Belfast Telegraph

'Rape clause' benefit test must not be imposed in NI: Labour

By Cate McCurry

A bid to impose a two-child limit on claims by universal credit recipients in Northern Ireland unless a woman can prove she was raped must be debated by MPs, Labour has urged.

Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Owen Smith called for an urgent Commons debate and vote over plans to extend the so-called 'rape clause' to Northern Ireland over the heads of MLAs while Stormont remains in limbo.

The policy will limit new universal credit claims to two children per family unless certain conditions are met - including the mother proving she conceived a third child through rape.

There have been widespread calls for the rape clause to be scrapped.

There has been particular concern about the impact of the controversial clause in Northern Ireland as failure to report a crime in the province remains an offence.

The Opposition said it was wrong to push the policy without a functioning government in Northern Ireland as the Assembly remains suspended.

In a letter to Secretary of State James Brokenshire, Mr Smith and shadow welfare secretary Debbie Abraham warned: "This measure is being introduced in the absence of a functioning Executive in Northern Ireland.

"To impose such changes from Westminster, especially through the back door of a statutory instrument without scrutiny even by committee, is completely at odds with principles of the devolution settlement as agreed under the Good Friday agreement and subsequent agreements, including Fresh Start."

Mr Smith further warned that women could be unintentionally criminalised. The letter continued: "That would add gross insult to heinous injury for the women concerned and it cannot be allowed to pass into law."

The two-child limit for those claiming tax credits was introduced across the UK, including in Northern Ireland, in April.

Universal credit, which replaces some benefits and tax credits, has yet to be extended to here.

In an interview with The Guardian newspaper, Mr Smith said: "There is no way the Tories should be able to get away with introducing these controversial changes without parliament debating and voting on them, especially in the absence of devolved government in Northern Ireland."

The Department for Work and Pensions, which is overseeing the changes, has said that rape victims would not have to describe the details of the offence to members of its staff.

Both Sinn Fein and the DUP have spoken out against the two-child limit.

Fermanagh and South Tyrone Sinn Fein MP Michelle Gildernew described the clause as "disgusting and traumatic".

Campaigners in Northern Ireland, too, have spoken out against the policy.

The head of Women's Aid Federation NI, Jan Melia, said: "This policy is tone deaf to the reality of sexual violence. Many victims take years before they are ready to open up and talk about sexual violence that they've suffered.

"Forcing them to do so before they're ready, in order to access welfare, is profoundly cruel.

"Forced disclosure can exacerbate post-traumatic stress disorder and mental health issues, and will heighten the sense of shame and isolation felt by victims.

"We already live in a culture where women are not believed when they report sexual assault.

"This policy will only magnify the worry that rape victims have about being told that they are lying about what's happened to them."

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