by Jonathan Bradshaw
What is the worst social security policy ever? There are many competitors for this accolade in our history — less eligibility in 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, the 1934 Unemployment Assistance Board household means-test, the 1991 Child Support Act, the 2017 lower benefit cap and, probably forthcoming, Universal Credit. But the two-child policy is just morally odious.
The policy restricts help through means-tested family benefits to two children only and affects the child tax credit payable for all third or subsequent children born after April 2017 and all new claims for universal credit, whenever they were born. In doing so, the two-child policy breaks the fundamental link between need and the provision of minimum support and implies that some children, by virtue of their birth order, are less deserving of support. It is a very large direct cut to the living standards of the poorest families of up to £2780 per child, per year.
In 2015/16 — the latest year for which data is available — 27 per cent of households with children had more than two children, representing more than 1 in 3 children in poverty (after housing costs). The risk of poverty is already 39 per cent for households (after housing costs) with three or more children compared with 26 per cent for one- and 27 per cent for two-child families. A number of groups in the population are particularly likely to be hard hit by the policy, including Orthodox Jews, Pakistani and Bangladeshi families, and Roman Catholics. It will also hit large families bereaved by the loss of a parent, divorced families, and indeed, all large families falling upon hard times and needing to claim means-tested help.
Exceptions to the Rule
There were originally going to be no exceptions to the two-child policy, but the government was forced to make concessions for, among others, third and subsequent children under kinship care and those conceived as a result of rape — which in itself forces highly sensitive disclosure. A number of women’s rights and rape support organisations have raised serious concerns about the third-party evidence model for the rape/coercion exception and the risk that women claiming this exception will be exposed to further trauma and breaches of privacy.
A Questionable Rationale
The rationale for the two-child limit was to reduce the deficit by £1.36 billion per year by 2020/21. But the government also sought to justify it on the basis that they are hoping to influence behaviour — hoping to ‘encourage parents to reflect carefully on their readiness to support an additional child’. Yet, the savings to be made from the policy are quite modest in the context of the austerity cuts of £27 billion per year since 2010. Why pick on children again, and the poorest children at that? Why rely on benefit cuts and not tax increases? There is absolutely no evidence that this policy will influence conception rates, though fertility is already at sub-replacement level. It could, however, encourage abortion. Indeed, it creates a financial incentive to large families to separate and for separated families both with children not to repartner. In contrast, there is a mass of evidence that increasing poverty will result in worse and highly costly outcomes.
The government estimated 640,000 families will lose support as a direct result of the proposed changes. The Children’s Society estimate that the total loss of a child element plus the family element of child tax credit will mean that a family with three children will lose up to £3,325 per year. A family with four children will lose up to £6100. Troublingly, disabled children will also be affected by this measure on top of the major cuts in children’s disability support through Universal Credit.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has projected that 600,000 more children will live in absolute child poverty by 2020/21 compared with 2015/16 — all of them in families with three or more children. The absolute child poverty rate is to increase over that period from 15.1 per cent to 18.3 per cent. The two-child limit accounts for around a third of this impact.
Will it last?
There is no other jurisdiction in the world with such a limit, though some countries pay higher benefits for larger families. The Labour Party is committed to abolishing the measure and it was opposed in Parliament by all the opposition parties. The Child Poverty Action Group warns that the policy is ‘extremely likely to contravene human rights treaties to which the UK is a signatory’, including those relating to women’s reproductive rights and protection from religious and gender-based discrimination contrary to Article 16 of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women. It would also discriminate against groups with a conscientious objection to contraception and abortion, or for whom large families are a central tenet of faith, in breach of Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Further, it fails to give primary consideration to the best interest of the child in contravention of Article 3(1) of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights raised a specific concern about the effect of cuts to social security on the standard of living enjoyed by families with two or more children in the Concluding Observations of its recent review of the UK’s compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The policy is going to be challenged in the courts on discrimination grounds and may well reach the Supreme Court and European Court of Justice.
A morally odious policy that will not last
The two-child policy is the worst ever social security policy because it results in unprecedented cuts to the living standards of the poorest children in Britain. If the government needed to reduce the deficit, almost any other expenditure cut or tax increase would be less damaging. The aspiration of the policy to influence fertility is discriminatory and hopeless. The exceptions will be unpleasant to operate. It is morally odious, vindictively conceived and it will not last.
Jonathan Bradshaw is Emeritus Professor of Social Policy at the University of York, board member of the Child Poverty Action Group and a Fellow of the British Academy. He is also the UK coordinator of the European Social Policy Network. Click here to learn more about his research and scholarship.