Fiona Robertson: We've already seen DWP inhumanity towards the disabled, now it's rape victims' turn

Disability activist and writer Fiona Robertson says women and children will likely die as a result of the Rape Clause

BY NOW, most people know about the existence of the Rape Clause: the exception to Westminster’s new two-child limit for child tax credits, allowing for parents to claim for further children if they can prove the child was the product of rape or coercion. It’s an abhorrent piece of bureaucracy.

Audiences audibly gasped when Nicola Sturgeon explained it in her interview in New York on Thursday, while MP Alison Thewliss has been tireless in her campaign to raise awareness of the Rape Clause and its consequences. Indeed, it’s because of her that the eight-page document was reported on so widely when it was released this week, and it became a subject of heated discussions on Twitter and in the media. 

The key arguments in its defence were that it was better than there not being an exception; that the DWP had to check because otherwise women would just say they were raped in order to get the exemption; and that while asking some questions might make survivors uncomfortable, it wasn’t as big a deal as we were making it out to be.

Read more – Scottish Tories feel the heat as Dugdale and Thewliss demand rape clause answers

The counter to all of these is the same: women are going to die. Children will probably also die. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) cannot be trusted with this, and whether or not people believe the limit should exist, they have to acknowledge that the DWP will kill people in trying to enforce it.

It’s easy to say that safeguards will exist, that the DWP will treat a subject of such sensitivity with a degree of caution and respect, that there will be no danger. If you believe that, you haven’t been paying attention. 

Disabled people have been dying for more than a decade because of the DWP’s demands for 'proof' that they qualify for support. We have had to endure a process which the DWP knows is potentially lethal and causes permanent damage to health for many people. 

Even as academic research like this continues to prove the danger, the process of proving disability has become ever more dangerous, and is always presented to the public as just a reasonable check to make sure fraud isn’t happening.

Survivors of rape and coercion are now faced with an eight-page form to fill out, detailing their proof and requiring support from a professional person they have told. This is no simple, signed declaration – to be able to speak to anyone about having been raped is a complicated thing. 

Read more – Glasgow protest called against Tory rape clause and anti-family policies

Many people are not able to process the trauma for years, because once you start opening up about it, it becomes an open wound that can take a long time to heal.

If a person is dealing with a child borne out of that experience, they often are not able to cope with rape counselling at the same time as looking after an infant. The vast majority of rape goes unreported because the process of proving it is retraumatising at a time when the survivor is just trying to keep going.

Working with rape survivors requires specialist training and extreme sensitivity, and the chances this will be given are vanishingly small. Westminster consulted on the Clause and was almost universally told by experts and organisations that there was no way to do it safely, but the government has form on this. 

With the Welfare Reform Bill, it made the consultation process two weeks shorter than usual, held it over the Christmas period and announced the legislation before it had even finished.

When it produced the results of a consultation into changes to criteria for disability, it specifically stated that the respondents’ answers warned the plan "could increase isolation and reduce independence, have significant financial impact, and cause deterioration in their physical and mental health", before saying that it was the right policy, even though there was no response anywhere in the consultation which suggested that.

It’s easy to say that safeguards will exist, that the DWP will treat a subject of such sensitivity with a degree of caution and respect, that there will be no danger. If you believe that, you haven’t been paying attention. 

IF, as some have suggested, the Clause is necessary, the government might have been expected to ensure that it is implemented as safely as possible, but here too it has form for ignoring expert advice. Since before the coalition government took office, coroners have been producing 'Prevention of Future Deaths' reports after inquests into deaths connected to the Work Capability Assessment. 

The coalition suppressed the first ones which made direct links to cause of death, and refused to release data for years which showed that it had known that the process was killing people all along. It chose not to act on any of the recommendations by the coroners, meaning those deaths were not prevented. 

When questioned about it on national television, David Cameron said that the system was working. The process can be lethal: in the disability community we are all too familiar with the loss of friends and fellow activists to suicide. Two of my friends have had to spend time as in-patients in mental health facilities as a direct result of the process of applying and qualifying for disability benefits.

Maximus admitted recently that it has been asking people with documented suicidal ideation why they haven’t killed themselves yet, and why they 'failed' last time they tried. Imagine these people assessing rape survivors, interrogating them for details of their rape to judge whether or not they’re lying. 

And that will be how it’s approached – the UK’s DWP protocol is to assume that everyone applying is attempting to defraud the system and needs to be exposed, rather than to assume that people applying are in need of assistance and should be treated with dignity and respect. People have been dying by suicide as a result of the DWP handling of their cases for years.

Disabled people have been dying for more than a decade because of the DWP’s demands for 'proof' that they qualify for support. We have had to endure a process which the DWP knows is potentially lethal and causes permanent damage to health for many people.

