Northern Ireland social workers raise Universal Credit 'rape clause' concerns

By agency reporter
April 27, 2018

As part of a delegation led by Alison Thewliss MP, the Northern Ireland Association of Social Workers (NIASW) met with Alok Sharma, Minister of State for Employment at the Department of Work and Pensions, to highlight serious concerns related to the Universal Credit two-child cap and the associated ‘rape clause’ exemption.

The UK Government’s introduction of the Universal Credit two-child cap in April 2017, which is forecast to push 200,000 extra children into poverty, includes an exemption for children conceived as a result of non-consensual sexual acts – commonly known as the ‘rape clause’. Social workers are among the professionals listed by the Government as third parties approved to assess claims made under the rape clause.

Speaking following the meeting with Alok Sharma, Carolyn Ewart, NIASW Country Manager said: “Esther McVey, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, recently sought to portray the rape clause exemption as a ‘double support’ for survivors of rape. It is not. Requiring women to recount incidents of rape to access benefits portrays the Government’s callous disregard for women who have suffered abuse.

“During the meeting I highlighted to the Minister a dilemma facing social workers resulting from the rape clause and the legal framework in Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland, unlike in Great Britain, an individual with knowledge of a crime must report it to the police. This extends to a social worker made aware of a rape via an application for Universal Credit. The social worker must report the offence, or risk criminal prosecution, even if it goes against the wishes of the woman making the application.

Commenting, Alison Thewliss said: “As things stand, women and third party professionals risk criminalisation if they do not disclose rape to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Women in Northern Ireland should not be forced to choose between struggling to put food on the table or going through the full process of the criminal justice system. This is completely unacceptable.

“It is outrageous that welfare reform continues unabated in Northern Ireland whilst women who have conceived a third child due to rape, and the organisations the Government expect to help them, still have no clarity about whether they will face prosecution”.

During the meeting, the Department for Work and Pensions agreed to engage the Northern Ireland Department for Communities to highlight the need for guidance for third party professionals handling Universal Credit applications in light of the requirements the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967.

Ms Ewart concluded by saying: “While NIASW welcomed the opportunity to discuss with Mr Sharma the issues facing both social workers and the women who use our services, what we need urgently is a commitment from Government to abandon the Universal Credit two-child cap. Not only would this improve the situation for many thousands of families across the UK, it would also prevent incidents arising where rape survivors are compelled to disclose details of offences to social workers who have no choice but to report this information to the police”.

The Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967 requires an individual with knowledge of a relevant offence – any offence for which the sentence is fixed by law or an offence where a first-time offender of 21 years or over could be sentenced to a term of five years imprisonment – to report it to the police.

The two-child cap for Child Tax Credit came into force in Northern Ireland on 6 April 2017. The same cap applies to the ‘child element’ of Universal Credit, which is being implemented in Northern Ireland on a phased geographical basis from September 2017 to December 2018.

*The Northern Ireland Association of Social Workers (NIASW) is part of the British Association Social Workers (BASW), the largest professional body for social workers in the UK. The Association has 21,000 members employed in frontline, management, academic and research positions in all care settings.

* The British Association of Social Workers https://www.basw.co.uk/

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