By Una Murphy
A demand for an urgent Westminster debate on the controversial two-child tax credit cap and ‘rape clause’ set to be introduced in Northern Ireland in the autumn has been made by the Women’s Aid Federation.
The controversial welfare change is already in place in other parts of the UK and is part of the new Universal Credit which replaces six other welfare benefits, including Child Tax Credit.
Parents will receive money for only two children as part of the ‘Child Element’ of Universal Credit.
The ‘rape clause’ means extra money would be paid for a child born as a result of “non-consensual conception”.
Jan Melia, CEO of Women’s Aid Federation NI said:
“The fact that this policy is being implemented at the same time that refuges and support services are having budgets decimated and doors closed is a cruel irony not lost on us.”
She added: “Requiring women to prove that they conceived a child through rape to access child tax credits is cruel and inhumane. The policy will re-traumatise many victims of rape, while others will simply not come forward to claim what they are entitled to, leaving them and their children in poverty.”
Under Northern Ireland law all serious crimes, including rape, have to be reported to police.
Ms Melia said this will place welfare benefits assessors in a difficult position, where they must report disclosures of rape to police, or risk being criminalised themselves.
She said that the situation is even more acute in Northern Ireland as women do not have access to abortions and those who cannot afford to travel to Britain will be affected by the impact of the ‘rape clause’ more than women in other parts of the UK.
Kevin Higgins, the head of policy at Advice NI, has said that the organisation was also opposed to a policy that he said would heap pressure on low-paid families.
He added that “the so-called rape clause will stigmatise children and potentially criminalise women,”
The ‘bedroom tax’ – another of the British government’s most swinging welfare benefit cuts – was introduced to Northern Ireland in February.
Politicians in the Northern Ireland Assembly set up a special fund to offset cuts in housing benefit until 2020.
No mitigating measures have been introduced over the two child cap and the rape clause as politicians have not been sitting in the Assembly since January.
Welfare reform for Northern Ireland is decided in Westminster and the Labour Party has used a parliamentary procedure to demand a full debate and vote in the House of Commons.
Universal credit will be introduced to Northern Ireland in September 2017 in Limavady, Co Derry, and extended to the whole of the Northern Ireland over the following year.