Scotland politics

MSPs condemn child tax credit reform 'rape clause'

rape clause protest
Image caption Protests against the policy have been held in Glasgow and Edinburgh, with a Holyrood rally attended by many MSPs

MSPs have condemned changes to child tax credits and a controversial provision known as the "rape clause".

UK government welfare reforms cut child tax credit and Universal Credit for third or subsequent children.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon led a Holyrood debate saying parliament should be "fundamentally opposed" to the two-child policy.

However, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson defended the plans on grounds of financial responsibility.

The welfare changes, which were announced in 2015 and came into effect from 6 April, limit tax credits to the first two children in a family, with exceptions for adoptions, those involved in kinship care and for children born as a result of "non-consensual conception".

The terms of the latter exemption have proved controversial, with protest rallies held in Glasgow and Edinburgh and fiery exchanges in the Holyrood chamber.

These continued in the Scottish government-led debate, which saw a series of impassioned speeches - including one where Kezia Dugdale silenced the chamber by reading out an email from a rape victim.

Ms Sturgeon's motion for the debate read that parliament should be "fundamentally opposed to the UK government's imposition of the two-child limit", as it "will push families into poverty".

It also "utterly condemns the disgraceful and repugnant 'rape clause'", saying the policy is "unfair, unequal, morally unacceptable and deeply harmful to women and their children and a fundamental violation of women's human rights".

Image caption Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson clashed over the welfare reform policy

Ms Sturgeon told MSPs that the rape clause illustrated the "callousness" and "sheer inhumanity" of the policy.

She said: "No woman anywhere should have to prove she's been raped in order to get tax credits for their child. I can't believe in 2017 that I'm having to stand up in the Scottish Parliament and make that argument."

And the first minister dismissed the Conservative argument that the Scottish government has the power to mitigate the changes as "ridiculous", saying "the only appropriate mitigation is for the UK government to abandon the two-child cap".

'Difficult judgement calls'

Ms Davidson responded for the Conservatives, with her amendment noting that "the UK government has a duty to manage public finances carefully for future generations", highlighting attempts to "curb increasing welfare spending by reducing benefits to those on higher incomes".

She said she struggled to find the words for the issue of rape, saying terms like "sensitive" and "compassionate" would "shrivel next to the enormity of the violation" victims had suffered.

But she said her party's judgement was that the government needed to reduce the deficit to build a strong economy which could sustain public services. She said policies like the two-child cap were "difficult judgement calls".

And the Scottish Conservative leader questioned whether Holyrood was "a soapbox to sound off against policies from London that MSPs do not like", or whether it should use "the enormous powers" it now has to act.

She added: "The first minister uses strong words like shameful. She has the power to act - if she chooses strong words but chooses not to act, then that would indeed be shameful."

Image caption Kezia Dugdale gave an impassioned speech, reading out an email from a rape victim

Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale gave an impassioned speech slamming the rape exemption as "an absolutely sickening state of affairs".

She read out an email from a woman who had a baby as a result of rape, who described tax credits as "the hand up I needed when I was at my most vulnerable to allow me to re-stabilise my family".

It continued: "There is no way I could complete that awful form of shame, no matter what the consequences.

"Looking back that really could have been the thing that tipped me completely over the edge; the difference between surviving to tell the tale and not."

Ms Dugdale said: "It's not the author of that letter, or any other rape victims who should feel shame. It is those, like Ruth Davidson, on the Tory benches here and in Westminster who refuse to act who should feel shame."

'Cruel party'

Green MSP Ross Greer also slammed the Scottish Conservative leader, saying: "When you cut through the tank-riding, bagpipe-playing bravado, Ruth Davidson is just another cruel member of a cruel party."

He said Holyrood was not designed as the last line of defence against the cruelty of Westminster.

Lib Dem Alex Cole-Hamilton said the "abhorrent policy" would have been in the statute book years earlier had his party not blocked it previously.

He said "such a policy has no place in a civilised society".

Labour's Pauline McNeill described the policy as "a full-frontal attack on women", while SNP member Sandra White addressed Tory MSPs saying: "I thought some of them were decent people - but if they stand by this there is no decency left in them."

Image caption Rachael Hamilton accused the SNP of "hypocrisy" over the row about the policy

However, a number of Conservative MSPs also stepped forward to defend the policy.

Adam Tomkins said limiting tax credits to the first two children in a family was "the right thing to do" and exempting some, like rape victims, was also "the right decision".

He said responsible politicians had to make a decision on the balance of "fairness between those receiving benefits and those paying for them". He said MSPs had the power "not to shout and scream, but to act".

And Rachael Hamilton accused the SNP and other parties of "misleading" statements on the welfare reforms, saying they had set out to "demonise" Ms Davidson and "twist" the exemption for rape victims.

She charged the SNP with "hypocrisy", saying they "continually fail to use" Holyrood's powers and would use anything to "demonise the main unionist opposition".

Ms Sturgeon's motion, with amendments from Labour and the Greens, was backed by 91 votes to 31. Ms Davidson's amendment was rejected by the same margin.

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