Effect of social security changes on equality – Westminster Hall debate

Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.

I had not intended to speak in this debate, but unfortunately my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) was called away and he has left me a pile of unreadable notes here, which was his speech. So I am sorry that I will not be able to read what he wanted to say—

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): They are in Scots Gaelic.

Alison Thewliss: They could be in any language—I am not quite sure.

This opportunity to speak about the effect of social security changes on equality gives me the chance to mention something that I have mentioned several times before in the House, which is the impact on women of the proposed benefit changes, with particular reference to the two-child policy in tax credits and the rape clause that the Government have proposed. I have raised the two-child policy on several occasions; I am not sure whether I have yet raised it directly with the Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People, who is here today, but I am certainly yet to have an answer from the Government on it.

The two-child policy in tax credits perhaps sounds like a reasonable idea—people should not have unlimited access to benefits, and they should have the children that they can afford. However, that is actually how life actually works or how families work. The policy does not really take into account the fact that someone may have had three or four children at a time when they could well afford them, but then real life gets in the way and they lose their job or their partner dies or takes ill. There is no means of recognising such a change in circumstances within the tax credit system. The system simply says that the benefit is calculated on the first two children somebody has, which, as I said, does not take into account how real life works.

With regard to equality, the policy does not take into account the impact that there might be on people of particular faith backgrounds, for whom larger families would be the norm. Those people may choose to have larger families because of their religious beliefs, and the policy has not been tested in that regard either. The Government have not done an impact assessment of the policy’s effect on people of a particular religion—be they Orthodox Jews, Catholics or Muslims—who may wish to have larger families for historical reasons. They have not taken that issue into account.​

I also believe that the two-child policy does not take into account our obligations under the UN convention on the rights of the child, because it does not treat all children within a family equally. It says that the first two children in a family are somehow of greater value to the Government than the others. I believe that we should support all children within a family and make sure that each of them has enough to live on.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): On the subject of the inequality of treatment under the two-child rule, does the hon. Lady note the contrast between what is happening on tax credits and the childcare element of universal credit, which are to be limited to two children, and what is happening on childcare allowances? The latter are to be paid for as tax allowances of up to £2,000 a year, or up to 20% of £10,000 costs. They will go to better-off families, will not be limited by a two-child rule and will be bankable allowances, unlike what people will get under the childcare element of universal credit.

Alison Thewliss: I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. There are a great many inconsistencies within the policy and a great many unanswered questions about it.

The rape clause puts particularly vulnerable women in an extremely difficult position, because the Government do not seem to realise that rape can happen within marriage as well as outside marriage. A woman may be in a relationship where she cannot tell the police about a rape, and no proof that she was raped can be found, but the Government somehow expect her to nip down to the benefit office and say, “Oh, this third child that I’d like to claim benefit for came about as the result of rape.” That is not something that many women would want to do, and I do not think that the issue has been fully thought through. There is also a problem if, as soon as the woman goes and claims that money, the man in the relationship, who has the power, knows that she has done so. Again, that will put her in a vulnerable position.

There is a similar situation with household payments under universal credit. The Government say that women can request split payments instead of the single household payment, but if a woman makes that request at her local Department of Work and Pensions office, the man will know it almost instantly, when the money that he is expecting does not come in. That woman will then have to suffer the consequences of that. Should she then leave that abusive relationship, if she has more than two children the tax credits system has no means of taking that into account. The system will not see that she could do with some extra support because she has left an abusive relationship. She may be in financial hardship, and she may have to put up with working extra hours or cutting her hours to look after her children. There are no means within the system to take into account that woman’s change of circumstances.

I appeal to the Government to consider the matter more carefully. It is an issue of inequality. Women are already not being treated equally under the system, and they are being further punished by the circumstances they are in. I urge the Government to take account of the religious aspects and the impact on women of their changes to benefit policy.​