The work and pensions secretary, Esther McVey, has been criticised for telling Holyrood’s social security committee that the controversial benefits rape clause provided an opportunity for sexual assault victims – and described victims talking about their rape to DWP staff as offering “potentially double support”.
Under measures introduced by the Westminster government, women may only claim child support tax credits for a third or subsequent child if they can prove they were as a result of giving birth to twins, adopting, or due to a “non-consensual conception”.
Asked by Green party MSP Alison Johnstone: “Are you comfortable with the idea that a woman has to prove non-consensual conception in order to access an entitlement?”, McVey claimed: “There will be no invasive or delving questions asked.”
She said “What we’re doing is providing extra help where people have got more children that they couldn’t have planned. This could give them an opportunity to talk about, maybe, something that has happened that they never had before so it is potentially double support … them getting the money they need and maybe an outlet which they might possibly need.”
The system, announced in 2015 by the then chancellor, George Osborne, allows for third-party groups to act on behalf of women wishing to claim the tax credit, to avoid a situation where women are forced to speak about the non-consensual conception directly with a government agency. However, several organisations in Scotland have refused to cooperate – including Scottish Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis Scotland. Scottish Women’s Aid has stated that the third-party processing of claims “is not compassionate, nor can it ever be made to be so”.
McVey was appearing before a Holyrood committee meeting covering both the rollout of the universal credit policy and the rape clause. The meeting was suspended twice after she was heckled by members of the public – one shouting “you can’t get into work if you’re dead” as McVey argued that universal credit was a “supportive system” aimed at helping people into work.
After the hearing, Labour MSP Pauline McNeill condemned McVey’s responses, saying: “This was a disgraceful performance. To badge up the vile rape clause as some sort of virtuous policy to provide support is simply skin-crawling. The Tories should abolish the rape clause.”