Brian Monteith: SNP stoops low to score political points over ‘rape clause’

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has been a target for SNP attacks over UK tax reforms. Picture: Andrew Cowan / Scottish Parliament
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has been a target for SNP attacks over UK tax reforms. Picture: Andrew Cowan / Scottish Parliament
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If the First Minister objects to UK tax credit reform, she should use new powers to tackle it instead of carping says Brian Monteith

Ruth Davidson has clearly got the SNP rattled. Having led the Scottish Conservatives at last year’s Scottish Parliament elections to leapfrog Labour and become the main opposition party at Holyrood, then landing many a blow on Nicola Sturgeon during their weekly bouts at questions to the First Minister, the SNP is now seeking to demonise their nemesis.

That can be the only explanation for the extraordinary behaviour of the SNP over the last ten days – from First Minister to failed candidates, MPs to abusive cybernats (sometimes they are indistinguishable) – in seeking to use the issue of rape to launch personal attacks on the Conservative leader. The forthcoming local council elections only makes the motive for SNP aggression that much more obvious.

If there is one thing nationalist and socialist opponents of Conservatives hate, it is when they are up against Tories that do not fit with their preconceived stereotypes of what a Tory should be. Ruth Davidson is no English Tory Boy in a blazer and cravat, she is not from a privileged family, she did not go to a fee-paying school but to Buckhaven High, her local comprehensive. And she is no male misogynist, instead she had the bravery to be open about her sexuality, not that it should matter, but politics is tough and can be cruel to anyone who is from a minority group of any type.

Davidson cannot simply be dismissed with the usual egregious insults. Moreover, her undoubted ability as a communicator, doughty performances and self-deprecating humour serve to make her popular with the Scottish public, indeed from time to time her ratings are healthier than the First Minister’s.

Davidson therefore had to be cut down to size and the SNP’s new weapon of choice has been to challenge her to distance herself from the UK government’s provision of tax credit assistance to victims of rape who give birth to a child as a result of their sexual assault.

Many readers may be unaware that in the summer budget of 2015 the Conservative Government announced it would be changing the tax credit system so that from 7 April of this year it would only apply to the first two children.

Whilst the change was opposed in the House of Commons it did not prove to be especially controversial and a petition to Parliament attracted fewer than 20,000 signatures across the UK and was therefore not granted a public debate in Westminster Hall – the trigger required being over 100,000 signatures. No constituency reached 0.5 per cent signatures – which compares poorly against a petition against having a second independence referendum that has attracted over 220,000 signatures with all Scottish constituencies being above 1.2 per cent and many above 4 per cent.

More than 18 months’ notice of the tax credit change was given and it does not apply retrospectively – it only affects families where their third or subsequent children ware born after 6 April this year.

Exemptions are provided for and an obvious exemption the UK Government gave was that women who had given birth as a consequence of being raped should not have their child included as the first or second child if she had three children. In a clearly delicate and private issue the process allowed for a third party professional, such as a GP, to assist and complete a form, branded the “rape clause”, on behalf of the mother. Women are not required to either report their rape as a crime, bring new proof or proof of a conviction, or report it directly to the HMRC.

The political outcome is that for the best of intentions to help ensure victims of rape do not lose a tax credit for their families through no fault of their own the Conservatives – and Ruth Davidson in particular – are being demonised as seeking to cause unnecessary distress. Needless to say their critics put it much more strongly than that.

The real point in dispute is not that child tax credits are being limited to two children; it is that they are being limited at all. It is because there is a limit that there is a requirement for exemptions. If the government’s change was to limit the tax credit to only the first three or four children then the exemption would still be required for the fourth or fifth and subsequent children.

In an unprecedented attack on the UK government whilst overseas, Nicola Sturgeon raised the rape clause before a New York audience as an example of how Scotland would be different under independence. This was as misleading as it was gratuitous for she intentionally omitted to mention that she, as leader of the SNP Government in the Scottish Parliament, could use the new welfare powers provided for her by Westminster to introduce a Scottish benefit for the third and subsequent children that would negate the need for any exemptions – including women who gave birth through rape.

Is there to be such a proposal from the SNP Government? So far Nicola Sturgeon has refused to provide the obvious answer her tweets and statements should dictate were she genuinely motivated to help.

Were the issue of such deep concern to her it would be the obvious initiative to take. In the most recent budget, the UK Government announced an additional £800 million of funding for the Scottish Government that it did not expect to have and it has not yet committed to spend in its current budget plans. Nicola Sturgeon could bring forward proposals and challenge Ruth Davidson and her Conservatives to back her. While it is fair to ask the Scottish Conservative leader if she supports the UK government policy on tax credits and its process for exemptions, the highly politicised and emotive manner in which it has been done and the lack of any alternative approach other than to hurl abuse at Conservative council candidates suggests that the SNP is more interested in playing politics with rape than genuinely caring for the welfare of its victims.

This does not surprise me. Only the other week I raised the question of why the Scottish Government was behind the UK Government on dealing with female genital mutilation and the silence has been deafening. Platitudes come cheaply, but action requires leadership. If the First Minister can do more than criticise, now is the time to show it.

Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org