On 8th July 2022, the House of Lords debated the Front-Loaded Child Benefit Bill at its second reading. The Bishop of Durham spoke in the debate on this Private Member’s Bill and his speech and contributions from other peers are below:
The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, I rise to speak to this Bill with a degree of curiosity. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, for introducing it.
Children, and the family who cares for them, should be particularly supported in their early years. This is when their most important development happens, so we must want them to thrive. These early years are still too often overlooked in the impact they have on both the leading of a happy and healthy life or the long-term harm of adverse childhood experiences. The Bill is an interesting one, as I can see some of the arguments for front-loading child benefit. However, I also have some quite deep concerns. I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, has intentionally kept his briefing for the Bill minimal to accommodate the policy-making that would have to accompany it, but there are some key details to learn, or note.
One of the arguments previously made for this policy was that it would enable mothers, or fathers, to stay at home with their children rather than feel that they have to go back to work. Perhaps the inverse of this is that it could be put towards childcare, the prices of which are very high, as we are all aware, and which can be a significant barrier to parents being able to work. However, if my calculations are correct, even at the highest rate of child benefit—that is, for the first or only child—the front-loaded half of the benefit over a period of three years would be less per week than the average rate of childcare for just 25 hours per week, according to the NCT. Because of the high ratio of people to children, childcare for ages nought to two is particularly inaccessible. So, unfortunately, while the figure might take some pressure off, it will be insufficient to cover childcare and almost definitely insufficient to allow a mother or father not to work.
Another concern is that if we are really trying to offer support to children in their early years who most need it, surely, we would have to ensure that the front-loaded rate was not subject to the benefit cap, as it currently is. If this is a benefit that is not means-tested, surely it should not be grouped under the cap in this way.
One of the previous two propositions of this policy suggested that the front-loading element be dependent on engagement with services—the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, noted some of these earlier. However, we need to be careful that we are giving people sufficient dignity and support, and any conditionality element of a front-loaded child benefit would need to be properly resourced with support for children and their families. I wonder whether, currently, there is simply the infrastructure or the political will to resource this.
Finally, I am concerned that this would overcomplicate child benefit, which has the advantage of being very straightforward for all to understand and simple to administer.
So, I conclude that I would prefer to see increased support for all children in their early years, including more adequate provision for childcare and its costs. As the Bill proceeds to Committee—I hope it will—I will want to ensure that it is not to be misused unhelpfully for the support of children throughout their childhood, so significant amendments would be required.
Extracts from the speeches that followed:
Baroness Sherlock (Lab): If the policy is designed to enable a parent to stay at home, we need to look at the question asked by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham: how much would it need to be to make a difference? Again, here are my admittedly probably dodgy calculations. If you directed half of a child’s lifetime child benefit into the first three years, in today’s money, that would give you about £65 a week instead of £21.80 for the first child, and about £43 a week instead of £14.45 for later children. I am sure the Minister will be able to correct that if needed from his Treasury brief, but that was the best I could do with my iPhone’s calculator.
(…) My final musing is on the impact of any change such as this on the future of child benefit; the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham alluded to this point. I think child benefit has survived for so long in an area where change is common and rapid because it is popular, simple and effective. Everybody understands it because every parent is entitled to get it for every child. I would not want to do anything to undermine that, so I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, has considered whether making it less simple and less obviously universal might in fact put its future popularity, and therefore funding, at risk?
Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con): The importance of the cognitive development of children was raised by my noble friends Lord Farmer and Lord Balfe, and by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, and they are completely right in what they say. Children develop quickly in the early years and a child’s experiences between birth and the age of five have a major impact on their future life chances. Good parenting and high-quality early learning provide an essential foundation for children. I assure the House that the Government understand that.
(…) I note the cautionary comments made about the Bill by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, but I also noted some positive comments, particularly from my noble friend Lady Berridge. As I said at the beginning, a lot of comments and ideas have come out of this most interesting debate. While supporting families remains a priority for this Government, I regret that we cannot support making changes to child benefit in the manner set out in this Bill. I would like to give the reasons for this.
First, the Government are committed to making the benefit system simple and navigable for claimants. Child benefit is therefore a simple and well-understood benefit, paid at a consistent flat rate to parents. This simplicity has contributed to high uptake rates. Currently, 91% of those eligible are claiming child benefit. Front-loading child benefit would make claiming it more complex, and impose an undue burden on claimants, for example, in respect of submitting certain financial data and completing necessary forms online.
Secondly, it would oblige claimants to make complex, long-term decisions about their future benefits, several years in advance, with no certainty over their future circumstances or income. This slightly plays into the comments raised by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. Claimants’ circumstances could change in future. For example, a relationship might break down, as they do, or they might unexpectedly lose a job. By providing consistent child benefit payments, the Government ensure that parents receive guaranteed, predictable support, regardless of how their future circumstances might change.
Thirdly, we must not underestimate the complexity of delivering the proposals set out in this Bill. The Bill would require fundamental changes to how child benefit operates, which would require significant changes in IT systems and upskilling of staff. I suspect that my noble friend Lord Farmer would acknowledge that, in that he has said that this is very much an enabling Bill.
Finally, it is not clear how front-loading child benefit payments would work in practice. It is not clear in the Bill what the new rates would be, at what rate they would be discounted over time or how the Government would ensure consistency and fairness for claimants. It is also not clear in the Bill how we could implement this proposal in a way which is fair for taxpayers.
Making these changes would ultimately necessitate additional government borrowing, given the upfront costs to taxpayers, meaning that we cannot ensure that this change would be fiscally neutral for the taxpayer, as my noble friend Lord Farmer stated. Responsible management of the public finances remains incredibly important at the current time.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.