[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the two child limit in universal credit and child tax credits.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. It is surreal still to be here debating the two-child limit in universal credit and child tax credit. When I saw the limit and the cruel and pernicious rape clause that stands part of the policy laid out in the Chancellor’s Budget in 2015, I was sure that I had made a mistake. After all, no humane Government would propose such a blunt instrument as limiting support to the first two children in a family, or making a woman prove that she has been raped just to put food on the table.
Unfortunately, I was wrong. It is three years, four months and 20 days after that Budget, and the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights has found that the UK Tory Government is exactly such an inhumane Government. Despite warnings from all manner of groups, cross-party support and U-turns on other policies over the years, the two-child policy is apparently the one that the UK Tory Government will stick to through thick and thin.
The policy stands in judgment on people’s lives and suggests that those who are less well off
“cannot have as many children as they like”—[Scottish Parliament Official Report, 24 October 2018; c. 52.]
as Tory social security spokesperson Michelle Ballantyne MSP said. The policy is damaging in the extreme, and I will outline to the Minister exactly why. I would also like to give him the opportunity to think again before the policy hits its next phase in February.
From February, all new claims will be subject to the two-child policy, regardless of when children were born. That means that, although someone might have planned their family in good times, when they could well afford to support three children, the UK Tory Government do not care—they will support only two. Life is unpredictable: it only takes somebody to get ill or die, a partner to leave, or someone to lose their job for life to turn upside-down. We note the plight of the Michelin workers in Dundee, who were not expecting to lose their jobs. None of us would be prepared for such eventualities.
Contraception can also fail. I note research from the Advisory Group on Contraception, which has produced stark figures on cuts to sexual and reproductive health services in England, so help is being lost to many on the ground. I challenge any hon. Member present to plan out exactly and specifically the financial situation for them and each of their children up to the age of 18. It is impossible.
My hon. Friend has been a tireless champion of tackling this issue. Does she agree that cutting child tax credits is tantamount to directly targeting children with austerity?
I absolutely agree. It breaks the link between need and what somebody receives. These families are no less in need, but their money is being cut.
It is impossible for just about anyone, other than the super-rich and perhaps the royal family, to make plans in the way I described. The UK Tory Government are hacking away at the safety net that a social security system ought to be.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Women are carrying the brunt of austerity—let us be frank about that—whether we are talking about nursery provision, tax credits or the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign. The list is endless. Women have made a major contribution in terms of austerity, in the sense that they have carried the burden of the £14 billion of tax adjustments. It is the same with the WASPI women and the savings that have been made on their pensions.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. The Womens Budget Group has found that 86% of welfare cuts have come out of women’s pockets. The Government are taking a gendered and targeted approach, and they should be wary of that.
The charity Refuge found that the two-child limit is forcing domestic abuse survivors and their children into poverty as a result of an increased financial dependence on their perpetrators. Does my hon. Friend agree that women are ultimately fearful to leave abusive relationships because they cannot support themselves, and that that is another example of where the policy has gone wrong?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I will talk about some of Refuge’s evidence later, because it is stark and the Government should take heed of it.
A social security safety net ought to be there for everybody—each one of us—when they need it, but by April 2018, the two-child limit had already affected 73,530 households. Well over half of those households—43,420 of them—were in work, so I will not have it if the Minister, or anybody else on the Tory Benches, which I note are remarkably empty, gives us the old Tory trope that the policy is about people on benefits making the same choices as those supporting themselves solely through work. The benefit is designed to give people in the lowest-paid work a top-up, to help support them and to make sure that their children are fed and clothed.
Of those 73,530 households, 2,900 were able to keep their entitlement for a third child by claiming an exemption to the policy. There are largely three exemptions to the two-child limit. None of them is entirely logical, and I would recommend that hon. Members check out the Child Poverty Action Group’s page on the exemptions to see how mind-bendingly arcane they are.
