Bishop of Chichester calls for “unprincipled and harmful” two-child limit benefits policy to be scrapped

On 27th June 2019 the House of Lords debated a motion from the Liberal Democrat Peer Baroness Janke, “That this House takes note of the impact of recent benefit changes on vulnerable people.”  The Bishop of Chichester, Rt Revd Martin Warner, spoke in the debate:

The introduction of the two-child limit represented a significant shift in social policy. It broke the long-standing principle, upheld by various Governments of all parties, that entitlement to benefits should be linked to need. In its place, no discernible alternative principle underlies the application of the two-child limit.

Rightly, the Secretary of State has abandoned the plan to extend the policy retrospectively, on the grounds that it would be unjust to target families who could not possibly have planned or prepared for the introduction of the limit, as their children were born before it was introduced. But that serves only to emphasise a wider injustice. How are parents with more than two children who have since experienced family breakdown, redundancy, the onset of disability or an unexpected pregnancy supposed to have planned or prepared for the two-child limit?

The two-child limit denies families the support that they need from our social security system when they experience hard times, trapping children in poverty. The Church and those representing other faiths have spoken out from the start against this unprincipled and harmful policy. We have spoken out because it affects the communities we serve and members of our congregations and parishes. We have spoken out because in our schools, at our foodbanks and in our night shelters and advice centres we are in daily contact with the families targeted by this policy. That work with vulnerable families is growing all the time. Locally, even at the food bank in the city of Chichester, we have seen a 22% increase in demand since the rollout of universal credit, a pattern replicated across our part of the south coast. Family Support Work, our diocesan charity that provides intensive one-to-one emotional and practical support to families, has seen its case load increase by 100% in the last year.

The initial concerns that the Church and those from other faiths raised about the two-child limit have, sadly but undoubtedly, been borne out. A report published yesterday, produced jointly by the Church of England and the Child Poverty Action Group, presents detailed and disturbing evidence of this policy’s impact after two years. It is based on interviews with more than 430 families. I urge the Minister and all Members of your Lordships’ House to give the report careful consideration. It makes a compelling case for the removal of the limit.

It is estimated that to date, 160,000 families have been affected by the two-child limit. Child poverty is of course already rising. It will rise even more sharply in the coming years, in large part due to the two-child limit. The report estimates that in just five years’ time 300,000 children will have been pushed into poverty as a direct result of this policy, and that 1 million children who are already living below the poverty line will have been pushed even deeper into that misery. Of those families caught by the limit, the majority, 59%, are in work, struggling to get by on low incomes, a point that has already been noted by the noble Lord, Lord Livermore.

Through detailed interviews, the report provides direct testimony of the impact the policy is having on low-income families. The two-child limit means that families are unable to afford bare essentials such as baby milk or nappies. Parents are going without food to feed their children. One said:

“We … pick up the leftovers if they leave anything”,

or that they just eat toast. Families are getting deeper into debt and children are sinking into damaging social isolation. In the words of one mother:

“No trips to cinema, no picnics, no treats, nothing”.

Added to the financial deprivation is the social and psychological impact of this policy, generating huge levels of stress and damaging the mental health of parents and the stability of relationships in the home. This is starkly illustrated by the words of one couple:

“It has caused so much stress on our family that it is looking like we are headed for divorce. Instead of enjoying the birth of our baby, we have dealt with hardship and having to scrape together for meals … We had to borrow money for sterilizer bottles, pram, cot, everything you need for a baby and without the usual income for each child we can’t afford to pay it back. We are at an end in our family life and relationship because of the stress and hardship the limit has caused for us”.

The report even records affected parents saying that they have contemplated terminating pregnancies or taking their own lives. With all that we know about the importance of the early years to human development, the idea of a policy that targets large, poor families by design is at best short-sighted. Every child is a blessing and should have the best possible start in life.

Certain groups of vulnerable claimants are particularly adversely affected by the two-child limit. Families of refugees, coming to this country to seek a place of safety where they can rebuild their lives, are affected by the limit. Even those whom the Government recognise need particular protection—such as those in the Government’s Vulnerable Children’s Resettlement Scheme, which includes child survivors of abuse, violence or exploitation—are subject to the limit.

The report contains a compelling chapter on the impact of the two-child limit on survivors of domestic abuse. The limit increases the barriers that survivors face in leaving their abusers and the financial hardship they face if they manage to do so. One refuge worker said:

“Women have felt … trapped … as there was no available money to help them move and leave”,

so they were financially reliant on their partners for help. A resident in a refuge said that while she was pregnant with a third child,

“her ex demanded she have an abortion because he said they could not get any more money for it”,

and when she refused,

“he tried by being violent to enforce a miscarriage”.

The two-child limit will exacerbate social division in our country. Unsurprisingly, it is minority communities that will be particularly caught by this policy, particularly Orthodox Jewish and Muslim communities. Research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission has shown that the policy will have a disproportionate effect on those from Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds. Whole local communities where there are significantly above-average numbers of larger and poorer families will be impacted. In one parliamentary constituency, Birmingham Hodge Hill, it is estimated that over half the children living there will be affected. What will the impact of this policy be on those communities, which already face significant deprivation?

The Government need to listen to those whose lives are being damaged by the two-child limit—families seeking to raise their children, struggling with already low incomes and now facing a benefits system that fails to link entitlement with need. Any Government who are serious about tackling child poverty and strengthening the family—any Government for whom building “one nation” is more than an empty slogan—should listen to those affected. It is right to support families when they need it most. The Government should lift the two-child limit and help all children to thrive.