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Two-child benefits cap morally unjustified, say bishops

20 July 2021

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THE adverse effect on larger families of the Government’s two-child limit on Universal Credit and Child Tax Credits “defies moral justification”, the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, has said.

Families with two children are unable to claim Universal Credit and Child Tax Credits (worth £237.08 per child per month) for any subsequent children, unless these children were born before April 2017, when the policy was introduced.

Dr Walker was responding to the latest figures from HMRC and the Department of Work and Pensions, published last week, which show that the policy has affected 1.1 million children in about 318,000 households across the UK between its introduction and April 2021. Half these households had three children; 29 per cent had four children; and 21 per cent had five or more children.

Since the previous figures were published at the start of the pandemic, in April 2020, the number of households affected by the limit has increased by 27 per cent: that is 67,000 households affecting a further 600,000 children. Universal Credit claims increased by 74,000 in this time, while Child Tax Credits fell by 7000. “This trend is expected as new claimants cannot apply for CTC and must instead apply for UC,” the HMRC and DWP report explains.

Dr Walker said on Monday: “These latest figures show the Government’s controversial benefits policy steadily tightening its grip on our nation’s families.

“During the last twelve months, the number of children directly affected by the limit passed the one million milestone (it has since grown by around a hundred thousand more). Almost half of all children in larger families are now being raised in poverty, whilst fewer than a third of their school friends in smaller households face that fate — a disproportionality that defies moral justification.”

He continued: “Tellingly, the majority of affected households are not headed by a single parent, and most include at least one person in paid work. These are families like any other, trying to make their way and raise their children in today’s Britain. They deserve better.”

The Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, said on Tuesday: “The Government has made some strong statements about the need to level up and realise our potential [News, 14 May]. Unfortunately, the two-child benefit cap limits this potential and penalises children for their parent’s circumstances. We know from the Government’s work on nutrition that squeezed household budgets correlate with poor diet, poor health, and negative life outcomes. This policy perpetuates that cycle.”

Responding last week, the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, said that the limit was “now the main driver of rising child poverty, and is pushing many more children even deeper into poverty.

“Every day, we hear stories from families affected by this policy who cannot afford to buy clothes or other basic items for their children. We don’t think it’s right that these families are not getting the support they need when parents lose their jobs or their relationship breaks down, especially in the middle of a pandemic. Our Government should lift the two-child limit and help every parent to give their children the best start in life.”

Speaking to Radio 4’s Sunday programme this week, he said that Universal Credit was a short-term solution designed to cover a gap. Families could not be expected to “guarantee financial security for the next 18 years of their child’s life; but any family can be hit by redundancy, by illness, by separation, and, of course, now by Covid. We think families should be protected against unpredictable life events, because that is why it is called social security. . .

“We are arguing from a moral and ethical point of view that as a society we have a responsibility: the children are not just the children of the family, they are our children as a society as well.”

He added on Monday: “Government ministers have consistently said: ‘Give us the evidence of the impact of the two-child limit.’ We continue to do so and look forward to a good discussion with them and hopefully a change of heart and mind.”

One year after the two-child limit was introduced, a group of 60 bishops warned that it would force mothers to choose “between poverty and terminating an unplanned pregnancy” (News, 13 April 2018). Last year, a report from the C of E’s Mission and Public Affairs Council and the Child Poverty Action Group urged the Government to scrap the limit during the pandemic, estimating at the time that a further 60,000 families had been forced to claim Universal Credit in the first months of the first lockdown in mid-March (News, 8 May 2020).

The limit has four exceptions: multiple births, non-parental care, adoption, and non-consensual conception. The latest figures suggest that, during the pandemic, there was a significant increase in women reporting subsequent pregnancies from rape — up from 900 to 1330 claims between April 2020 and April 2021.

The chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group, Alison Garnham, said that the policy had also increased the depth of poverty for many families. “Universal credit should be a port in the storm for families, but the two-child policy means many are denied the support they need for children — just when they need it most.

“The pandemic has shown us how quickly circumstances can change but this policy limits the life chances of kids by reducing them from a person to a number. The only way to prevent more children from being damaged by poverty is for the Government to end the two-child policy.”

One parent with three children told the charity that, even though both parents were in part-time work: “It’s been very difficult. I’m having to decide on paying bills or feeding my children. Me and my partner are going without food so that we can ensure our children are fed.”

The Joseph Roundtree Foundation, in its annual update of the Minimum Income Standard, published last week, has urged the Government to make permanent the temporary £20-a-week uplift in Universal Credit, “rather than take it away from the already precarious incomes of millions of families” in October — which bishops have also called for (News, 22 January). The Government, the report says, should also prioritise the creation of “decent jobs, that provide stability, pay at least the real Living Wage, and give people options about working hours”.

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