Welfare Reform Bill: Bishop of Portsmouth proposes exceptions to the two child limit

BishPortsspeechtaxcreditsOn 27th January 2016 the Bishop of Portsmouth, the Rt Revd Christopher Foster opened the second day of Report Stage on the Government’s Welfare Reform and Work Bill with an amendment in his name. The amendment, supported by Labour, Liberal Democrat and Crossbench Peers, proposed exemptions from the two-child limit for new claimants of tax credit and universal credit for kinship carers, bereaved parents, those fleeing domestic violence and disabled children. During his response to the amendment the Minister Lord Freud offered a number of concessions, most notably on kinship carers, and as a result the Bishop did not press the amendment to a vote. A full transcript of the Bishop’s opening and closing remarks, the Minister’s response and an intervention from the Bishop of Durham, are below.

 

Clause 11: Changes to child tax credit

Amendment 35 Moved by The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

 35: Clause 11, page 13, line 12, at end insert “, or

(c) an exception applies under section 10(4A) of the Welfare Reform Act 2012, as inserted by section 12 of the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016”

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment 36 in my name. I express my gratitude to the noble Baronesses who have added their names to these amendments.

The amendments would add further exemptions to the two-child limit of the child element of tax credit and universal credit, and the exemptions that I propose are limited and specific.

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Stowell of Beeston) (Con): I apologise for interrupting the right reverend Prelate but many noble Lords are leaving the Chamber and cutting across him. I remind my colleagues that it would be more courteous to the House if they were to exit without walking in front of him.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: I am grateful to the noble Baroness. At Second Reading and in Committee I, along with others in this House, indicated our regret that these proposals as a whole might be seen as signalling that not every child is precious and deserving of love and support not only from parents and families but from communities, society and nation. Nevertheless, I recognise the intent of the Government.

I do not intend to rehearse the detailed arguments, numbers and costings used in Committee. The Minister and your Lordships are aware of them and of the perspective of mine and other faith traditions. Whether personally supportive or not of the Bill’s provisions as a whole, noble Lords will see that my amendments do not challenge the main thrust of this part of the Bill: that decisions about family size should be made with responsibility and care and that any decision to have third or subsequent children should be made without expectation of benefit support. The exceptions I propose do not challenge the central plank of the policy, which seeks to influence parental behaviour.

I was grateful, as I know others were, for the opportunity to meet the Minister last week. I was grateful for his courtesy, candour and understanding, which I hope might be shown today in his response.

The Bill incorporates exemptions for multiple births and after rape, an exemption on which I hope the Minister can provide clarity about the procedure, judicial or otherwise, to be used in relation to that. The further exemptions I propose relate in the same way to specific circumstances or vulnerability. All relate to the common good of society, to an understanding of what is just, right and compassionate, and to characteristics and behaviour that we wish to encourage and enable, sometimes in legislation.

The first three exemptions relate directly to unforeseen circumstances that could not have been planned for when a decision was being made about family size. However carefully and responsibly consideration took place, these circumstances could not have been reasonably expected. The death of a parent drastically changes family circumstances. The death may remove the principal source of income, or increased childcare demands may compel the surviving parent to reduce their working hours or stop working. I hope that the Minister and the Government will, as they have previously, show understanding and accommodate these distressing circumstances at least for a transitional period. Will they indicate some provision here so that the deep sadness of bereavement is not exacerbated cruelly by financial penalty? Parental death is unforeseen when family size is decided.

A parent suffering domestic violence is often driven, as a last and desperate resort, to flee the family home. Everything is left behind as parent and children lose home and security and, sometimes, their main source of income. The Government have boosted refuge provision to support such vulnerable victims of violence. I hope the Minister agrees that it would be consistent to recognise the vulnerability of these children in relation to this Bill. The threat and danger of domestic violence is not chosen or sought. To penalise children taken out of a dangerous situation cannot be right and does not reflect well on the concern we all have for the security and protection of vulnerable young people.

No parent either plans for a disabled child, yet we know that the impact on previously anticipated patterns of work and childcare can be hugely significant. A realistic and rational decision to have a third child can lead to a massive change of circumstance if the child is disabled. I recognise, of course, that a disabled child will, in some circumstances, attract some additional payment, albeit hugely reduced under universal credit. The impact for that family on their employment patterns, on childcare priorities and costs would be exacerbated by the strict application of the two-child limit.

