Government should "immediately abandon" retrospective application of two-child limit

10 January 2019

Government should “immediately abandon” plans to bring in retrospective effect for the two-child limit in three weeks’ time, says the Work and Pensions Select Committee in its report.

The Committee says applying the policy retrospectively to children born before the policy was devised or announced, let alone introduced, entirely undermines the Government’s assertion that the two-child limit is designed to influence family planning decisions. 

“You could not design a policy better to increase child poverty than this one”

In an urgent interim report, which is intentionally short and “reveals only the tip of the iceberg”, the Committee says Government must now consider all the actual consequences of the two-child limit policy and whether the ends justify the means. The Committee plans to look in more detail at the two-child limit policy in a wider inquiry.  

In evidence in Parliament the Child Poverty Action Group stated that “You could not design a policy better to increase child poverty than this one”.  Policy in Practice predicted that it would lead to 266,000 additional children living in poverty by the end of this Parliament, representing an increase in child poverty of more than 10%. A further 256,000 children already living in poverty would fall further into deprivation.

The Committee says:

  • Government must consider whether the very serious consequences identified in the report are offset by any benefits it believes the two-child limit policy will deliver.
  • The Government should immediately abandon its plans to apply the two-child limit retrospectively from 1 February 2019, three weeks from now.
  • The Government’s distinction between benefit claimants and those "supporting themselves in work" is crude and unrealistic—someone supporting themselves in work today might well need help from the benefits system tomorrow. This fundamentally undermines the Government's claim that the two-child limit is about fairness.
  • Further, the planned retrospective application of the policy to children born before it even existed fundamentally undermines the Government’s claim that it is about the financial element of family planning.

Chair's Comment

Comment from Work and Pensions Committee Chair Frank Field, who says,

“What on earth were they thinking? There are serious concerns about this policy as a whole, but the retrospective element is simply inexplicable. The Government claims this policy is about fairness, but it’s hard to think of anything more unfair than taking money from families whose children were born before the policy was even thought of. It cannot be justified on any count and must never see the light of day.
“This policy is so cruel that I cannot believe the Secretary of State has knowledge of what is being done in her name.  I hope our report will therefore be read by her and that the decision to make this policy of limiting benefit to two children retrospectively is dropped—and quickly.  How can it be justified to limit support to two children when a third or subsequent child is already born?  It would be wicked to push these children into or further into poverty.”

In 2016, then Secretary of State, Rt Hon Iain Duncan Smith said “Our family stability review found that family instability is one of the main drivers of poverty, with unstable families more likely to have low incomes. That is why support for families is firmly at the heart of what we are doing in Government.”  Upon taking office in November, Rt Hon Amber Rudd wrote an open letter describing her vision for a welfare system that “represents the best of British values and has women and children at its heart”. When the policy was announced in 2015 a broad coalition of religious leaders described it as "fundamentally anti-family" owing to its likely impact on abortion rates and family stability.

The policy has a particular impact on couples who have conscientious or religious objections to birth control or abortion or for whom larger families are a tenet of faith, with particularly severe implications for certain faith communities. The Committee also heard that it may breach a litany of human rights commitments, outlined in the report – including the fundamental human right to a private family life.

The so-called “rape clause” –  an exception that allows a third or subsequent child to receive benefits if their mother can “prove” that they were conceived non-consensually or under coercive control by their father – has been widely criticised. Apart from the process of “proving” the case for the exception -  DWP were unable to provide the Committee with any information about the number of applications refused -  the rarity of exceptions to the policy means it is easy for anyone, including the child themselves, to work out the circumstances of their conception. Further, the “coercion” exception does not apply unless mother and children have managed to escape the abusive relationship: an extremely difficult and dangerous process. Two women still die every week in England and Wales at the hands of their current or former partner.

Further information

Image: Creative Commons

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