As she revealed today, Theresa May's benefits 'rape clause' isn't just cruel – it's illogical

Voters believe best way for the country to save money is to cap benefits. That saves £290m – compared with £5bn for raising the pension age and £1.7bn for stopping child benefit for the wealthiest households

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The Independent Online

Today at Prime Minister’s Questions, the SNP’s Chris Stephens asked Theresa May about her Government’s “rape clause”, which requires women claiming benefits to prove that they were raped (and fill out an eight-page form detailing exactly what happened) in order to be able to claim child benefit for a third child. If you can’t provide proof that conception happened without sexual consent, the rule goes, then you lose your right to financial help for any child after your second.

Like the bedroom tax, this welfare “update” has had its fair share of PR problems. The term “rape clause” doesn’t exactly snuggle up nicely next to “compassionate Conservatism” and “we’re all in this together”, after all. Chris Stephens called the clause “an unworkable and immoral policy”, before reiterating on Twitter that he found it “repugnant”; unfortunately for May, a lot of the public feel the same way.

This was, of course, the final PMQs showdown between May and Jeremy Corbyn before an unexpected general election in June, so the Prime Minister was determined never to deviate from her campaign message (the Conservatives will provide a strong and stable government, strengthen my hand in EU negotiations for a better Brexit, with every benefits claimant I consume in the fires of my poverty crucible I will become stronger, clearer, more stable, unstoppable, and so on). You know the routine. 

To get an idea of exactly how determined May was to stay within well-rehearsed soundbite territory, you only have to listen to the near identical answers she gave to very different questions this afternoon: when Corbyn asked about the NHS, she replied that even his supporters know he’s not fit to run the country, and when he reiterated that his question was about the NHS, she replied that “if you want to talk about the NHS, then we should talk about Wales. Labour’s record there is bad”. 

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When asked about pensions, May answered that we should “remember Labour’s record” because, on one year under Labour, the state pension only went up by 75p.

When asked about her future housing strategy, she said we should look to “what happened under Labour”. And when Corbyn posed a question from a member of the public called Christopher about pay increases for NHS workers, May retorted: “Tell Christopher he will have a choice at the election between strong and stable leadership and Labour.”

The rape clause, however, is a tricky thing to be able to throw back in her opponent’s face – not least because it never existed under any other governments. When Stephens posed his question, May’s strategy of making a nod toward what had been said before avoiding the question and attacking the party she’d be standing against fell down.

“This is a sensitive issue,” she said, “and… we have put in place a series of sensitive measures… but I think it’s important that we look at what lies behind us. Because underpinning this policy is the principle of fairness and we know that what the SNP want to do is scrap the policy in its entirety. We believe the people in work have to make the same decisions as those who are out of work” (you know, like when people who are in work decide not to get raped because getting raped might lead to consequences that would be bad for the economy) “so that people on benefits should have to decide whether they can afford more children.”

As Stephens pointed out himself, May’s answer ignored altogether the fact that it would impact parents in work claiming tax credits in the same way that it would impact those on benefits who are out of work. Because of wage stagnation, which has failed to be tackled by the Conservative Government, a lot of working people earning salaries too low to live on are claiming tax credits already.

But even though benefit fraud does happen (think of those real life glossy magazines headlines: "SHAMELESS MUM SAYS SHE WON’T STOP UNTIL SHE HAS 712 KIDS – AND SHE LIVES IN A MANSION MADE OF SOLID GOLD BRICKS”), the Conservative rape clause makes very little sense.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) estimates that £1.3bn is lost on benefit fraud each year, while tax evasion is said by Government officials to cost the country £34bn – or £120bn, according to Labour's calculations. If corporations had fewer “sweetheart deals” and were subject to more stringent checks and punishments for transgressions, then perhaps the problem wouldn’t be so bad. Since 3,765 people work at the DWP investigating benefit fraud and abuses, while just 700 work in the HMRC units which deals with chasing down the wealthiest taxpayers in Britain, I’m not going to hold my breath.

The Government gets away with completely ignoring this huge problem in favour of scapegoating the poorest (and suggesting that they breed like rabbits just to squeeze the public purse) because many people do believe their rhetoric about benefit fraudsters hiding behind every corner: research by Ipsos Mori has shown that people estimate benefit fraud is 34 times more likely than it actually is (occurring among 24 per cent of claimants, they believe, rather than the true figure of 0.7 per cent). Interestingly, the same study found that people are most likely to think that the best way for the country to save money on benefits is to cap them at £26,000 per household. In fact, a benefits cap would save £290m – compared with £5bn for raising the pension age, and £1.7bn for stopping child benefit for the wealthiest households. When you look at it that way, the “rape clause” makes very little sense at all.

You know what else is more common than benefit fraud? Rape and sexual violence. The most recent overview of sexual offending by the Ministry of Justice found that 2.5 per cent of women had been victims of sexual violence. That translates into a substantial amount of voter numbers.

Perhaps, when Theresa May dismisses the “rape clause” and its accompanying demands as “fairness” in action, she should consider whether those 646,000 women would realistically agree with her. Because whichever way you square it – on compassionate, numerical, humanitarian or logical grounds – what her Government is doing with the welfare system simply doesn’t make sense.

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