Two of the exemptions I propose relate to the behaviour and decisions which I and, I believe, the Government wish to encourage and which policy and legislation can enable through these amendments. Kinship carers and those fostering and adopting step in to care for children with love and commitment when many would otherwise be in the costly care system. Around and across your Lordships’ House there is a desire to welcome, enable and encourage such generosity, which benefits the children themselves and our society. Surely, when kinship carers or fostering or adopting families take third or subsequent children, often to keep siblings together, we should be supportive of that, not really because it saves money for the public purse and the Exchequer—though it does—but because it is the right and good thing, to be welcomed by this House, Parliament and the Government.

Two single-parent families each with two children will potentially receive benefit for all four children. Should the parents make a commitment to form one family or marry, they will be eligible for benefits for only two of the children. The policy driving this Bill is intended to change behaviour. I fear that, perversely, the result of these provisions at present is to discourage the formation of committed relationships and families which are good for children. The amendment I propose gives substance to the words we speak about wanting what is good for children.

These amendments seek to build on the two welcome exemptions already in the Bill. They do not challenge the Government’s policy, which intends parents to take responsible decisions. They recognise that unforeseen tragic or life-changing circumstances arise which cannot be predicted or planned. They further encourage, not only by word but by policy and action, the sort of societies and communities we surely want to be, where stable relationships and families are encouraged, where generous parenting by kinship carers and foster and adoptive parents is valued, where disabled children are not a source of regret, where domestic abuse and violence is never tolerated and where the wounds of untimely death are not deepened by financial anxiety. I beg to move.


 

The full debate on all amendments that were grouped together for consideration can be seen on the UK Parliament website, here


.Concluding remarks from the Government:

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord Freud) (Con): I thank the noble Baronesses, noble Lords and right reverend Prelates for their amendments, and all those who contributed to the debate. The amendments all relate to exemptions in certain circumstances from the policy which limits the child element in child tax credit and universal credit to a maximum of two children or qualifying young persons from 6 April 2017. I think we have gone through those exemptions so I will not go through them in the normal way but take them as read.

We have been clear since the summer Budget, when this policy was announced, that we will exempt a third or subsequent child or qualifying young person who is one of a multiple birth where there were previously fewer than two children in the household, and we will exempt a third or subsequent child born as a result of rape. These exemptions will be developed and brought forward in secondary legislation, as subsections of Clauses 11 and 12 permit. We believe that secondary legislation is the right approach for specifying exemptions, to allow for flexibility and engagement with stakeholders. It will be important to get the detail right and we have time to do that before bringing forward regulations for April 2017.

I recognise the deeply felt concern in this House, the other place and more widely about how this exemption will work—something the noble Baroness, Lady Manzoor, pinpointed just now. We all recognise that this is a difficult and sensitive issue and I would like to provide the House with further information. Clearly, we need to establish a way of making this assessment that is sympathetic and responsive to the claimant and timely in determining entitlement to benefit. Our intention is not to focus on or pre-empt criminal justice outcomes but to ensure that mothers receive the help they need at the time they need it, using clear criteria that are straightforward to apply and not overly intrusive, but which secure the system against fraud and error.

While we continue to look at the detail, our thinking is that a third party evidence model offers the most promising approach to striking the balance we need to achieve. This approach would not be new for the benefit system. For example, we use a third party evidence model in universal credit for the temporary relaxation of the requirement to be available for work in cases of domestic violence. The evidence required is the reporting of the abuse to a third party acting in an official capacity, such as a GP or social worker. This model was developed with input from stakeholders.

Of course, a significant amount of work is needed to take forward and develop the detail of the model. I also want development of the model to include working with stakeholders to help ensure that the process is as compassionate and supportive as possible for claimants in these circumstances, while providing the right assurance to government that the additional support is going to those for whom it is intended. We will be getting in touch with organisations with an interest in this policy shortly to seek their input, and I encourage any other stakeholders who would like to be a part of this to let me know. While there is a significant amount of work to do and detailed questions to be answered, I hope this helps reassure the House and stakeholders that we are thinking very carefully about how we respond to this difficult and sensitive issue.

We have been clear since the summer Budget that we will bring forward further exemptions for exceptional circumstances, and we will be doing that today. I am grateful to those who have suggested amendments and contributed to the debate. As a number of noble Lords pointed out, I have been talking to Peers on this matter. We have carefully considered those affected by this policy and the options available, while taking into account the fact that one of our objectives for universal credit is that it will be part of a simpler and workable welfare system that benefits everyone. I know that noble Lords will remember my muttering about adding carbuncles every now and then.

