May I start by paying tribute to Stephen Neil Heaney, who tragically died while taking part in the Belfast city marathon a few days ago? I think that the whole House will join me in conveying our deepest sympathies and condolences to his family and friends.
The implementation process for child tax credit is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland. To protect claimant confidentiality, the Department for Communities in Northern Ireland has established an exceptions team to handle any applications for benefit payments for a third child under an exemption to the two-child tax credit cap on the ground of non-consensual conception. The Department has advised that, to date, the team has received no applications for an exemption on the ground of non-consensual conception.
Many women say that they are put off from applying for this abhorrent exception under the rape clause due to shame, trauma or perhaps fear. In Northern Ireland, women and those who assist with and endorse their applications, such as GPs, social workers and midwives, face an extra hurdle, as they risk prosecution under section 5 of the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967 for failing to report details of a crime. What is the Secretary of State doing to support women in Northern Ireland and protect them from that risk?
The hon. Lady raises a sensitive issue, which is being treated sensitively by all concerned. She will appreciate that criminal law is a devolved matter, but I can assure her that in the 50 years since 1967, when section 5 was introduced, no prosecutions for failing to report a rape case took place. The outgoing Director of Public Prosecutions has said that it would be highly unlikely that one would happen in the future.
I associate myself with the Minister’s remarks about the tragic death at the Belfast marathon in my constituency on Monday.
The Minister is right to indicate that this is a devolved matter, but we are implementing national policy in Northern Ireland. May I invite him to ensure that we operate this policy in the most compassionate and caring way possible? Will he meet a range of stakeholders including myself, Women’s Aid, the Royal College of Midwives and others?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we should deal with this in a sensitive manner. I am of course more than happy to engage with relevant stakeholders, and to meet him and any others he wishes to bring along.
The benefits charity helpline Turn2us has evidence that women are choosing to abort and terminate their pregnancies as a result of this Government’s despicable two-child cap. The Northern Ireland Association of Social Workers says, despite the Minister’s assurances, that the law is the law and that women and those who support them in their applications could find themselves prosecuted under section 5 of the Criminal Law (Northern Ireland) Act 1967. Will he accept that the two-child policy, and the rape clause of which it stands part, is abhorrent and unacceptable, and will he support its abolition?
I repeat what I said earlier: this is a devolved matter. We have to respect—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady in particular, given that she is a Scottish National party Member, will want to respect the rights of the devolved Assemblies. Criminal law is a devolved issue in Northern Ireland. I say again that there have been no prosecutions at all as regards the rape issue in the 50 years since 1967 when section 5 was introduced, and that the outgoing Director of Public Prosecutions has said that it is highly unlikely that there will be any.