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"Proof of Rape Please" - Why Restricting Child Tax Credits to Two Children Resurrects a Degrading Victorian Moralism

18/12/2015 12:54 GMT | Updated 16/12/2016 10:12 GMT

Last week during Prime Minister's Question Time the SNP's Alison Thewliss brought to the Commons' attention the 'abhorrent, violent policy' that requires that women prove they have had their third child by rape in order to qualify for tax credits. Thewliss was referring to an amendment made by the Chancellor in his July budget to restrict child benefits to two children for new parents in 2017, with the proviso that "the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and HMRC will develop protections for women who have a third child as a result of rape or other exceptional circumstances." This comes as part of his plan to cut £12 billion from welfare spending.

The policy raises a number of obvious concerns, which Thewliss immediately drew attention to following the budget announcement. Firstly, a policy concerned with limiting the number of children people have through financial disincentives is tantamount to social engineering. Just because someone might, say, have a job that does not pay them enough to comfortably support their family without government assistance or they have caring or other responsibilities that prevent them from working altogether, does not mean the government should have the power to dictate to them the correct number of children they ought to have.

Not only does this effectively reduce children to a financial commodity and imply that children from poorer households are somehow less valuable or more burdensome to society than those from wealthier families, but it ignores the fact that many poorer families are poorer because of the type of work that they do. It is clear that in a society in which doctors, nurses, teachers and care workers earn considerably less than, for example, bankers or hedge-fund managers, people are not financially remunerated in proportion to the social value of their work. Why should a social care worker then, one in nine of whom is paid less than the minimum wage and whose time is increasingly undervalued and overstretched as care budgets are slashed, be financially discriminated against if she/he chooses to have more than two children?

Designed as a tax-free payment to help parents manage the cost of bringing up children and consisting of £20.50 a week for an eldest or only child and £13.55 a week for each of their other children, this would be a considerable loss of income for poorer families. Consider, for example, that the introduction of the 'bedroom tax', which ranged from between £14 - £22 per week, lead to two-thirds of households effected by the tax falling into rent arrears in the first year of its implementation.

Secondly, the policy invariably punishes the children of poorer families who exceed the two-child limit. It is patently wrong to use children as political pawns to make broader ideological points, but that is exactly what this policy will do. Cutting off child benefits to larger families will only make families struggling financially struggle even more and invariable place the burden of austerity on the most innocent in our society - children - as parents struggle to feed and clothe them.

Finally, and most importantly I think, it raises an important logistical issue with obviously dubious moral implications. How will women be required to appeal for exception from the policy if indeed their third child is born as a result of rape? Will there be some box to tick on the claimant's form that crassly states something along the lines of: 'If you have a third child please specify whether this child was the result of: 1) rape 2) incest 3) [insert example of 'other exceptional circumstance'...immaculate conception?].

Will women be forced perhaps to stand in front of a panel of DWP members and describe their abuse in vivid detail with the threat that should they not be believed - and bear in mind a commonplace misconception regarding the commonality of false allegations of rape is still considered a key factor in deterring women from reporting abuse - they will lose significant financial support?

For me the policy is uncomfortably reminiscent of the process through which unmarried mothers in the mid-nineteenth century were forced apply to have their babies admitted to the Foundling Hospital. Set up in order to look after the illegitimate first child of unmarried women, the hospital's admissions process was such that only the children of 'respectable' women were accepted since it was believed that these women would then be able to return to leading useful and fulfilling lives thereafter. As such, women were required to submit their application to an all white and male body of hospital Governors in which they described the nature of their 'fall' from respectability, by way of rape or abandonment, before appearing before this same panel of men to further explain their cases.

As papers from the Foundling Hospital archive suggest the narrative accepted as indicating a woman's respectability or "worthiness" was one which corresponded with the prevailing cultural trope of the 'fallen woman' and which therefore spoke of guilt, desire, respectability and contrition. For these women cultural expectations regarding female sexuality were what informed the fate of their child.

The moral overtones this holds with the government's proposed child tax-credit reforms is frightening. That over a century and a half later women are still being burdened with a sense of guilt, shame and moral culpability as a result of their falling pregnant is wrong and that a group of individuals might again be tasked with debating the veracity of a woman's claim to rape in order to make an important judgement regarding her and her child's fate is even worse.

There is a petition calling for this policy amendment to be abandoned here: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/105330