Social workers raise concerns over Universal Credit rollout

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Image: Women protesting in Belfast against the ‘Rape Clause’ in the Universal Credit system

Representatives of the Northern Ireland Association of Social Workers (NIASW) met with Owen Smith MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to highlight serious concerns related to the rollout of Universal Credit.

The UK Government has extended the two-child cap currently in place for Child Tax Credit, to the new benefits system. As a result of restricting access to Universal Credit, levels of poverty and associated social problems will increase.

A number of exemptions to the Universal Credit two-child cap exist, including for a third or additional child conceived as a result of a non-consensual sexual act – commonly known as the ‘rape clause’. Social workers are among the professionals listed by the Government as third parties approved to assess claims made under the rape clause.

Speaking following the meeting, Carolyn Ewart, NIASW Country Manager said: “Social workers are outraged by the Government’s expectation they will take part in assessing Universal Credit claims made for third or additional children conceived as a result of rape. It is morally repugnant for the Government to force women to recount incidents of rape to access benefits, and our members have no desire to legitimise this callous & wrong-headed policy by participating in the assessment process”.

During the meeting with Mr Smith NIASW outlined the potential dilemma social workers face as a result of the legal framework in Northern Ireland. Unlike in Great Britain, the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967 requires an individual with knowledge of a crime to report it to the police. Therefore, in Northern Ireland, a social worker who is made aware of a rape via an application for Universal Credit is legally required to inform the police, even if this is against the wishes of the woman making the application.

Following the meeting, Owen Smith, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland commented on the potential impact of Section 5 of the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967 on women and social workers when applying for additional support through the “Rape Clause” to Universal Credit, saying: “There is a clear and present danger that women, social workers and medical professionals in Northern Ireland are going to be prosecuted as a result of the clash between the “Rape Clause” and Section 5 of the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967. It is a scandal that Universal Credit is being pushed ahead without clear and unambiguous guidelines to applicants and third parties being provided by the Department of Communities in Northern Ireland”.

Ms Ewart said: “In pursuing its austerity agenda the Government has created a situation where legislation intended to safeguard and protect has been forced to work against the interests of vulnerable women and the social workers who support them”.

“NIASW is committed to delivering change to ensure social workers are not at risk of falling foul of the law as a result of the Government’s Universal Credit policy..”

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