Alex Cole-Hamilton: Family cap and rape clause have no place in a civilised society

Yesterday the Scottish Parliament debated the Conservative cuts to tax credit which means that only two children per family are covered.

Every Scottish Conservative MSP voted for it, with many robustly defending the policy. Their line seems to be, as the Conservative candidate at my local council hustings said last week, that this is a compassionate (that’s the word she actually used) exemption. They are also saying that the woman doesn’t have to fill it in, it’s a third party. Well, have a look at the form and imagine how you would feel if it applied to you. You have to write down the name of your child and sign a declaration that “I believe the non-consensual conception exception applies to my child.” How you can do that without your mind drifting back to the traumatic circumstances of that conception? You are also then required to take the form to a third party to get them to fill it in. You are going to have to relive that ordeal. You may never have told anyone about it before and be worried about whether you are going to be believed. If implementation of a policy requires this sort of trauma, then the policy itself is clearly wrong.

There were many fantastic speeches from across the Chamber, including moving personal testimonies sent to MSPs like Scottish Labour Leader Kezia Dugdale.

The Liberal Democrats were represented by Alex Cole-Hamilton, who condemned these policies – and pointed out that during the coalition years, we had put a stop to their introduction:

I pay tribute to Kez Dugdale and Sandra White for offering very moving personal testimonies, and I congratulate the Scottish Government on lodging the motion. I assure it of the support of the Liberal Democrats. We will support Kez Dugdale’s and Alison Johnstone’s amendments, as well.

Who can forget Theresa May’s inaugural words in her tenure as Prime Minister? In her Francis of Assisi moment on the steps of number 10, she said of families that rely on tax credits in particular:

“If you’re from an ordinary working class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise. You have a job but you don’t always have job security. You have your own home, but you worry about paying a mortgage. You can just about manage but you worry about the cost of living and getting your kids into a good school … I know you’re working around the clock, I know you’re doing your best, and I know that sometimes life can be a struggle. The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours.”

In the two-child tax credit cap and the rape clause that underpins it, we see the measure of that commitment made flesh. I am certain that those words have now turned to ash in the Prime Minister’s mouth.

There are days in the chamber when we are debating welfare reform and social security matters in which I rise to speak with some trepidation and a recognition that there were times when my party, through dint of the coalition, participated in decisions and reforms that were distasteful to us as Liberals, but were far less egregious than those that our partners originally proposed. Members rightly lose no time in reminding me of that in colourful interventions. That is fair enough, but the untold story of our days in coalition is what never made it to the statute book thanks to Liberal Democrat resistance: regional pay, which would penalise any workers outside the south-east of England, inheritance tax cuts for millionaires and enhanced powers for employers to sack staff without notice or recourse to a tribunal.

As I told the First Minister in my intervention, the abhorrent policy that we are discussing would have been on the statute book for years had my party not taken a stand in coalition and blocked it. At no point has my party ever denied that welfare reform is needed; indeed, the Poverty Alliance has said for the best part of a decade that the old system is no longer fit for purpose. However, on the issue in question, as with so many other areas in the agenda, the Conservatives have got it far wrong.

The policy that we are debating has rightly grabbed national attention because of the rape clause, but it is the two-child cap, which is at the root of the policy, that will result in families drifting beneath the breadline. I do not need to remind members that, at present, the national outrage that is child poverty involves some 250,000 children or more, and that number is rising.

Next to the Lib Dem uplift in the income tax threshold, family tax credits have been the most effective way of addressing in-work family poverty.

With the pound weakening and the cost of living rising as a result of the Tory hard Brexit, mounting an assault on tax credits now would result in those numbers growing still further and far faster. That really does give the lie to the warm words of our new Prime Minister.

I described the two-child cap as the root of the rape clause because the clause could not exist without the cap. If a person were to suggest that such a cap is necessary—I utterly reject that it is—to bring in such a restriction without any exemptions would be unfair and inhumane in itself. That is what is so barbaric about the notion of determining public policy on the basis of an upward limit on childbearing. Any such policy would inevitably lead by necessity to a rape clause. If a policy necessitates a precondition whereby women must actively prove to an employee of the state or a third party that they have been raped, it has no place in a civilised society.

Let us speak truthfully about the landscape in which rape survivors currently find themselves in modern Britain. As we have heard, conviction rates in rape cases that reach court stand at just 33 per cent. To put it another way, if a person endures a rape, which is one of the most life-shattering, poisonous and dehumanising acts imaginable, and they can get enough evidence to press charges through the courts, they can expect to be believed around a third of the time; for two thirds of the time, people will not be believed.

Against that backdrop, we are saying to some of the most vulnerable women in our country two terrible words that sometimes stand between them and food on the table: “Prove it.” We are asking women to relive the trauma of that experience, in some cases years after the fact, when for many reasons they might not have reported the matter to the authorities, but through sheer financial hardship must now do so. For the first time, as we have heard, children—loved to the rafters as they may be—might come to learn the dark and violent origins of their parentage, due to a bureaucratic requirement in the DWP at Whitehall.

There is a human cost to all that we do in this place and in the House of Commons. There are times when economic circumstance might cause us to pass a policy with which we are uncomfortable and which might cause people harm, but there is a mace at the centre of this room on which are engraved four words around which we seek to instil humanity into all the policy that we pass. Those words are wisdom, compassion, integrity and justice, and I see none of those in the barbaric policy that we rightly condemn through the Government motion.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Well said, Alex.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 26th Apr '17 - 3:09pm

    Inhumanity meets bureaucracy, that’s the Tory policy !

    We need more of this from Alex et all indeed !

  • Kez made an absolutely brilliant and moving speech.

    Ruth Davidson and Jackson Carlaw just sat there mute, looking embarrassed and dumbstruck. Not good enough.

  • Katerina Porter 27th Apr '17 - 9:19am

    The whole idea of attacking family size is shocking. But also a counter- productive one. Do we not have a problem with a shortage of young to replace the old?

  • In introducing the 2 child policy, the Tories asked poorer people to consider whether they could afford to bring up a large family, and was it “fair” that taxpayers should “subsidise” large families?

    A practical problem is that, even if you are a successful, how do you know that you will still be so for the whole period that your kids are growing up? In the era of automation, the “gig” economy and zero-hours contracts, almost no-one will be able to have a family of more than 2 children – only a handful of the elite. Humanity cannot be sustained with a 2 child limit as not all will survive or have 2 children of their own.

    It is also morally repugnant to punish children and families (whether “hardworking” or not) for daring to cost the securely-employed elite money. I find it sickening that the Tories can get away with using the language of “fairness” to commit monstrous social injustices – and a shame that coalition constrained Lib Dem ministers from speaking out then.

  • Peter Watson 27th Apr '17 - 12:13pm

    “enhanced powers for employers to sack staff without notice or recourse to a tribunal”
    To all intents and purposes, the rise in zero hours contracts over recent years has delivered this for employers: no need to sack somebody, just stop giving them work.

  • nigel hunter 3rd May '17 - 10:27am

    Davidson can say one thing, ie remainer, in non electoral times but does u-turns when an election arrives. It is the old story that when the Tory party is ‘under threat’ they band together and principals go out the window.

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