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Scrap two-child benefit cap during pandemic, church report urges

05 May 2020

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THE financial impact of the coronavirus on families has exposed the injustice of the two-child limit on benefits, a Church of England-led report states.

In their latest annual report, published on Tuesday, No One Knows What the Future Can Hold: The impact of the two-child limit after three years, the C of E’s Mission and Public Affairs Council and the Child Poverty Action Group estimate that about 60,000 families have been forced to claim Universal Credit since the lockdown was introduced in mid-March.

Parents are becoming ill, losing their jobs, or earning less because of the Government restrictions. Families with more than two children are unable to claim the support that they need, the report states.

One couple, who have four children, said: “Everything was okay up until Covid-19. We had our own business and were paying to look after our own family with no benefits. Now our income is zero, so it is hard to manage with four kids.”

The two-child cap was announced by the Coalition Government in 2015 to reduce spending on working-age families. From 6 April 2017, low-income families who had a third or subsequent child lost their entitlement to additional support through child tax credit and Universal Credit, worth £2780 per child per annum. A total of 264,820 children were affected in the first year.

The latest report estimates that 860,000 children in 230,000 predominantly working families have been affected by the policy to date. By April 2024, the end of this parliament, it estimates that a total of 2.3 million children will have been affected, of whom more than half will be pushed into, or deeper into, poverty  the same as its previous estimate for the same period (News, 28 June 2019). 

These figures do not take into account the impact of the pandemic, however. A church spokesman explained: “It is likely that the impact on poverty will be even greater than previously estimated, although it is not possible to put any numbers on this at this stage.”

The findings are based on a survey of 974 families who are already affected by the two-child limit, conducted between February 2019 and April 2020. Nearly all respondents (95 per cent) said that they had been unable to afford basic living costs, including food and clothing (87 per cent), gas or electricity (71 per cent), rent or mortgage (48 per cent), or childcare (30 per cent).

One single mother of four children, who works full-time, said: “I love to work, but I am so poor now I can’t have the heating on — only to bathe or wash up. . . When [the school] holidays come, I can’t afford extra food; so I cook for the children, then do myself toast. I can’t afford new clothes, I can’t afford a cot for my baby — they have to share a single bed with me.”

The survey found that parents also cut spending on themselves and worked longer hours at the expense of their own mental health and relationships. “Perversely,” the report states, “the policy also disincentivises new families from forming, where both partners have children from a previous relationship. It also encourages large families to separate.”

An increase in abortion rates over the past five years may also be related to the introduction of the two-child limit, it suggests.

The coronavirus is only adding to the strain. “The two-child limit fails to protect families against the impact of unexpected life events, such as unemployment, family breakdown, ill health, and now Covid-19. Many who responded to our survey have experienced a significant change of circumstances since having their youngest child; they are now reliant on benefits and unable to afford basic essentials.”

It continues: “The Government’s rationale for this policy is that parents who receive benefits should make the same financial choices about having children as those supporting themselves solely through work. . . The coronavirus has exposed the flaw in this simplistic view of family planning. No one could possibly have anticipated what has happened to our way of life since the outbreak.”

The report also points to a little-known exception to the limit, of children who are born of non-consensual conception or within an abusive relationship. “Our survey strongly suggests that the exception is not working as intended, with a number of worrying responses from survivors of domestic abuse who appear to be unaware of the exception, and one who had tried unsuccessfully to apply for it.”

It concludes that the Government must abandon the two-child limit, or, “at the very minimum, it should suspend the two-child limit for the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic”.

Raising the report in the House of Lords last week, the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, said: “The Covid-19 crisis has amplified child poverty. . . It exposes the flawed view of how the two-child-limit policy was set up. Children should not be penalised for changing circumstances. . .

“Current constraints mean that parents cannot escape by increasing working hours, finding a new job, or moving into cheaper housing. Families are trapped in poverty. We must prioritise the poorest, with a compassionate, just safety net.”

The Bishops of the Society of St Wilfrid and St Hilda have supported the call “to withdraw the two child limit on benefits, to review the benefits cap, to address at once inefficiencies in Universal Credit, to continue job furlough schemes for as long as necessary and to ensure that children who are entitled to free school meals have access to healthy food” until schools reopen.

In a statement published on Tuesday, the chair of the Society, the Bishop of Wakefield, the Rt Revd Tony Robinson, and six others write: “We are gravely concerned by the growing body of evidence that indicates that the Covid-19 Pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on the poor. . . We are alarmed by data that suggests that those in our most deprived communities are twice as likely to die as those from wealthier areas.”

The impact of Covid-19 in the poorest communities compounded the effects of years of austerity, they state. “Of equal concern to us is the disproportionate number of BAME people who are being impacted by the virus and we urge greater research into the reasons that lie behind this.”

The bishops also urge the Church of England “to guarantee that central church funding streams dedicated to lower income communities reach the people for whom they are intended”.

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