Scotland politics

McVey calls 'rape clause' an 'opportunity' for victims

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Media captionThe social security committee was disrupted as UK minister Esther McVey gave evidence to MSPs

Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey has been criticised for describing the so-called "rape clause" as an opportunity for victims to get help.

The minister was giving evidence to the social security committee at Holyrood.

She told MSPs that sexual assault victims having to give DWP staff details of their ordeal was offering "potentially double support".

The session was disrupted twice by heckling from members of the public.

Ms McVey was invited to the hearing to discuss the universal credit policy and the controversial "rape clause" changes to child tax credits.

Reforms of the welfare system, which came into force last April, mean child tax credits are now capped at two children.

A clause in the new rules means mothers who have a third child as a result of rape can be exempted - but would have to provide evidence to do so.

There has been a political row over the policy, which Scotland's first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has called "disgusting".

Image caption The committee was interrupted by members of the public

Green MSP Alison Johnstone told Monday morning's committee there had been "almost universal condemnation" at Holyrood of the two-child limit.

She said Scottish Women's Aid and Rape Crisis Scotland had refused to act as third party referrers for rape victims.

She asked if the minster was comfortable that women had to prove non-consensual conception in order to access a benefit.

Ms McVey replied: "There will be no invasive or delving questions asked."

She added: "What we are doing is providing extra help where people have got more children that they couldn't have planned.

"This could give them an opportunity to talk about, maybe, something that has happened that they never had before so it is potentially double support - them getting the money they need and maybe an outlet which they might possibly need."

This led to protests from an audience member and a brief suspension as audience tensions spilled over.

Image copyright Andrew Cowan
Image caption Esther McVey's comments prompted angry outbursts from some members of the public

Labour MSP Pauline McNeill condemned the minister's comments after the hearing.

She said: "This was a disgraceful performance from a work and pensions secretary who is completely out of touch with the reality of life for low income women on tax credits.

"To badge up the vile rape clause as some sort of virtuous policy to provide support is simply skin-crawling."

The Department for Work and Pensions insisted the changes would be delivered in a "compassionate" manner.

A DWP spokesperson said: "We're ensuring women in these awful circumstances are supported in every way so they can receive the help that they need.

"We have always been clear that this policy will be delivered in the most effective, compassionate way, with the right exceptions and safeguards in place."

Earlier, SNP MSP Ben Macpherson's call for an apology from the UK minister over the impact of welfare reforms led to shouting from the audience about claimants who took their own lives.

The MSP explained that he has had constituents cry in front of him over issues around Universal Credit, calling it a "cynical and critical system".

'Supportive system'

Mr Macpherson said he wanted to give the minister the opportunity to apologise to those who had suffered due to welfare reform.

But when Ms McVey stated the aim of Universal Credit was for it to be a supportive system, shouts from the viewing gallery halted the session temporarily.

"I am not oblivious to people who are incredibly vulnerable or who are in need," she said.

Referring to the disruption from the audience, she said it was clear the gentleman felt strongly that something needed to be said about the case of a vulnerable person.

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