It seems to be such an obvious wrong. One so obvious that when our First Minister spoke of it in New York, there were gasps of horror. It’s a subject that evokes strong passions, a sense of injustice and anger at the cold and callous Tories. Now in my good old days I was not averse to a bit of Tory bashing, where the word ‘Tory’ was clearly synonymous with evil. We all just knew that. Life was so simple. On the one side were the Dark Forces of ‘Thatcher, Thatcher, Milk snatcher’, on the other were the obviously enlightened forces of progress standing up for the poor, defending the world against Evil. I even had the t-shirt- ‘say it with flowers, send Maggie a triffid’! Oh what joyous and simple days!….it was a black and white world – in which only the immature and the wilfully blind could live for long.
I have been reminded of those days in recent weeks. There seems to be an obvious clear black and white issue – one in which right and wrong are self-evident. On the one side is the heartless, cold and callous Nasty Party, who are demanding that women who have been raped should prove it in order to get child benefit. On the other are the outraged, compassionate, defenders of women’s rights and poor children. It’s a no brainer. Or is it?
I am always troubled when an issue is defined in such emotive black and white terms. I suspect many have already decided what is the absolute right and wrong and regard anyone who dares to question, or to suggest that it is more complex, as somehow inhumane and on the side of the demons. A few weeks ago I got involved in a wee Twitter spate with some who accused me of siding with the ‘Rape Clause Tories’, although our discussion was not about that. I was then asked, what I thought of it. On the surface I thought of course that the Tories were wrong, but then I decided that being on the surface was not good enough, and that it was time to do some thinking and digging for myself. So I refused to answer until I actually had some information – other than the propaganda soundbites on social media. It has been a fascinating study that leads me to the following summary conclusion.
In the summer budget of 2015 the Tory government announced that tax credits, whereby state aid is claimed for low wage earners with children would only apply to the first two children. There are some caveats on this policy. It does not apply retrospectively but only to a third child born after 7th April 2017. And it does not affect child and other benefits. Nonetheless it is going to mean a significant loss of income for those who choose to have larger families but don’t have the means to support them.
This could be a brutal policy without exemptions. And so the government decided that one of the exemptions would be if a woman was raped and had a third child. The government decided quite rightly that this would not be fair. But what then would prevent anyone claiming that their 3rd, 4th and 5th children were as a result of rape? So instead of simply self-declaring; the process is that a third party professional such as a GP would assist and complete a form which would not require the women to report it to the police or directly to the HMRC. The Department of Work and Pensions has insisted that all women affected will be offered third party support from experienced professionals.
The rape exemption, rather than being an attempt to humiliate, punish or attack a rape victim, is in fact an attempt to offer a compassionate exemption to the two-child policy. Whether it works or is wise is another issue.
Therefore the key question is whether the two-child policy is itself moral? And that is not as straightforward as we might suppose. As both the UK and Scottish governments frequently point out, there is a limited pot of money. It is the job of government to make the often-difficult decisions of how that money is to be spread. There is a case that can be argued for child tax credits with no limits on the number of children – but it is not necessarily immoral to suggest that the state subsidising a family of seven who can’t afford to provide for their own, is always a good idea. The issues are complex. And in a messed up confused world we cannot always have simplistic policies that are the solution to everything.
In the simplistic Nirvana of our liberal progressives, all human beings are essentially good (apart perhaps from a few religious Neanderthals) and no one would ever lie in order to get benefits. Why should any woman who has been raped have to prove it in order to get a benefit? For the same reason that any woman who wants her assailant to be prosecuted has to testify against them. There has to be a degree of proof. A person cannot be convicted just on the accusation of someone else. Although of course it is qualitatively different, the argument stills stand for the two-child policy. If the policy stands, a woman cannot just receive benefit by claiming rape, without providing some evidence. Cue outrage. But it is a simple and logical fact. Now how that policy is carried out is very important. Compassion and understanding must not be replaced by the cold, bureaucratic hands of the form fillers.
So, that’s the policy and that’s the context. Whether you agree with it or not, a calmer more rational approach enables us to understand that the problem is far more complex than good vs. evil. I may be overoptimistic but surely our politicians can go to a deeper level and learn more nuanced thinking? Although having watched the Scottish Parliament debate this afternoon I am not so confident.
There are two areas in particular that cause me great concern.
Firstly the issue of hypocrisy.
If the members of the Scottish Parliament feel so strongly that this policy is evil, abusive and attacking rape victims, and they have the means to do something about it, then they are surely morally obliged to do so? There are issues that it is easy for the Scottish Parliament to shout about – issues where they have no responsibility. Trident for example. But despite protestations otherwise, this is not one of those issues.
