Scrapping controversial rape clause could cost Scotland £200m

Alison Thewliss MP leads a cross-party protest at Holyrood. Picture: Jane Barlow
Alison Thewliss MP leads a cross-party protest at Holyrood. Picture: Jane Barlow
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Scrapping the controversial rape clause in Scotland would cost around £200 million over the next four years, according to an official document outlining how it could be done.

The document, seen by Scotland on Sunday, suggests that the rape clause could be mitigated by the Scottish Government using the Scottish Parliament’s new powers to top up benefits.

The document compiled by the politically neutral Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) looks at the UK government policy to limit child tax credit to the first two children in families. The policy has caused outrage because of the so-called “rape clause”, which means that in order to access additional child benefits, victims of a violent sexual attack have to complete a form and provide evidence that their third or subsequent child was conceived without their consent.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has attacked Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson for failing to condemn the “utterly abhorrent” policy, which, she claims, typifies the Conservatives’ callous approach to government.

Davidson has replied by arguing that the Scotland should use its new powers over welfare to end the policy north of the border.

The document has come to light ahead of Scottish Government debate on the subject scheduled for Tuesday.

As the SNP stepped up its objections to the rape clause, the Scottish Conservatives argued that the document reinforced Davidson’s argument that the SNP could end it in Scotland.

Scottish Conservative welfare spokesman Adam Tomkins pointed out that the cost of mitigating the policy was less than the £220 million found by Finance Secretary Derek Mackay to get his budget through earlier this year.

Tomkins said: “We welcome the fact that the Scottish Parliament’s own independent information centre has confirmed this is possible and that these powers exist in the Scottish Parliament. It is therefore for the Scottish Government to bring forward proposals. Given the fact that the SNP has always said it opposes these changes to child tax credits, it would be hypocritical for them not to act.”

He added: “The sum involved is less than the amount Finance Secretary Derek Mackay found during the fiasco of his budget negotiations earlier this year.”

The SPICe document gave a “broad indication” of providing top-up benefits to meet the cost of removing the two-child cap. The paper said ending the cap would cost £20m in 2017/18, £40m in 2018/19, £60m in 2019/20 and £75m in 2020/21 – making a total of £195m.

The document also discusses how Holyrood’s new powers could be used to ensure that the two-child cap, and therefore the rape clause, would not be required.

Subject to legal advice, the document says: “The top-up power might allow an individual calculation to be done for every claimant getting a Universal Credit (UC) or Child Tax Credit (CTC) award that includes children, and a top-up payment made to them all.”

It also suggests new Holyrood powers to create distinctive new benefits could be used to close any loopholes that arise from the gap between reserved and devolved powers.

Ahead of Tuesday’s debate, women’s groups are briefing MSPs on their objections to the rape clause.

Emma Ritch, executive director of the feminist organisation Engender, said the Scottish Government must put women’s rights and equality at its heart and called on the UK government to change its policy.

Ritch said: “The ‘rape clause’ is the shocking icing on the unpleasant cake of the two-child limit. Analysis by women’s and anti-poverty organisations across the UK makes clear that the ‘family cap’ will impoverish hundreds of thousands of women and their children. The UK government’s ‘welfare reform’ agenda has been rolled out with scant regard for women’s equality and rights, ignoring repeated calls by a number of UN Committees to look at the cumulative impact of all of its many complexities on women. The UK government must now listen to the voices calling for it to think again.”

Dr Eilidh Whiteford of the SNP said: “Since 2013/14, the SNP government in Scotland has already spent over £350 million to mitigate some of the worst of UK government austerity cuts to social security. We will of course consider what further steps we can take to minimise the negative effect of this heinous policy on families, but tax credits are clearly a reserved issue; even under the Scottish Parliament’s new ‘top-up’ powers there are significant restrictions on what would be possible. Moreover, the answer to Tory cuts cannot simply be for the Scottish Government to get out the sticking plasters to patch up the Tories’ mess.

“If we use money earmarked for devolved public services to mitigate every bad Tory policy, we are letting them off the hook, while the Treasury pockets the money that should be in the pockets of hard working parents. The Family Cap and its vile rape clause should be scrapped, not mitigated, not just in Scotland but across the whole UK.”