On Monday 7th December, the House of Lords debated the Government’s Welfare Reform and Work Bill during its first day of Committee. The Bishop of Portsmouth, Rt Revd Christopher Foster, spoke in support of a motion from Baroness Sherlock and Lord McKenzie opposing the question that clauses 11 and 12 (limiting child tax credits to the first two children) should stand part of the bill. His speech is included below, along with an extract of the Minister’s reply. The full debate, including speeches by other Members, can be seen at: Parliament.uk
The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, I express my strong concern about these clauses remaining part of the Bill. I offer three straightforward and, I hope, succinct comments: first, about the implications of these clauses; secondly, about the motivation of parents that is implied; and, thirdly, about where responsibility lies.
First, the Government place great emphasis on choice and personal responsibility for family size. I have to say that that assumes a remarkable assumption about the fail-safe effectiveness of contraception—or, if not, an apparent willingness for abortion to be appropriate as a sort of emergency contraception to keep family size to two children. I doubt the assumption, and would deeply regret driving people to seek termination on economic grounds. Is that really what the Government wish?
Secondly, over 35 years now I have played some part alongside others in preparing engaged couples for marriage and have often heard myself saying, “If you wait until you are sure you can afford children, you will never have them”. Religious traditions other than my own go further and specifically enjoin the blessing of children and family life. Are the Government aware of how these clauses will be received?
Thirdly, as I mentioned earlier in Committee, we—that is, a number of faith groups and organisations—made clear, in a letter circulated to all Members of the House prior to Second Reading, our belief that children are a blessing and not burdensome, a problem or a difficulty. To consign a child to being a financial problem over which the child himself or herself has had, and has, no control is indeed a singular responsibility—a responsibility for the mother and father indeed but, if these clauses go forward, it is a responsibility in which we shall all share. How sad it will be that a child growing up, becoming increasingly aware, will one day hear or discover that he or she is responsible in part for the family’s level of income simply by having been born. Although the Government seem to place that responsibility wholly on parents, I fear that the responsibility for this change would rest with us all. Is that what the Government want, and are we all prepared to accept that responsibility?
Lord Freud: [extract] My Lords, Clauses 11 and 12 introduce the Government’s reform to the child element of child tax credit and universal credit, which was announced by the then Chancellor in the Summer Budget of 2005. The purpose of child tax credit is to provide support to low-income families to help them with the cost of raising children, while universal credit, which replaces the child tax credit, is a unified benefit that provides support to low-income families both in and out of work. As it is being rolled out across the country it is providing a clearer and simpler system of support for families and provides real incentives for work. However, it is important that universal credit is kept on a sustainable basis and encourages families to make similar decisions to those who support themselves fully through work. The Government believe that child tax credit has become unsustainable, with expenditure trebling in real terms between 1999 and 2010, and going up the income scale to a level where a family with three children earning up to £40,000 will still be eligible for support. Last year the Government spent almost £30 billion on tax credits…
I will address the challenge set by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, on what our rationale for this is. It is very simple: the Government want to ensure that the system is fair to those who pay for it as well as those who benefit from it. That is the government position. I should add that the Bill should not be taken in isolation. We are introducing a number of measures to support households in work by reducing income tax through increasing personal allowances, increasing wages and increasing free childcare.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth and the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, raised the issue of those areas where there is a cultural disposition for larger families. To that, we make the point that all families need to think carefully and ensure that they can afford to provide for a new child in their household.
I make it clear that these changes will not mean a reduction in entitlement for those families already receiving child tax credit for children born before the 6 April 2017. In universal credit, for families already receiving the child element of universal credit, the changes will apply only to children joining the household on or after that date. I think that we have another amendment on which we can go into that in more detail.
Families moving to universal credit from child tax credit and receiving child tax credit for more than two children, and families claiming universal credit within six months of a previous universal credit or child tax credit claim that included the child element, will continue to be able to receive the child element for those children.