Government under pressure to abandon two-child benefit policy

‘IF YOU set out to design a policy that was targeted to increase child poverty, then you could not do much better than the two-child limit,’ according to a new report.

Written by members of the End Child Poverty coalition, the Child Poverty Action Group and the Church of England, it claims that by 2021/22, more than half of children in families with three or more children are forecast to be in poverty.

They point out that this is nearly twice the rate for families with two children. The report marks the first anniversary of the new policy and it claims that the projected rise in poverty among larger families ‘is a direct result of the two-child limit and other policies that disproportionately impact on families with more children’.

Alongside the publication of the report, ‘Unhappy birthday! The two-child limit at one year old’, 60 bishops, along with senior representatives from other Christian, Jewish and Muslim organisations, have written an open letter to The Times.

They say that the “two-child limit” policy, which restricts tax credit and universal credit to the first two children in a family, ‘is making it harder for parents to achieve a stable and resilient family life’. “By 2021, 640,000 families will have been affected. Most are low-earning working families, most have three children and some will have made decisions about family size when they were able to support children through earnings alone, but later claimed tax credits or universal credit after a bereavement, redundancy, separation, disability, illness or simply low pay,” wrote the Bishops.

They explain that the policy is expected to tip an estimated extra 200,000 children into poverty and ‘conveys the regrettable message that some children matter less than others, depending (arbitrarily) on their place in the sibling birth order’. “It is a grave concern that there are likely to be mothers who will face an invidious
choice between poverty and terminating an unplanned pregnancy (where there isn’t enough money to support a third or subsequent child),” they added.

The Bishops said that ‘children are a private joy and a public good. They are all equally deserving of subsistence support’.

The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Rev Paul Butler, explained that while the government’s welfare reforms have commanded headlines over the past few years, the two-child limit policy ‘has been largely overlooked’. “Christian tradition has always recognised children as a blessing and not a burden. Anything that sends the implicit message that a third or fourth child is any less valued than the first should be strongly resisted,” he said.

Bishop Butler (pictured) explained that one year on from the benefit cap enforcement, his ‘fears have only grown as we see the real impact on families and children’. He said that faith communities with ‘a devout desire to avoid contraception or abortion’ will be one of the groups hit hardest.

“The two-child limit wrongly assumes that all children can be planned, and that all families can accurately predict their financial circumstances 18 years into the future at the time when they decide to have a child. “We know life is far more complicated: contraception can fail; families may separate and reform; jobs can be gained and lost; and none of us can guarantee that we will not face ill health or bereavement,” he said.

Bishop Butler explained that ‘it is simply not right that some children get support and others don’t’. “The UK is unique in having a two-child limit; in fact, the majority of developed countries provide extra, rather than less, support for larger families,” he added.

He called on the Prime Minister ‘to address this burning injustice’. The report details that after the first year of implementation, around 160,000 families with new born babies are now up to £2,780 a year worse off than if their youngest child had been born in the previous year.

Alison Garnham, Child Poverty Action Group’s Chief Executive, called the policy ‘troubling’, explaining that ‘it breaks the link between need and benefit entitlement’. “It says that some children are less deserving than others simply because of how many siblings they have, and removes the safety net for families who when supporting themselves have three or more children, but then fall on hard times because of illness, bereavement or job loss.

“We know that it is putting some mothers in the impossible position of deciding whether to continue with an unplanned pregnancy and see their family fall into poverty, or to have an abortion,” she added.