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Hannah Rich: Labour should repeal the two-child limit  

18 August 2023

Changing the benefits’ policy is vital to end child poverty, says Hannah Rich


A FEW years ago, I visited a holiday club run by a church on a housing estate in the Midlands. Like thousands of churches across the country, volunteers were lovingly providing hot meals and fun activities for children during the long summer holidays, many of whom were usually in receipt of free school meals. One little boy, on being offered a hot dog, looked around for his siblings to share it with, and had to be convinced that there was enough to go round. I’ve never forgotten him.

Child poverty in the UK is a national scandal, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Ending it can, and should, be the moral and political priority of our time.

The current two-child limit on child tax credits and Universal Credit is a significant driver of child poverty (News, 31 March). This policy unjustly penalises children who are already in the greatest need of support — like that little boy with his hot dog — and does nothing to help families out of economic hardship. There are 1.5 million children living in families affected by it. Abolishing it would lift an estimated 250,000 children out of poverty completely, and would reduce poverty for a further 850,000, according to data from the Child Poverty Action Group.

When a policy becomes known colloquially as “the rape clause” — referring to the fact that it forces women to disclose traumatic events to prove their exemption in cases where a third child is conceived as a result of sexual assault — the moral argument has surely been lost.

But the economic case for repealing the policy is as compelling. Ending the cap would cost around £1.3 billion, but a quarter of a million fewer children growing up in poverty would lead to a saving of almost twice that amount in societal costs over the longer term. If an economic argument is needed, that evidence is clear; but the moral imperative should be enough.

Between now and next year’s General Election, we will hear lots about the difficult economic decisions facing any incoming government. Clearly, no party will go into an election promising profligate spending with the economy in its current poor health. But neither can this be an excuse for a failure to improve the living conditions of a whole generation of children growing up in poverty.

During the first term of the last Labour government, between 1998 and 2003, the number of children in poverty fell by 600,000 thanks to a comprehensive and concerted political effort. We’ve done it before, and we must do it again. There is a whole host of policy measures needed to ameliorate child poverty, including reforming and uplifting Universal Credit.

Sir Keir Starmer has thus far indicated that Labour will not commit to abolishing the two-child limit if and when in government. This is incompatible with any intention to end child poverty, and repealing it must be central to Labour’s policy, if we are serious about a better future for the children of this country.

Back in 2001, Gordon Brown called child poverty “a scar on the soul of Britain”. Two decades later, it is a scar that has been picked at and opened up again — and we must act, once again, to heal it.

Hannah Rich is director of Christians on the Left.

Paul Vallely is away.

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