Following Esther McVey’s appointment as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, there’s a real opportunity to revisit the issue of the horrific rape clause. That’s the Tory policy of making women who have a third or subsequent child as a consequence of a rape fill in a mandatory form to claim their tax credits.
It’s an absolutely abhorrent policy and one i was proud to stand against last year. I did so side by side with women from a number of political parties. Fighting for the rights of women, and specifically gender equality, has always come before party politics for me and it always will.
Here’s the text of the letter I’ve sent to Esther McVey
Congratulations on your appointment as the new Secretary of State for the Department of Work and Pensions. I wish you well in this challenging new role.
I doubt it has escaped your notice that you are the first woman to hold this position since Labour left office in 2010. Such an accolade comes with a great deal of responsibility to deliver for women, which I know you will feel as a self-declared feminist.
I was particularly struck by your comments to the Daily Telegraph in April 2014 where you were invited to share what it meant to be a Conservative feminist. This was your description:
“Our feminism is one where women reach out to help and support other women. It is defined by not taking anyone down. The fighting against what is wrong will always be there, but the reaching out and supporting one another now needs to lead the way. We have laws against discrimination and they must be enforced. But helping women and offering support has to be the new feminism.”
I hope and expect you will take this sentiment in to office.
I write to ask that you turn your immediate attention to Universal Credit and specifically the issue of tax credits for women with more than two children. You will be aware that your party has introduced a system which requires women with more than two children, who has been subjected to rape, have to fill out a mandatory form in order to access her full tax credit entitlement. This has been commonly referred to as the rape clause and I consider it to be one of the most abhorrent policies of a government in my adult lifetime.
As a feminist I am sure that you would accept that this policy is invasive and degrading. It essentially punishes a woman for being the victim of a violent act at the hands of a man. A punishment which will be felt by the product of that violence, which in the context of the rape clause is a child.
Last year, this issue was debated in the Scottish Parliament where I had the opportunity to read the personal testimony of a woman affected by the rape clause. The video of this is available on Youtube and has been watched over 500,000 times (www.facebook.com/ScottishLabourParty/videos/1363523673739829/)
In that testimony my constituent described what the form meant to her and why she simply couldn’t fill it out. Not completing it meant that her child faced a financial disadvantage. This is what she said:
“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.”
Ms McVey, you and I come from different political ideologies. Whilst I do not agree with it, I understand that your party’s mission is to see the welfare state reduced in its size and influence. Furthermore, I am sure we both have different visions of what constitutes fairness in the context of social security.
However, the rape clause isn’t a question of how much we spend on the welfare state, or indeed whether it is fair to cap child tax credits for families with two children. This is about whether or not women should be punished by the state for being the victim of a violent act.
If “fighting against what is wrong” is your quest, then it must start with this. Please urgently review the rape clause aspect of universal credit. You will find an abundance of cross party support to do so, not least from Alison Thewliss who I know is one of many MPs who have done a tremendous amount of work on this issue in the Commons.
Cc: Yvette Cooper MP, Alison Thewliss MP, Rhoda Grant MSP.
1. The last Labour SoS for DWP was Yvette Cooper. Since 2010, the post has been filled by and chronologically, Iain Duncan Smith, Stephen Crabb, Damian green, David Gauke and now Esther McVey
2. The full Daily Telegraph article can be read here
3. Kezia Dugdale won the Donald Dewar Debater of the Year award for this speech in November 2017.