The first exemption is the rape clause. I put on record again my absolute disgust at a policy that forces women to fill out a form to say that they have conceived their third child as a result of rape. It is absolutely inexcusable as a policy. For someone to have to put their child’s name on a form and say that they were conceived as a result of rape is beyond contempt, and the Government should know better than to treat women in that way. We know from the figures that, up until April, 190 women across the UK claimed under that exemption. That is 190 women who have had to replay the most traumatic experience of their life to put food on the table. The Government should hang their head in shame.
The second exemption is for twins, but it is not as simple as it ought to be. It applies if twins are born after a single birth, but not before. If someone has twins after two previous children, only one twin is eligible for payment, but both those twins need to eat. There may be two almost identical families with three children—one that had twins and then a single birth, and one that had a single birth and then twins—but only one is worthy of support from the Government, which is completely illogical.
The third exemption is for adoption, but not if someone has adopted from abroad or if they were a step-parent before they adopted the third child, so that is not simple either. An additional exemption has been made for kinship care. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), who successfully campaigned for that on behalf of her constituent Alyssa Vessey, who lost an entitlement for her own child after taking on caring responsibilities for her three younger siblings. The clear result of the policy and the exemptions is discrimination. Families may have similar circumstances and needs, but some will lose out simply due to the order in which their children were born—something that those children certainly have no control over.
I understand that CPAG will be back in court on the issue before Christmas, and I wish it the very best with its case. It believes, and I agree, that the two-child limit breaches articles 8 and 12 of the Human Rights Act 1998. It is also beyond me how the limit could possibly be compliant with the UK Government’s obligations under the UN convention on the rights of the child.
There will also be an impact on blended families and families who may be encouraged to separate to avoid being hit by the limit. A friend also pointed out that women who have children from previous relationships will be caught should they wish to have a child with a new partner, which is very common, whereas the male partner may be able to go off and start a new family more easily without having the children with him.
Is it not depressing that we have debated this issue two Tuesdays in a row? I thank the hon. Lady for coming to the all-party parliamentary group on single parent families. She talked about blended families, which will be hit hardest. The Government abolished the cross-departmental work on child poverty; they are trying to abolish these things, but they have really mismatched priorities. The churches have been very vocal about it, and the Bishop of Oxford spoke last week. Does she have any comment about that?
I absolutely agree, and I commend the hon. Lady and her colleagues for their work in the all-party parliamentary group on single parent families, because those families will be hugely hit by this. It provides huge disincentives for those families to go into work or to progress. It simply puts them further into poverty and makes it harder for them to get out of that poverty.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Does she agree that this obscene policy is fuelled by the Government’s abolition of the child poverty target, which would have compelled them to look at such policies and realise that they could not possibly be compatible with such a target?
Absolutely. I will return to the issue of the policy’s objectives and how unmeetable they are, given the child poverty that will result from the policy.
It is absolutely clear that nothing in the policy fits with the Government’s objective of giving people a more stable family life. In fact, it plunges families further into uncertainty and crisis, and puts them under tremendous strain.
It is also clear that it will be children who lose out as a result of this policy. It is estimated that this policy will affect—in time, when transitional protections run out—around 3 million children. The Church of England estimates that in my constituency alone 1,600 families and 5,500 children will be affected, which amounts to 36% of the children there. I cannot begin to say what impact this policy will have on the health, education and life chances of those young people.
Once again, my hon. Friend is making a passionate speech on this issue. Does she share my concerns that there is another issue here, namely that families expecting a third child might be forced to have an abortion as a result of this policy? Often, those are people in faith communities, who are likely to have larger families.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and there is clear evidence on this issue, which I will touch on later in my speech. The ends that this Government are forcing families into, and the decisions that those families are being forced to make, are really disturbing.
The cut in this benefit is £2,780 per child, per year, which is a sum that families will struggle to make up through taking on extra work. The Church of England calculates that a single parent with three children who is working 16 hours at the minimum wage—I should say the Chancellor’s pretendy “living wage”, because it is not an actual living wage that one could live on—would need to work 45 hours to compensate for the loss of income and for this Government’s cut. That is assuming that work is available to them in their community and that their children can be looked after by somebody when they are not home. If not, who will do the homework with those children? Who will tuck them into bed at night? Who will make sure that the family is looked after? And what is the mental health impact on that family and the impact on the physical health of the parent, who will be absolutely exhausted after working 45 hours a week and looking after three children, which is a job in itself? The impact on family life must be taken into consideration by the Minister.