Regardless, I am pleased to announce today that in recognition of the important role which family and close friends can play in caring long term for children who are unable to live with their parents and could otherwise be at risk of entering the care system, we are in favour of an exemption for children in such circumstances. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Sherlock, Lady Drake and Lady Armstrong, have made persuasive speeches on this issue not just today but in Committee—so it is worth putting the effort into those speeches. We recognise that in these cases such carers, often referred to as kinship carers, are not in the same position to make choices about the number of children in their family as other parents are. I am grateful that the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, is now taking my distinction there in a positive rather than a non-positive way.

As I have already mentioned, the Bill provides the necessary powers to make regulations to provide exemptions to this policy, and we intend to use regulations to provide for this exemption. In developing the regulations, we will need to ensure that we get the definition right to make sure that the exemption applies to the children to whom it is intended to apply. We will work with stakeholders in developing the regulations to deliver a solution which meets the needs of vulnerable children, while protecting the Government from the potential risk of fraud and error.

Baroness Butler-Sloss: If the Minister will forgive me for interrupting, I am having slight difficulty in understanding. I am delighted to hear about kinship carers but adopters are generally not family. One of the great points about adoption is that they come from outside, so the Minister’s suggestions to the House about kinship carers would not cover the majority of adopters.

Lord Freud: That is a timely intervention because I am now going to move on to the very eloquent arguments for exempting adopted children. We think that where a single child is being adopted, it would not be fair to treat the parents adopting more advantageously than other parents. However, where children need to be placed for adoption and have siblings in the same position—this was the example that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham used about one of his, I suspect, many friends—we recognise that it is often in the best interests of the children for them to be placed in their sibling group. Therefore, I am also able to announce that we are in favour of an exemption where there were previously fewer than two children in the household and the adoption of a sibling group causes the number of children to exceed two. Again, we intend to use regulations to provide for this exemption.

This is a good point at which to respond to the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, who on Monday night discussed guardian’s allowance—very eloquently, as usual. I am in a position to say that I will continue to explore that particular issue with her and whether it is possible to bring forward something at Third Reading.

In relation to disabled children, the Government are committed to making sure that disability benefits work for these families, so we will continue to support families with disabled children through the disability elements of child tax credit and the equivalent in universal credit. I must point out to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth that the figure is not reduced in universal credit: the absolute figure reads across from the tax credit system into the universal credit system. That will be payable for all disabled children, even when they are a third or subsequent child, so support for families with disabled children will still be reflected in universal credit and tax credits following the introduction of Clauses 11 and 12. There is of course other support for disabled children within the DLA system to recognise the extra costs which, as noble Lords have pointed out, parents with disabled children need to carry. In addition, we are exempting disability benefits such as personal independence payment and disability living allowance from the uprating freeze.

The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, asked about the family test. I can give the assurance that we are committed to improving family stability, with government spending for family, parenting and relationship support standing currently at £6.5 billion.

I am not able to give as much pleasure or satisfaction to Peers on other issues. To exempt bereaved parents and those fleeing domestic violence would raise a number of practical questions. For how long would the exemption be in place? Would it be permanent or just for a period of time? If it is the former, it places claimants in a very favourable position to other claimants even when they have managed to get their lives back on track. If it is temporary, there will be a temporary increase in benefit for existing claimants which will fall away again. This raises, again, questions on how long it should apply. Such exemptions would treat parents in these situations more favourably than other lone parents, which again would introduce unfairness in the system. We are modernising bereavement benefits, and those with dependent children will receive nearly £10,000 over the course of a year.

In response to the question from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth, one of the things about universal credit is that it responds quickly to changes.

The Lord Bishop of Durham: Could I ask for some clarity on what the Minister has just said? It sounded to me as though there was concern about the length of time that might be involved and so on and so forth, but his tone of voice sounded as though there might be willingness to at least explore the possibility. I am just teasing out whether he meant that he really was not willing to consider this, or whether there may be a possibility of exploring it further, particularly around domestic violence.

