the past seven years. The times when that criticism was most potent were when a tax or welfare policy was being imposed on Scotland unilaterally, without any ability for Scotland to plough a different furrow.
In those circumstances, the outrage expressed was understandable, even if there was disagreement about the ultimate direction of travel. However, it is not understandable here—not with this policy. As has been said by others, the Scottish Government has the powers at its disposal to change this if it chooses. It is time for the Scottish Government to take responsibility— [Interruption.]
By all means express outrage; by all means howl at us; by all means cry shame—
Will the member take an intervention?
The member is in his last minute.
The Government has the power to change the policy—at least have the courage to step up to the plate and offer Scotland an alternative.16:14
The Tories might have attempted a more emollient approach today, with some more convivial tones. Apparently, the issue is all just a great misunderstanding, or a mendacious misrepresentation by members of other parties—or, in the words of Jackson Carlaw, it is all just a little bit “awkward”. For many years, Jackson Carlaw has been a champion of the Jewish community. Some 52 per cent of the Jewish community have three or more children. I suggest to Mr Carlaw that that fact is a bit awkward for him. Further, in the Muslim community, 60 per cent of people have more than two children. That figure compares to 30 per cent in the rest of the community.
The Tories have attempted to defend the indefensible—or, more accurately, to deflect the focus onto the Scottish Government or, indeed, the past Labour Government. However, we should make no mistake about it: the mask has well and truly slipped. The toxic Tories are back, and they are back with a vengeance because, if they get away with the rape clause and the two-child policy, they will think that there is no stopping them. In this Parliament, we feel differently. The rage and the passion at the injustice that is felt by the members on the SNP, Labour, Green and Liberal Democrat benches are palpable. In short, the two-child cap on tax credits—and, we should not forget, on universal credit—and the rape clause are nothing short of a mendacious interference in family life that breaches the human rights of women and their children. Indeed, those policies turn the clock back to the 1970s in terms of fighting poverty and inequality. Even worse, they represent dog-whistle politics of the very worst kind.
We have to ask ourselves what the UK Government is really saying. Is it saying that having more than two children is only for those and such as those? Is it only for the likes of the Deputy First Minister of Scotland to have three children? Is it only for the likes of Professor Tomkins to have four? Is it only for the likes of the Presiding Officer to have six or seven? Ruth Maguire hit the nail on the head when she pointed out that what the Government is saying is that, if someone hits upon hard times, or becomes unemployed, or does not earn a great wage, there will be no safety net for their third child or subsequent children. It is saying that that person does not deserve support. That is an assault on the poorest, whether they are in or out of work.
Make no mistake: the UK Government’s cuts are having a hugely damaging and disproportionate impact on women. We know—and the Treasury knows—that women are twice as dependent on social security as men. The cuts hit women the hardest. Some 75 per cent of the cuts since 2010 have come directly from the pockets of women. The two-child limit will impact on 54,000 families the length and breadth of Scotland by 2021 and, as Pauline McNeill says, will increase child poverty by 10 per cent. How is that, in the words of the Tory amendment, managing
“public finances carefully for future generations”?
What it is, is balancing the books on the backs of the poor. As Sandy Brindley from Rape Crisis Scotland said on Twitter,
“The last thing women need is to have to face decision whether to disclose or be unable to feed their children”.
Do the Tories not understand that, or do they just not care? All this is an example of what happens when women are missing from or are under-represented in the decision-making process.
Let me be clear: this Parliament is fundamentally opposed to the two-child cap in its entirety. We believe that all children should be supported, not just the first two, and that they should be supported when their families need that support most. I believe that this Parliament is clear that there are no circumstances in which it is acceptable for a woman to have to disclose that she has been raped in order to receive a benefit.
The UK Government seems to think that it is acceptable to have an eight-page form with large, bold words on the front that say, “Support for a child conceived without your consent”. That is not a form that, as Jackson Carlaw told BBC Scotland, simply means that women would have to declare to their general practitioner or another health professional the circumstances in which they had conceived their child, or that, as Ruth Davidson told BBC Scotland, means that all that women would have to do is simply write their name in a box.
I say to Donald Cameron that he should turn to page 2 of the eight-page form, where he will see what women are asked. They are asked whether the perpetrator has a conviction and whether they received criminal injuries compensation. If they answer no to those questions, the form tells them that they must suffer the indignity of seeking out a third-party assessor to whom they must disclose some of their innermost and most private matters.
