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This ‘rape rule’ for tax credits tramples on the rights of children it’s meant to protect

We don’t like to think too much (or at all) about our parents having sex, because it makes us feel weird. Freud called parental intercourse the primal scene, and believed our buried knowledge of how we came to be created was the root of much unhappiness. Now imagine that your mother had become pregnant as the result of being raped, how much more disturbing such thoughts and images might be.

Rebecca Kiessling wrote in the Guardian about finding out she was conceived as the result of a rape; she was adopted, and didn’t find out until she was an adult. Even so, it took her years to recover, and to understand “that my father’s crimes had nothing to do with me”.

There is a long list of things wrong with the “rape clause” that means mothers have the right to claim child tax credits for a third or subsequent child if that child is the result of rape, while all other parents are now limited to claims only on their first two children. (Before this, tax credit claims could be made for all children, however many a family had.)

First announced in George Osborne’s 2015 budget, and hustled through parliament on Wednesday night with no debate, the measure was designed to neutralise objections to this tax credit cut, and the whole idea that bigger families deserve to be poorer than small ones. Yes they do, went the twisted logic – but not if extra children had arrived as a consequence of a sex crime.

The SNP’s Alison Thewliss and Labour’s Keir Starmer are among MPs to have objected strongly and been ignored. But top of the list of what is wrong with this awful new rule, and relatively little commented on so far, is the way it tramples on the interests of the children it is supposed to protect. These children’s new special status, and the way that “rape”, or some code signifying “mother raped”, will appear on tax documents and forms with their name on, is a gross intrusion.

What if a woman wanted to keep the facts of a child’s paternity secret, because the truth is distressing, even life changing? Well she could still do that, I suppose, but if she wanted the benefits due to her – over £7,000 a year for a child with a disability – then even if the child did not know about the rape (as surely most eight- or even 15-year-old such children would not), officials in the benefits office would do. Truly, it is hard to imagine a more insulting situation.

Or perhaps it isn’t. Among the arguments made against the new law is the fact that it has been brought in before any of the people judging such claims have been given any training. Although a “professional third party” will be involved, claims will ultimately be decided by people without expertise – a prospect so awful that it might almost be funny, in a Chris Morris kind of way, if it wasn’t so disgusting.

What standard of evidence will the Department of Work and Pensions require? Imagine you are the partner of a violent man with whom you have children. He rapes you, you fall pregnant – but in order to agree to pay the tax credits that will help you look after this child, an assessor will need to be certain that the baby in question was conceived as a result of rape.

Will they ask, as doctors do, when you had your last period? Are we entering a Margaret Atwood-style dystopia of menstrual calendars in the tax office? If you think this sounds over the top, remember that the work capability assessment, used to test the claims of people on sickness benefits, was linked to 590 suicides between 2010 and 2013.

Of course, the rape clause is only the bitter icing on the poisonous cake that is politician-cum-newspaper-editor George Osborne’s policy to restrict benefits to a family’s first two children. Children do not ask to be born, whatever the circumstances of their conception. Why are anyone’s third and fourth children less deserving of a properly resourced childhood than children born to rape survivors? It is an absurdity, and that the government believes rape survivors must be protected from the full force of the cut only goes to show how punitive it is.

Family size should not be completely off limits for politicians, and pressure on our planet’s resources means there must be a way of talking about population without being accused of misanthropy or racism. But the UK birth rate is low, at 1.8 children per woman, and this law has nothing to do with it. Instead, it is an attack on the folk devil that has been one of the animating spirits of rightwing propaganda for decades: the “welfare queen” of 1970s America morphed into the “skiver on benefits”.

But perhaps the ugliest thing of all about the “rape clause” is the fact that the government has deliberately created a perverse financial incentive for women to report they have been raped. How could they be so stupid, when just about everyone who knows anything about rape knows there is a deep-seated problem about women who are victims of sex crimes being disbelieved, as recent coverage of the case of serial rapist John Worboys reminds us?

It beggars belief that a government that takes rape seriously could set about creating the circumstances where making up an allegation of rape might feel to a poor and desperate woman like a rational decision, made in the best interests of her child. Is it too late for home secretary Amber Rudd, justice secretary Liz Truss, or prime minister Theresa May to see sense?