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Welby puts pressure on political parties to scrap two-child limit for benefit payments

20 May 2024


THE Archbishop of Canterbury has urged the Government and the leader of the Opposition to remove the “cruel” two child-limit on benefit payments to families.

The limit — the subject of sustained opposition by the C of E’s bishops since it was first proposed in 2015 — “falls short of our values as a society,” Archbishop Welby told The Observer on Sunday. “It denies the truth that all children are of equal and immeasurable worth, and will have an impact on their long-term health, wellbeing and educational outcomes.”

He said: “This cruel policy is neither moral nor necessary. We are a country that can and should provide for those most in need, following the example of Jesus Christ, who served the poorest in society. As a meaningful step towards ending poverty, and recognising the growing concern across the political spectrum, I urge all parties to commit to abolishing the two-child limit.”

The two-child limit was introduced in April 2017. From this point, low-income families who had a third or subsequent child lost their entitlement to additional support through child tax credit and Universal Credit, then worth £2780 per child per year. A total of 264,820 children were affected in the first year, rising to 1.5 million children in 2023, equivalent to one in ten of all children.

It was first proposed in 2015, as part of a package of welfare reforms designed to save £13 billion a year by 2020-21. Included in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, it was branded “fundamentally anti-family” by C of E Bishops (News, 13 November; 20 November 2015). The Government argued that families in receipt of means-tested benefits “should face the same financial choices about having children as those supporting themselves solely through work”. The limit was forecast to save the Government £5 billion a year in the long run. Child benefit is not affected.

A year after its introduction, 60 Bishops signed a letter setting out their opposition to the policy (News, 13 April 2018) and in subsequent years, they have continued to call for its abolition, bolstered by reports analysing its effect produced by the Church’s Mission and Public Affairs Council, which has warned of its “devastating effect” on families (News, 28 June 2019).

Until his retirement last year, the campaign was led by the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, who in 2022 tabled a Private Members Bill calling for abolition of the limit (News, 15 July 2022).

Writing in The Observer this weekend, the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Martyn Snow, who succeeds Bishop Butler as the Church’s spokesman on child poverty in the House of Lords, referred to parliamentary questions he had tabled to ascertain whether the Government was evaluating the effects of the policy:

“Before passing the policy, the Government suggested the two-child limit would help move parents into employment and provide incentives to have fewer children. But when I asked if it had succeeded, I was told it ‘is not possible to produce a robust assessment of the impact of the two-child limit’, and the Government has ‘no such plans to collect data to evaluate the success of the two-child benefit cap’.”

He wrote: “This is a policy which, if the Government, and indeed the Labour Party, which has avoided committing to reversing it, dared (or cared) to look, is as short-sighted as it is unfair. Ending it, and so immediately lifting half-a-million children above the breadline, should be a priority for any party wanting to be recognised for its reasonableness as well as its compassion in the upcoming election.”

A report last year by researchers at the University of York, Oxford University, LSE, and the Child Action Poverty Group (Needs and entitlements welfare reform and larger families) concluded: “Our quantitative analysis found that the two-child limit has had only a very small effect on fertility, meaning its main effect is to push families with three or more children further into poverty.” The policy was causing “extreme hardship to affected families”, it warned, arguing that the ongoing rise in relative poverty had been driven almost entirely by rising poverty among households with three or more children.”

The report said that, of the families interviewed, many did not know that the two-child limit existed until after their child was born. In some case, “conception was not a choice, but was the result of failed contraception or an abusive relationship,” the researchers wrote. “In other cases, the family was not receiving benefits when the affected child was born, and parents only found out about the restriction when their circumstances later changed as a result of relationship breakdown or job loss.”

The Resolution Foundation has calculated that, “under a fully rolled out two-child limit, we estimate 590,000 more children would be in relative poverty than if the two-child limit did not exist.” Around a third of households with three or more children were in relative poverty in 2012/13. The foundation estimates that this will rise to half by 2028/29.

In 2019 the Work and Pensions Committee recommended that the two-child limit be abandoned. In its submission, the Church of England Mission & Public Affairs Council highlighted the “disproportionate impact on Muslim and Jewish communities and other families that have a religious or moral objection to birth control or abortion”.

The Government has pointed to a fall in absolute poverty, noting that in 2021/22 there were 400,000 fewer children living in absolute poverty after housing costs than in 2009/10. A YouGov poll last July found that 60 per cent of those polled were in favour of retaining the limit; 22 per cent said it should be abolished.

Last year, the leader of the Labour party, Sir Keir Starmer, said that it would not abandon the policy should the party win the next General Election, prompting criticism from Christians on the Left (News, 21 July 2023; Comment, 18 August 2023).

The Resolution Foundation has estimated that abolishing the limit would cost £2.5 billion in 2024/25, rising to £3.6 billion the following year, were the policy in effect for all families on Universal Credit with three or more children.

Asked on Sky News on Sunday about the Archbishop’s comments, the Shadow Health Secretary, Wes Streeting, a practising Anglican, said that he welcomed them. “You’re never going to find, if there’s a Labour Government, politicians being sent out to attack the Archbishop of Canterbury for virtue-signalling, as Conservative MPs have done. It is literally his job. He’s the one person in the country whose job it is to signal virtue.

“And if the mission of the Church is not to alleviate poverty and suffering, then I don’t know what is.”

He said: “I take him really seriously, and if we are fortunate enough to be in government after the next General Election, we will have a serious cross-government strategy for not just reducing child poverty but ending child poverty.”

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