This is a speech that Alex Cole-Hamilton made in the Scottish Parliament about the ‘Rape Clause
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.
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.