The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, one of the pleasures of your Lordships’ House is the range of views we hear and the expertise of those who express them with integrity and conviction—among them Baroness Hollis speaking from the Bench opposite ours.
The same is true of the Church. In one recent elegant, erudite theological treatise, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Williams of Oystermouth, wrote of how the words of an act of worship are pregnant with meaning, but greater significance is often discerned in the silence in between. The same is true in relation to this debate of Monday’s Budget. Its silences were just as significant as the words of the Chancellor, especially for families with children, as they are disproportionately represented among those in poverty.
The Chancellor was virtually silent on some measures that merit praise. He gave only a cursory nod to the pilot loan scheme for low-income families—although the Red Book is more forthcoming. This excellent initiative deserves proclamation. It is of particular interest to these Benches as it is based on an Australian scheme in which the churches and community groups are much involved. New money for universal credit deserves a couple of cheers. It would be churlish not to acknowledge and congratulate the Chancellor on raising the work allowance, but it would be negligent not to point out that this is less new money and more about returning towards where we were before cuts in 2015—in fact, somewhere behind.
It would also be negligent not to express anxiety about the likely impacts of other welfare cuts coming down the tracks—notably on low-income families with children and on families with disabled children in particular. They face a dramatic, unjust, shameful reduction in the additional support they currently receive and continue to need.
The silence I most regret was on the two-child limit. I accept that people should be encouraged to make informed, responsible choices about their lives and families, but we are faced with the undeniable, irreducible fact that the two-child limit will tip and trap low-income families into poverty. We are left with the utter perversity of the system making it harder for them to work their way out of poverty, however much they try. I cannot accept the Government’s rationale. Ministers argue that people should make their choices informed by whether they can afford to have a child. Indeed they should, but people’s lives are unpredictable. The blessing of a child now cannot anticipate future redundancy or relationship breakdown. It is also manifestly unjust that from next February, children born before this policy saw the light of day will bear the brunt of it. Families were not able to make an informed choice because they could not have known that there was a choice to make. Above all, we are left with the shocking fact that children already in need will be in greater need and the state will be saying that it is acceptable to withdraw a lifeline for those children and their families.
I also draw your Lordships’ attention to the heavy burden that the two-child limit is likely to place on some faith communities. During the passage of the Bill, we were told that the Government, “looked through people’s faith” to the choices that they made. I beg to differ. Faith is not something transparent to look through: it is the lens through which many people make choices. For some faith groups, having more than two children is the cultural and religion norm, even expectation. That might be the Roman Catholic community; it might be the Muslim and Jewish communities. It is also likely to have an even more disproportionate impact on such communities when many within them already live in poverty.
This House has been far from silent on the two-child limit and we should not be silent now. It takes no account of life’s inevitable ups and downs and it is detrimental to family life, tipping and trapping families and children in poverty, making it harder for them to work their way out. It makes vulnerable children even more vulnerable. I ask the Government to think again, and, as a bare minimum, to not extend the limit to families with three or more children before this policy was implemented. They should—and must—act more widely if they are to avoid damaging the family life of hundreds of thousands of low-income families and so blighting the welfare and chances in life of a whole generation of vulnerable children.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Baroness Buscombe) (Con): ..I say to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth and the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, that it is a tough choice, but the same considerations and choices faced by people not in receipt of benefits should also be faced by those claiming benefits—those able to work.