Lord Freud: We have a regulatory process where these exemptions will be gone through in detail. I can make a commitment today where I can do so, but I assure noble Lords, including the right reverend Prelate, that the machinery of government is not in a place which allows me to say anything more about anything else at this stage. However, the process of setting out regulations will take place some months from now, and we will be exploring in great detail how they work. If the right reverend Prelate is asking me whether there are going to be more opportunities to put pressure on the Government, I would imagine that there will be.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: In which case, given that helpful and tactful response by the Minister, will he help us even further by agreeing to publish draft proposed regulations before the formal procedure of “take it or leave it” in both Houses, thus allowing various participants to discuss those proposed draft regulations with the Minister before they are formally submitted?

Lord Freud: In practice, I think that what I have said produces that outcome. I have said that we will consult very widely with stakeholders to get this right, because these are very sensitive issues. The rape exemption is very difficult. Getting kinship caring and adoption right is not straightforward. In practice, there will be consultation, but I do not want to overformalise that process. I have committed to a much more open process than you might see in some other regulations that we issue.

The next complicated case is the formation of new households through re-partnering of single parents, which we have looked at very closely and which produces a number of difficulties. First, it would be perceived as unfair by those families with three or more children who stay together and receive a maximum amount of child element or child tax credit in respect of two children, whereas other families who have formed more recently could receive more. Secondly, there is a risk that families may try to manipulate the benefit system by breaking up and re-forming, or even claiming to have broken up and subsequently re-formed in order to increase the amount. Thirdly, there would be a practical issue in assigning children in newly formed families to a particular parent. We have not done that before. Your Lordships will hear me muttering the word “carbunclising”. That is not to mention the intrusive nature of that process.

Finally, I looked at the numbers involved. The reality is that, whether we like it or not, the bulk of children stay with the mother. The number of fathers with children joining mothers with children is not many. Once the measure is fully rolled out, we expect that only 7% of single men will have children, so it is not that substantial a problem. The noble Baroness, Lady Manzoor, talked about half a million. That is just not the reality. I reiterate what I said in Committee about the way it is introduced in 2017 for child tax credit and universal credit. Any household which has claimed within the past six months will also be protected. For those reasons, I urge the noble Baronesses and the right reverend Prelate not to press their amendments.

The Earl of Listowel: Before the Minister sits down, given the fact that, as a nation, increasingly our children are growing up without a father in the family—according to the OECD, in the 2030s, we will overtake the United States in the proportion of children growing up without a father in the family—will he think again about his last statement? It may be a small proportion of fathers who bring children into these mixed families, but surely we want to encourage those larger families, especially, to have a father. The benefits that that father brings to those two children, or whatever, from the mother’s family is important. Will the Minister keep that in mind?

Lord Freud: We have looked at this very sympathetically, but in practice we found it too difficult. We have heard from this Chamber about the kinship and adoption issues, and those are the ones that we want to get absolutely right.


Concluding remarks from the Bishop of Portsmouth

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, I am grateful to the dozen or so Members of your Lordships’ House who have contributed in the course of these exchanges as we have considered these amendments. I am sure that we have all been touched and moved by the strength of feeling and clarity of argument that have been brought. I am particularly grateful for the Minister’s response a few minutes ago. In my opening remarks, I spoke of the candour and courtesy he showed when a number of us met him last week, and we have been grateful for that again.

We heard very clearly the indication from the Minister of the importance of consideration of the regulations that will be brought forward relating to these measures, and I am grateful for his sensitivity about that. I assure him that we on these Benches and, no doubt, others, too, will certainly engage in the way that he suggested. We are also grateful for some clarification about the reporting model he has in mind to be used where a third child is born as a result of rape. Again, I know that many people will wish to engage in further consideration about that.

I think it is fair to say that we are delighted by the position he has outlined about kinship carers and adoptive parents and are very grateful indeed for that on behalf of the children themselves and of wider society.

On areas where the Minister was not able to satisfy us as much as we might have hoped, I draw his particular attention to circumstances in which children and a parent flee domestic violence. I said at the beginning that violence is never justified in circumstances such as that. I hope that the Minister will understand how difficult it is for me and others to accept what sounds at the moment like a policy which gives a financial incentive to risk staying in a situation where children might be in danger of abuse or in physical danger. It is a very serious matter and I hope that there may be some flexibility in the conversation to which he has pointed.

With grateful thanks to the Minister and to those who have contributed in this conversation and this debate, and welcoming the advances that have been made and the indications of some further changes in the future, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 35 withdrawn.

(Via Parliament.UK)