Let me say to Ruth Davidson that if a woman has to tell anyone that she has been raped, abused or coerced, or that she lives in fear of violence or in fear of her life, it is never a simple case of just writing her name. She must relive that rape, relive that abuse and relive that violence. She must tell a person, no matter how sympathetic they may be, that her child is the result of abuse. Imagine having to put your child’s name in that box—once it is there, you cannot take it back. That is the reality of the rape clause.
Let me say to Jackson Carlaw, good luck with finding a health professional, a social worker or a third sector organisation who will participate with this ideologically driven nonsense.
Let me say to the UK Government, I hope that you do not even think about laying this upon DWP staff or, indeed, asking Atos or some other private contractor to do your work for you. Do not even think about going there.
Mr Cameron, if we turn to page 5 of the form, we see that women have to confirm that they are not living with the child’s other parent, who raped or coerced them. Have the Tories never heard of rape within marriage? Have the Tories never heard of coercive or controlling relationships?
The pièce de résistance is on page 7, where professionals are asked whether the claimant’s circumstances are “consistent”. Are the claimant’s circumstances consistent with what? That is dog-whistle politics going back to the days of deserving and undeserving women.
Will the member give way?
I appreciate that, given that I wanted to ask Donald Cameron this question, but clearly the policy today is that the Tories are not allowed to take interventions.
Quite frankly, when we talk about rape and sexual violence, women are often not believed or are blamed for what has happened to them and asked to justify what they were wearing and so on. If a woman is not believed, or if she gets the benefits but someone later makes a complaint and there is an investigation—let us face it, we have all had surgeries, as councillors or as MSPs, and that is what happens—has the UK Government provided any guidance or explanation whatsoever about how that will be dealt with “compassionately” and “in context”?
No, the UK Government has not, and the hard fact of the matter is that the so-called rape clause exemption cannot be implemented compassionately—that is just not possible.
On the point about domestic violence, this Parliament has led the way in tackling violence against women and girls. It started with the Labour-Liberal coalition and that work has continued under this Government. We have led the way, but that does not mean that there is not more to do. We have invested record levels of funding, but it is not right that the Tories should use that as a deflection to try to defend the indefensible and to point away from their own record.
I want to speak briefly about mitigation. In all of the debates in which I have participated in this Parliament, I have never demurred from the debate about what more we can do with the powers and resources that we have, and I never will. In fairness, we need to acknowledge some things; as Alison Johnstone said, mitigation is about making something “less severe”—it is not to reverse, stop or change it. Gillian Martin was absolutely right that this should be stopped at source, not just for women in Scotland but for women and children across the UK.
It is worth always remembering what we already mitigate. Since 2013-14, we have invested more than £350 million to fully mitigate the bedroom tax; we have helped more than 241,000 individual households, a third of whom have children, through Scottish welfare. We have invested £1 billion in the council tax reduction scheme, helping almost 500,000 households each year to meet their council tax. When will the Tories stop expecting us to pick up the pieces? When will they stop treating this Parliament as a handmaiden who has to pick up the pieces of broken lives?
Kezia Dugdale was right: she said that the purpose of this Parliament was about making a difference, giving people hope, giving people a lifeline and giving people a voice. Tonight, we should not and must not let the Tories off the hook with regards to their responsibilities. In 2015, when cuts to child tax credits and the imposition of the two-child limit were announced by George Osborne, Ruth Davidson made a big deal about how she was not afraid to speak up to London ministers. She even said that if there was a real, practical, human problem, the Government needed to look at it again. Well, we have a real, practical, human problem. We have a problem now and it needs to stop. It is always a significant moment when the SNP, Labour, the Greens and the Liberals stand united against the Tories, irrespective of our differences. Whether we are nationalists, unionists, federalists or something else, we are all united in opposing the two-child cap and the abhorrent rape clause, which we see as anti-women, anti-child, anti-family and fundamentally wicked.
Ruth Davidson says that the Tory Government has a mandate. Well, it does not have a mandate in this place and it is not doing this in our name. Now is the opportunity for Ruth Davidson and the Tories to stop digging and deflecting. It is time for them to do the right thing, to stand up for women, children and families across the United Kingdom, and to join us in demanding that the UK Government rips up the rape clause.