Bishop of Durham: With child poverty on the rise, we must rethink the two-child limit

This article was written by the Bishop of Durham for The House Magazine and was published on 26th March 2018. It can also be seen on the PoliticsHome website, here.

Bishop of Durham: With child poverty on the rise, we must rethink the two-child limit

Almost one year on from its introduction, the consequences of the government’s two-child limit policy are deeply concerning, writes the Bishop of Durham

The two-child limit came into effect on April 6th 2017, restricting the amount of support to families with three or more children through tax credits and Universal Credit. As the policy’s first anniversary approaches, is it timely to review its impact and purpose.

When this measure was considered in the House of Lords, as part of the Welfare Reform & Work Act, I worked closely with other peers and faith groups to outline concerns. A core foundation of a just and compassionate benefits system is that the level of support is linked to need; a foundation which risked being seriously undermined by these changes.

With the cooperation of Lord Freud, the then-Minister of State for Welfare, a number of important amendments were made to the Bill, including a specific exemption for kinship carers. Nonetheless, the core policy remains unchanged.

According to the government’s own Impact Assessment, an estimated 160,000 families, including around half a million children, are £2,780 worse off than if their youngest member had been born a year earlier. Over the next few years, an increasing number of children – 2 million by 2020/21, and 3 million by 2025 – will be affected by this policy.

This policy has received scant attention compared to other welfare reforms, perhaps because its impact is gradual, currently affecting families with a third or subsequent child born in the last year. Rather than a sudden loss in income, these families experience a tight squeeze on their finances, because they no longer qualify for additional support .

From February next year, the two-child limit will also apply to families with three plus children who make a new claim for Universal Credit, irrespective of when these children were born. The policy’s rationale is that people should be financially responsible when they plan their families.

But, this measure will affect many parents with children who were conceived in prosperity, yet are unlucky enough to experience unpredictable life events, that the welfare system was intended to protect against.

According to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), by 2021/22, 52% of children in families with three or more children are forecast to be in poverty – nearly twice the rate for families with two children. This rise is a direct result of policies that disproportionately impact on families with more children.

Certain communities will be hit particularly hard, especially those with a high proportion of families whose faith encourages a conscientious objection to contraception or abortion. Ethnic minority communities will also be disproportionately affected.

The EHRC also project that Pakistani and Bangladeshi children, often born into larger families, expect to see by far the largest rise in child poverty by 2021/22. Such findings are deeply concerning, given the government’s recent commitment to racial equality in its Race Disparity Audit.

Given all of these concerns, one would expect this policy to be closely monitored. Unfortunately, I have yet to see much evidence of this. No statistics have been made available on the number of families affected by this measure to date, or on the number of exceptions granted.

And, to my knowledge, no publicly-funded research has been commissioned to investigate the impact on the well-being and life chances of children, who bear no responsibility for the situation they are born into.

Christian tradition has always recognised children as a blessing and not a burden, and I believe that anything which sends the implicit message that a third, fourth or fifth child, is any less precious than the first, should be strongly resisted.

The Rt Rev. the Lord Bishop of Durham asked an Oral Question on Monday 26 March.