The most immediately concerning aspect of the form is the condition that you must no longer be with the person who raped you in order to qualify for this support. Apart from the fact that most rapes are committed by partners and spouses, the danger this places women in comes from the choice they are forced to make between getting access to necessary funds for their child and leaving the relationship. 

To many critics of the campaign against the Clause, this shouldn’t be a difficult choice – leaving the abusive partner is a good thing, surely? It sounds reasonable, again, but the time when you leave an abusive relationship and in the months following is when most murders of partners or ex-partners happen. It is dangerous to leave an abusive relationship, to both the survivor and the children, who can be killed as revenge for leaving.

It also ignores the reality of austerity Britain – many people are trapped in abusive relationships because the resources and support are no longer there to ensure their safety after fleeing. In one argument I had on Twitter, the man maintained that this may be true of England, but in Scotland we have refuges and harsh sentencing and police presence, so no woman is in danger if she leaves.

This is nonsense. The closing of refuges because of the changes to how housing benefit is structured has been reported quite widely. Scottish Women’s Aid, the primary refuge support service in Scotland, reported at the end of 2016 that 46 per cent of the people who applied for shelter could not be given appropriate refuge. 

It managed to source some accommodation for many of them, through family and friends and non-specialist temporary housing, but these are, crucially, not secure.

The vast majority of rape goes unreported because the process of proving it is retraumatising at a time when the survivor is just trying to keep going.

Many women who need shelter are literally running for their lives, often with just the clothes they managed to leave the house in, often in need of immediate, intensive treatment for physical and mental health damage, and often with children. 

The lengths to which abusive partners will go in order to track them down to punish them for leaving are well documented, even if the wider public refuses to acknowledge this. So forcing women to choose between often necessary financial support and risking their lives and the lives of their children is cruelty in the extreme, and to do it in order to save a relatively small amount of money which is supposed to help children have the best start in life is an abdication of the responsibility of a government: to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the country's citizens.

But that is the country we live in. It's easy to say that won't happen, that it's unthinkable, but it's only unthinkable if you haven't spent the last decade or more dealing with the DWP. Nobody thought we'd end up in a position where our country's government is censured by the UN for "grave and systematic violations of the human rights of disabled people". 

Nobody thought the government would ignore multiple coroners' reports, evidence from charities in every major sector, academic research or the UN, all saying "look, this process is often lethal and causes permanent damage to health and wellbeing", and not just do nothing to fix it, but repeatedly make it worse.

Disabled people have been dying for years because of the UK Government's requirements for 'proof'. Do not let rape survivors be next because of the Rape Clause.

Picture courtesy of Kevin Muir

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Comments

Peter Dow's picture

Peter Dow

Tue, 04/11/2017 - 17:38

I fear that some commentators are getting so distracted by the rape clause that they are neglecting to fight the outrage of the ending of child benefit to ANY child.

We must not surrender the principle of child benefit must remain a right for ALL children, regardless if they are 1st born or 10th born. ALL must qualify for child benefit.

If the Tories did away with the rape clause and said "Fine, all children after the 2nd will not get child benefit, regardless of whether there was rape or not" would that be any kind of victory? NO, OF COURSE NOT.

If the tests for rape were sensitively done, would that be somehow "acceptable"? NO!

The ending of child benefit for 3rd and more children is what is truly odious. The rape clause is a side show that should be defeated along with the restoration of child benefit for all children.

Some commentators are falling into a Tory trap if they are ever thinking it might be ever be less odious for the Tories to deny ANY family child benefit for 3rd or subsequent children.

Nothing of this attack on child benefit is OK. It's all odious.

Let's keep a clear eye on the prize here - the restoration of child benefit for ALL children.

We never meet the Tories half way on anything. We defeat them lock, stock and two smoking barrels.

This ending of child benefit to all children is Tory inhumanity towards 3rd and subsequent children and is not well described as "inhumanity towards rape victims". Let's get that clear.

S_Tilbury

Tue, 04/11/2017 - 19:21

Well said Peter. For me, the main point is that the moment somebody raised the question "what about children born through rape?" that should have been the end of the policy, with the recognition that it's completely unworkable. And yes you're right, the two child policy as a whole is abhorrent. It punishes children for the decisions and actions of their parents, which is unacceptable by any measure.

Deryck de Maine...

Wed, 04/19/2017 - 13:07

Many thanks for the article re CB withdrawn for 3rd and subsequent children
https://www.commonspace.scot/articles/10768/fiona-robertson-weve-already...

Fiona writes the (UK she says I think "our country" but I am assuming she means the UK? ) " is censured by the UN for "grave and systematic violations of the human rights of disabled people".
but she gives no citation.
This is something I am trying to work on I can find references to the taking of evidence in Scotland back i I think 2014 but so far I cannot find any such censure form the UN?
I wonder if Fiona or anyone could share the citation?
I would have written to her directly but I cannot find any email address for her
Many thanks
deryck
deryck23@yahoo.com

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