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Northern Ireland women claiming benefits under 'rape clause' won't face courts

Plea: Alison Thewliss
Plea: Alison Thewliss

By Elizabeth Arnold

The Government has said women in Northern Ireland will not be prosecuted for claiming benefits for a child conceived through rape.

However, a Northern Ireland Office minister also told MPs that the so-called 'rape clause' would not be scrapped.

Women's Aid and other groups have spoken out against the controversial two-child tax credit limit in effect across the UK.

It limits child tax credits for new claimants to two children per family unless certain conditions are met - including the mother proving she conceived a third child through rape.

There has been particular concern about the impact of the clause in Northern Ireland, as failure to report a rape in the province is an offence.

SNP MP Alison Thewliss yesterday raised the issue of exemptions from the Government's two-child benefits limit on grounds of rape as she called for the policy to be "scrapped once and for all".

The MP has claimed that doctors, midwives, social workers and support workers could face a prison sentence of up to 10 years if they fail to disclose that a woman has been raped when completing the 'rape clause' form - even if doing so means that women are placed in further danger of violence and sexual assault from their abusive partners.

NIO minister Chloe Smith said the Department for Work and Pensions and Northern Ireland's Department for Communities had worked closely together to enable the exemption for non-consensual conception to be applied "sensitively".

Ms Smith added: "Guidance states that women applying for this exception do not have to tell a third party the name of the other biological parent nor is there a requirement on the third party to seek any further evidence beyond confirming that the exception should apply."

Speaking during Northern Ireland Commons questions, Ms Thewliss said: "I've been pursuing this issue for over two years now and that answer is simply not good enough.

"When I visited Belfast recently, the Northern Ireland Women's Aid Federation, doctors, nurses, midwives, social workers, all expressed their serious concerns over the implications of this policy for women fleeing domestic violence both of whom could be prosecuted under the Criminal Law Act in Northern Ireland.

"Will she act now, will she speak in the Prime Minister's ear and ask for this policy to be scrapped once and for all?"

Ms Smith replied: "No I won't, she may think the answer is not good enough, but it has the merit of being true."

Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Smith asked the minister to confirm whether rape victims in Northern Ireland would be at risk of potential prosecution as a result of the measures.

Ms Smith replied: "No."

Labour's Mr Smith referred to a letter from Barra McGrory, Director of Public Prosecutions Barra McGrory, who he said had stated: "It is a potential offence to withhold information regarding an act of rape, the legislation does not distinguish between a victim and a third party, to whom disclosure is made, each is potentially liable to prosecution."

Mr Smith added: "How on Earth can the Government countenance making women in Northern Ireland who are subject to rape imprisonable under the law, how can she accept that?"

Ms Smith responded: "The fact is we are not doing so... there is clear guidance on the form that makes the legal position very clear and we have sensitively handled that as an exception for precisely these reasons."

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph