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 to an amendment he had tabled to require Government to assess the impact of the proposed two-child limit for new claimants on families and faith communities. His speeches opening and closing the debate on his amendment are 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 tabled Amendment 21 to highlight the impact of this measure on different faith communities who share our concerns with this part of the Bill in particular. Noble Lords who attended the special briefing we organised two weeks ago will have heard Chaya Spitz, chief executive of the Interlink Foundation, speak passionately about the implications for the Orthodox Jewish community that she represents and is a member of. For her community, larger families are the norm and the central pivot around which everything else revolves. There is a positive, faith-based imperative to have children, to create the next generation in service of God. There is also a commonly held conscientious objection to the use of artificial contraception, except in prescribed circumstances, and to abortion, except in rare circumstances. By limiting financial support to the first two children, this policy is making a judgment that touches on deeply personal and strongly held religious and cultural beliefs about the family, and that threatens the viability of whole faith communities.
According to the 2011 census, 52% of Jewish children lived in families with three or more children, compared with a national average of 31%. In Muslim families, the proportion is even higher—60% live in larger families. This measure will have a hugely disproportionate impact on these particular faith communities. Although it is difficult to see how this could be framed as an exemption, the effects will be profound, and I do not believe they have received the consideration they deserve.
A recent report by the Child Poverty Action Group highlighted serious human rights concerns relating to this and other parts of the Bill and argued that the regulations would need to include “extensive exceptions” protecting women,
“family integrity and religious freedom”.
One of the issues it raises is the potential discrimination against members of religious groups who have a conscientious objection to the use of contraception or abortion contrary to Article 14, read with Article 9, of the European Convention on Human Rights. There are other hard cases as well, including situations where women in abusive relationships are pressured into having more children or where a woman uses contraception in good faith but it fails. In all these cases, the assumption that women have a free choice about whether or not to have a child is called into question.
For these reasons, I have tabled this amendment calling on the Government to consult and report on the economic and social impacts, focusing in particular on the implications for family life and for different faith communities. The Government’s own impact assessment is inadequate in this respect, offering only a superficial assessment of the likely effects. To argue, without supporting evidence, that substantially reducing the level of support for larger families will somehow increase their financial resilience and support improved life chances for their children seems wishful thinking at best and requires further investigation. As part of a more rigorous assessment, will the Minister agree to seeing the Government apply their own family test to this policy, using the guidance published by the DWP in October last year?
In an earlier intervention in Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Lawson of Blaby, spoke about perceptions of fairness in legislation, citing the example of family allowances. Would the Minister agree that the perceived fairness of these policies will be judged not only by their overall popularity but by the respect they give to deeply held convictions of faith communities that enrich our common life? I seek not an exemption but a clear analysis of the impact.
Lord Freud: [extract] I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for this amendment. On the ECHR point, the Government set out their assessment of the impacts of the policies in the Bill on 20 July, as I think I have already said. It is important to ensure that the dynamic behavioural effects of the changes are considered within that. Many of these analyses suffer from the fact that they are too static when considering gains and losses and too focused on notional changes.
On the question posed by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, on child poverty impacts, I say that the intended impact of our reforms is to incentivise work, ensure that it always pays, and to allow people to keep more of what they earn. That is why, as we will go on to discuss, we are moving towards a life-chances analysis of poverty as our approach…
On the family test raised by the right reverend Prelate, the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and the noble Earl, it is not a tick-box, pass-or-fail test but is about looking at how policies support or potentially undermine family relationships, and about trade-offs. The family test ensures that family considerations are explicitly considered and recognised when making those trade-offs. These measures will ensure fairness for all families, both encouraging parents into work and giving a fair deal for the taxpayer….
This amendment is asking us to do an analysis over the next six months. In practice, that is what will be happening on a dynamic basis, because we have introduced as part of universal credit a test-and-learn approach in which we are able to assess what happens to families and learn the lessons in order to roll out universal credit. That is a pretty public process and we publish what we learn. So, in practice, we have a process that incorporates the dynamic effect of these changes in its overall impact, rather than taking individual bits and pieces of the policy. That is the best answer that I can give to the question. On that basis, I urge the right reverend Prelate to withdraw this amendment.
The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: Can I make what I hope is not an arcane point? I invite the Minister, in responding to my amendment, which relates quite specifically to faith communities, to add something about that. He has not mentioned the word “faith” in his response, unless I have misheard.
Lord Freud: No, I have not; the right reverend Prelate is correct. In this policy we have looked through that to people’s choices, whether they are those in the benefits system or the people supporting those on the benefits system. I have not made an explicit comment on race or religion.
The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, I am grateful for the Minister’s response, but I think he will understand that I am disappointed that he cannot respond more positively to my amendment, which seeks some specific analysis of how these proposals would affect the lives of those with deeply held religious convictions who feel actual anxieties about what is proposed. In the course of the coming weeks, I am sure that these matters will be raised again and I hope that we can begin to have conversations about the specific issues that I have tried to raise. We could do that sympathetically and generously, recognising the respect in which these communities, in my judgment, should be held. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.