The government published a form on Thursday requiring rape victims to declare that they do not live with their attacker if they wished to claim an exemption to a new two-child limit for tax credits.
The exemption is supposed to ensure that rape victims do not miss out on benefits under the new rules, but the form makes clear that the changes exclude those who have not left a coercive relationship or who are still with their rapist.
The eight-page form, published by the Department of Work and Pensions as part of wide-ranging welfare changes that came into force on Thursday, was met with outrage on social media and from charities and political opponents.
Alison Thewliss, the SNP MP who first highlighted the issue, said that it was “a vile policy in total chaos”. It was, she added, “one of the most inhumane and barbaric policies ever to emanate from Whitehall”.
The new form requires women to sign a declaration that they were raped or otherwise coerced into sex – and to give the child’s name – to be eligible for the exemption.
Victims must sign a declaration reading: “I believe the non-consensual conception exemption applies to my child.” They must sign another declaration that says: “I confirm that I am not living with the other parent of this child.”
Elsewhere, the form reads: “This is to give us the evidence we need to support you further.”
Women’s aid charities say the restriction of eligibility for the rape exemption to women living apart from the other parent of the child fails to understand that most rapes occur within domestic violence relationships.
Rape in this context is often hard to prove and difficult to disclose. Isabelle Kerr, the manager of Glasgow Rape Crisis Centre, has called the requirement not to live with the alleged perpetrator “possibly the least well-thought-our part of this ill-conceived piece of legislation”.
In evidence to the House of Lords secondary legislation scrutiny committee, Kerr wrote: “We have more than 30 years’ worth of empirical evidence that tells us that the most dangerous time for a woman and her children is at the point of leaving an abuser. In the UK a woman is murdered every three days by a partner or ex-partner.
“Yet a woman would be forced to make that choice, perhaps knowing the level of danger she faces, in order to have enough money to feed and clothe her family.
“This is not a choice women should be forced to make. This clause puts women and children in an untenable position. It also potentially puts women’s lives, and the lives of their children, in danger.”
Charities have expressed alarm at the wider limit on third or more children qualifying for extra payments under universal credit, now in force for new claimants.
The Children’s Society has asked ministers to reconsider the policy while the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said 200,000 children may be pushed into poverty by the changes.
The Children’s Society said it had calculated that a nurse with three children, earning £23,000 and who becomes a single parent, would lose £2,780 a year.
The DWP has yet to specify how it has trained or prepared the third-party experts to carry out the checks. The Royal College of Nursing has already said its members would not be expected to take part.
Meanwhile, a cross-party collection of peers has called on the government to rethink a cut to bereaved parents’ benefits, which also came into force on Thursday.
Ros Altmann, a Conservative peer, asked a question on the issue in the Lords, and is among a group who have signed a letter to the pensions secretary, Damian Green, asking that he reconsider. The letter was also signed by the Bishop of Peterborough, Donald Allister.
Theresa May has defended the cuts, under which parents with school-age children who lose a spouse will be given lower payments for just 18 months, as against the previous system where the payments continued until the youngest child left full-time education.
The changes will result in an increase to a lump sum payment received after the death from £2,000 to £3,500, and ministers argue this is the time when extra money is most needed.
A 51-year-old man with terminal cancer has described to the Guardian how the changes could potentially lead to his family losing more than £50,000 in benefits, given that his children are 10 and 14.
Speaking in the Lords, Lady Altmann said the old system needed modernising and its replacement had some advantages.
She said: “But these reforms are designed to cut £100m from welfare spending for bereavement. And within that reduced budget, bereaved partners without children will get more at the expense of significantly reduced support for those with young children, which will stop completely after just 18 months.
“My lords, what is our national insurance welfare state for, if not to support families properly in such tragic circumstances?”
Lord Henley, a junior minister at the DWP, denied that the changes amounted to a cut, and said they had been consulted on twice and would be reviewed again.
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