The Scottish government now as new powers in the Scotland Act which would allow a significant amount of welfare spending to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. As of this year. But in a recent meeting between the Scottish and UK governments the Scottish government asked for those powers NOT to be handed over until 2020. Just take a deep breath and consider the implications of that. The Scottish government which is constantly (and in my view rightly) asking for more powers to be handed over from Westminster, when offered significant powers is asking for a delay. They clearly have time to organise another Independence Referendum and campaign on behalf of the EU – but taking control over some welfare services is just too much. I think the priorities of our government are being clearly laid out.
And again what has astonished me are the number of politicians who will argue that it is not the job of the Scottish government to mitigate Tory cuts (I would have thought that was exactly one of the jobs of the Scottish government!) or that they don’t have the power to change tax or universal credit. But that is sophistry. They do have the power to top up tax credits or create an entirely new benefit to mitigate the effects of the two-child policy, if they wish to do so. It means that the money will have to come from elsewhere, other budgets and priorities or new taxation. Again the argument is made, but why should money come from elsewhere? To which the only response is – this is what proper grown up government looks like. You have to make decisions and you cannot give everyone everything they want, or every thing you might want. But if you are totally convinced that the so called ‘rape clause’ or the two child policy is so immoral that you have to weep and wail in public over it, then it is nothing but hypocritical virtue signalling if you do nothing about it when you have the ability to do so.
Secondly the use of Rape as a Political Weapon
I would disagree with Ruth Davidson on many things. But I respect her as a political leader (as I do others of whatever party). The way that the issue of rape is being cynically used to hound Ruth Davidson is a new low in Scottish politics. From the social media mobs to the emotional blackmail and grandstanding in the Scottish Parliament this afternoon. I was disgusted at that debate in many ways, but not least by the attempt to intimidate and bully Davidson. I have no quibble with those who from the beginning have fought a campaign against this, but those who have jumped on the bandwagon in the past month should be ashamed of themselves. Rape is a serious issue. Its causes, prevention and punishment should be treated seriously and not used as a political punchbag. Some strategist clearly thought it was a good idea to try and get ‘the Tory Rape Clause’ as a meme parroted across traditional and social media. They may have thought it genius – but it is an evil genius. The attempt to equate the Tories with support of rape (and although it will be protested this is not what is actually being said – the word association is deliberate and will be believed) – is one of the lowest and most desperate measures I have seen in Scottish politics. This tweet from Pete Wishart, who not only represents Scotland in Westminster but also is the Shadow SNP leader in the house and the chair of the Scottish Affairs Select Committee, shows the gutter level that this debate has descended to. Yes I know its ‘chewing the fat’ style humour but to actually call someone the ‘rape clause candidate’ is disgusting.
I have read numerous amounts about this in the past few days – but very little goes beyond the shallow tribalistic soundbites. I am not convinced about the two-child benefit, nor am I confident about how the rape clause will be administered. But if you are going to argue against it try to provide some evidence and avoid both the hypocrisy, the virtue-signalling and the use of rape as a political weapon.
I am writing this in hospital – (and I know I should not be – except I have to wile away the hours somehow and this is my now my 10th day here!). I am deeply concerned about the woman who fears the ‘rape clause’ and the child in a large family born in poverty. I am also deeply concerned at the deterioration I notice in the NHS and in education. I watch the frustrations of staff, the chronic shortages (as I write I am waiting to be ‘boarded’ out yet again to another ward), and the fears of some of the poor who are rightly concerned about inadequate support when they go home. If only the SNP had paid as much attention to their own Alex Neill’s radical ideas on the NHS, as they have to attacking Ruth Davidson! Perhaps then we could have some grown up politics.
I too could tell dozens of emotive stories of how people are being harmed by the direction our society is taking. I’m sick of all the grandstanding, virtue signalling and mega-politics. Is it too much to ask that our governors get on with governing? That they use whatever power they have, not to save the world, nor to virtue signal about themselves, but simply as far as they are able to ensure that our children are educated, our sick are cared for and our poor given justice and equal opportunities? The rest is just fluff and school ground politics – in whatever political colour it comes.
Footnote: Since posting this I have had a lot of correspondence. Can I just stress that in this article I am not so much concerned with the debate itself (should there be a two child policy and should there be a rape exemption) but rather the manner in which it is being conducted and the use of rape as a political weapon. It has actually been very helpful to get intelligent and thoughtful posts from people who disagree with the policy, from those who agree, and from those who don’t know. Would that the whole debate was conducted in such a manner!