The Third Child and the ‘Law of Unintended Consequences’…

The ‘Law of Unintended Consequences’ scored another ‘success’ recently, though only for women in N Ireland.

The Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) Act 1967 was copied word for word from the equivalent legislation in Great Britain. The Act was a revision of the law, a tidying-up, eliminating the previous classification of misdemeanour and felony, and introducing the concept of an ‘arrestable offence’.

The NI Act has a completely different Section 5, introduced specifically as anti-terrorist legislation. In this, it’s clear that if a person believes an offence has been committed, that person is required to notify the police (a ‘constable’); and failure to notify the police is a criminal offence. And it need only be a belief, no hard proof of wrong doing is required.

You might well think that this is a bit, well, esoteric. However, a section of women in N Ireland are now potentially affected by this. If a woman has a third (or subsequent) child, she may no longer claim Child Benefit for that child. However, there is an exception where the pregnancy was the result of rape.

Again, you might think that this is a noble aim, not to disadvantage the woman. It’s not necessary for there to be a trial and a conviction; it’s enough if an ‘advisor’ believes that the woman has been raped, and provides certification to this effect. And this is where the problems start.

Clearly, the woman believes she was raped and made pregnant, and her ‘advisor’ will accept and believe this, and the officials in the Benefit office will accept and believe the certification and make payment. But if the ‘advisor’ and the Benefits officer do not report this to the police, they become criminals  under Section 5 of the NI Act.

And the woman, if she does not report her belief that she was raped, may also be a criminal. And if the police come to know that there is a belief in a rape, it’s very likely that they will begin an investigation, potentially further criminalising the woman who, however inadvertently, has ‘perverted the course of justice’.

Here we have an example of a legal change producing a perverse effect, something I’m quite sure wasn’t at all intended or even envisaged; but what, if anything, can and will now be done?

  • Jag

    I was wondering about that cartoon in the current issue of Private Eye which depicts a condom machine and a tattooed neer-do-well receiving a note advising him there’s no child tax credit for a third child (instead of a condom, geddit?!)

    The child benefit is £700 a year for a 2nd child, so between 0-17, the mother would receive around £13,000 at today’s rates.

    If the third child is the result of rape, then the unfortunate victim mother stands to receive £13,000 that she otherwise wouldn’t get from the State. That’s a significant sum, and what deterrent is there for an unscrupulous woman to wrongly claim that she had been raped? In order to access the £13,000 she needs to report the rape, or the assessors need report it. Many taxpayers will think that’s fair (personally, I think the numbers wrongly claiming rape would be so tiny as to not be worth increasing the pain and trauma of a woman who, for whatever reason, chose not to report it).

  • Jim M

    This whole horrific debacle should be borne in mind by any abortion law reform proponent who thinks ‘rape exceptions’ would be a good idea…

  • El_Commi

    £700 a year is not a “significant sum”. Especially not where 3 children are concerned..

  • Steptoe

    I think people need to be careful and respectful when discussing this subject. Many, many people have been affected by rape and that should be borne in mind. Whatever your views on abortion, I do not think this is the right forum to air them.

  • Jim M

    If you’re referring to my post Steptoe, I’m actually in favour of abortion being legal, on demand, in the first trimester. I only mention abortion here because a number of politicians in NI have said they think it should be legal ‘in cases of sexual crime’. It seems obvious to me that such legislation would put rape survivors in a pretty grim position (having to convince a stranger of what happened), and Korhomme’s piece highlights how NI law could make that even worse.

  • Disdain

    It’s not child benefit which is limited to 2 kids, it’s child tax credit. The article is incorrect.

  • Korhomme

    There’s a new form available for women in this position to claim:

    There are other exemptions; there is an exemption for a child which is ‘disabled’ or requires input from social services, though I haven’t researched the exact details. IIRC, this was an amendment to the original Bill in the House of Lords by Baroness Warsi.

    There is an exemption for twin pregnancy; clearly, if a woman has one child and then becomes pregnant with twins, giving benefit (child tax benefit) to the first born but not the after-coming twin is, well, eccentric. I haven’t been able to find out whether this was in the original Bill, or was also an amendment.

  • Skibo

    The most amazing thing with this legislation is we are heading to a time when the percentage of workers to pensioners will be reduce so much that those working will not be able to pay for the pensions of those currently claiming.
    Here we have legislation penalising the larger family and in doing so reducing the number of future employees. Does the Government believe that everyone should only have two children?

  • Korhomme

    Child Tax Credit is today’s name; these names get changed at the whim of a Chancellor when they start meddling around. Tomorrow it will be something else.

    You say the article is ‘incorrect’. Do you mean just this bit of nomenclature, or the entirety of the article?

  • Disdain

    Child Tax Credit has been the name since the creation of the Tax Credits system in 2003 (Child Benefit having been around since 1977).

    Child Tax Credit is worth (up to) £2,780 per calendar year and is means-tested, whilst Child Benefit is worth (up to) £1,076 per year and is not and never means-tested.

    Child Tax Credit will be not be paid to any 3rd or subsequent child born on or after 6th April 2017. Child Benefit will be paid to any such child. (It is worth noting that freezing Child Tax Credit in this way has knock-on reducing effects to Housing Benefit and other benefits, which are not worth detailing here.)

    My saying the article is “incorrect” is in reference to this nomenclature. As the above should demonstrate, that’s a significant mistake. If you’re writing on a public forum which has the traffic and prestige of Slugger, get your facts right.

  • Korhomme

    I take the point you make. I am aware that even professionals in Benefit/Welfare offices make mistakes, and that while overpayments are highlighted, a much greater problem is with those people who don’t get the entitlements to which they are due.

    However, this is to quibble about a detail, and it is a distraction. It isn’t the main thrust of my blog piece, which was the position of a woman with a third pregnancy conceived through rape. She may choose a financial penalty, or she may choose to criminalise herself.

    I didn’t make the corresponding point, though Elaine Coyle does make it in her piece on the same subject, that a free safe and legal abortion is not available in NI. Of course, the woman can choose to pay all the costs involved with travel to GB and the costs of an abortion, for it’s not available to her under the NHS, but if she can afford this, unaided, then the changes to her Benefit/Welfare isn’t likely to be a much of a financial problem.

    This isn’t to require you to agree with abortion or not. It is to make it clear that there are a group of women in NI who will be financially disadvantaged because of these changes, and that if they try to mitigate the financial problem, they risk a criminal investigation.

    Do you agree, or do you not agree with this?

  • Disdain

    If you take the point I make, I presume you’ll edit the blog entry. (As I type it still reads Child Benefit.)

    I agree with and acknowledge, broadly, the point you’re making, but I wouldn’t call mixing up CB and CTC as a quibble over details – it’s a difference of circa £2,100 per year, which is a tidy sum to most people, let alone someone whose income is low enough that they are means-tested as “deserving” that money.

  • Korhomme

    I don’t have direct access to the blog, so I can’t alter it myself. My entries go through the editorial process at Slugger, from where they are posted. The original draft of this post was subject to several emails and phone calls before being published in a revised form.

    How about the main thrust of the blog post? What are your thoughts on that? I think that’s more important.