Social workers have warned that they could face criminal prosecution as a result of the government’s decision to extend the two-child limit on benefits, which carries a controversial “rape clause”, to Northern Ireland.
The policy, which only allows a mother to receive key benefits for a third or subsequent child if their conception involved non-consensual sex, has led to huge controversy across the UK.
But it is causing particular alarm in Northern Ireland, where it is an offence not to report a crime to police. That has raised concerns that women will be criminalising themselves if they later come forward and reveal they were raped.
The Northern Ireland Association of Social Workers has written to Labour’s Owen Smith to warn that there is also a potential impact for its members.
“Exemptions sought on the basis of a child conceived as a result of a ‘non-consensual sexual act’ require claims to be accredited, and this accreditation can be undertaken by a range of groups, including ‘registered social workers’,” said the NIASW chair, Colin Reid.
“Despite there being various reasons why the claimant may not want the rape to be reported, unless this matter was brought to the attention of the police, the social worker may be liable to criminal prosecution.”
The intervention comes after Smith raised the alarm about ministers trying to impose the policy on universal credit recipients in Northern Ireland, despite the fact that Belfast does not have a functioning executive.
He is demanding a debate and vote in parliament on the issue, which could put Theresa May on a collision course with the DUP, which has previously opposed the policy, but is propping up her minority government.
The policy applies across England, Scotland and Wales for tax credit and universal credit recipients. In Northern Ireland, it has not yet been extended to the latter group, which has opened up an opportunity for Labour to call for a discussion in parliament.
Reid said NIASW was seeking legal advice as to how the relevant section 5 of the 1967 Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) would be applied in these situations.
Smith has written to the work and pensions secretary, David Gauke, and the home secretary, Amber Rudd, about the situation, warning that the punishment for failing to report a crime in Northern Ireland can be two years in prison.
“I am writing in order to ask you what consideration you have given to these concerns and what your government is planning to do to ensure that these vulnerable women and DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] employees are not criminalised by their actions,” he wrote to Gauke.
In a second letter to Rudd, Smith asked whether the government was looking to reform criminal laws in Northern Ireland to prevent any possibility of a mother or social worker facing prosecution.
Smith previously told the Guardian: “There is no way the Tories should be able to get away with introducing these controversial changes without parliament debating and voting on them, especially in the absence of devolved government in Northern Ireland.”
A government spokesperson responded: “This reform ensures people on benefits have to make the same choices as those supporting themselves solely through work. But we have always been clear this will be delivered in the most effective, compassionate way, with the right safeguards in place.
“This exception is crucial to protect women who are faced with this very difficult situation, and by using third-party professionals who already support vulnerable women, we can ensure it can be applied as sensitively as possible.
“The third-party professionals involved do not need to seek any evidence to confirm the circumstances.”