There are also real disincentives within this policy, because it will be much harder for families to move into work. The policy will take away the incentive to try to get around the benefit cap, as families will end up losing more if they try to work more.
There is also a disproportionate hit on particular minority groups. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has found that families of Bangladeshi and Pakistani origin are particularly badly hit by this policy, losing thousands of pounds. For years now, I have been flagging up concerns that 60% of Muslim families and 52% of Jewish families have more than two children. There are also concerns, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) mentioned, among religious faiths that will not use contraception for moral reasons and clearly cannot access abortion services. Therefore, they have very little choice in the decisions that face them.
Of course, this is a particular issue for women in Northern Ireland, where family size is traditionally larger than in the rest of the UK and where, as we in this House well know, women cannot access abortion services on the same basis as we can here. I wonder what the Minister expects women to do in such circumstances.
I want to mention a further point about abortion, because it is becoming the reality for many women. I would like to read directly from the testimonies of women who have spoken to the benefits helpline, Turn2us, because they are absolutely stark and I want the Minister to pay particular attention to them. One woman said she had
“to have an abortion as”
she “can’t afford” another child. Another said:
“It makes me want to give up my child for adoption.”
Another woman said she was:
“already due another baby when the new tax credit cap came into play. Now I worry I can’t afford to budget for a baby as I won’t get any extra help.”
“I found out I was 5 months pregnant and now in a complete panic. I’m too far on for an abortion but I have no way of supporting this child. I was taking precautions and definitely did not plan or expect to have any more children. The marina coil is meant to be more effective than being sterilised.”
One woman said she was
“worried that I will not be able to afford the child. I am pregnant at the moment but I am worried it may be twins.”
Another woman said:
“I was already pregnant so I could not reconsider.”
“I didn’t plan this child but it’s beaten all the odds to get here and I believe in things happening for a reason and also do not believe in abortion, so here we are expecting our 3rd child any day and no help financially. I have worked since I was 15 years old and I can’t get help when I need it.”
Another woman said:
“This was a surprise and an unplanned pregnancy and I only found out at 20 weeks that I was pregnant due to an NHS mistake and I don’t have the money to raise a child. But due to religious reasons I cannot terminate the pregnancy, especially this far along.”
How can the Minister possibly justify that? Could he look each woman in these circumstances in the eye and tell them that this policy is about fairness?
Furthermore, Refuge has outlined the risk of this policy to women who are at risk of domestic violence, because the two-child limit exacerbates the control that perpetrators of abuse have over a woman and puts more pressure and risk on the woman. [Interruption.] I would like to share that experience, too, with the Minister, if he wants to stop shuffling his papers and pay attention. Refuge has said:
“Women have felt more trapped and unable to stay as there was no available money to help them move and leave. The 2 child cap means that some women will be pressured into having more children and becoming financially reliant on the partners for support.”
One resident said that
“whilst pregnant with a 3rd child her ex demanded she have an abortion because he said they could not get any more money for it and when she said she didn’t”
“he tried being violent to enforce a miscarriage.”
Refuge also said:
“Women struggling to manage after fleeing if they have three children feel like they have no support and no money to support the family. It means they feel like they should stay or return to the perpetrator.”
I remind Members that the rape clause form itself states that women are not eligible for support if they are living with the father of the child, which forces women to leave their home before they can do so safely, and we all know that the evidence suggests that that is the most dangerous time—the time that women are most likely to be murdered—if they leave without any kind of safety planning.
Before I finish, I want to tackle the suggestion that the Scottish Government should set about mitigating the two-child limit. First of all, we do not have full control over the welfare benefits system. Why not? Because Labour, through the Smith Commission, would not trust us to have it. We therefore end up being lumbered with a system that Scotland did not design, with policies that Scotland did not vote for, and with the ability only to tinker round the edges, thanks to the work of the Labour party.
For those on child tax credits, which is still the majority of people within the system, we have no way of mitigating these things, because that is a function of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. For universal credit, at the moment we have “administrative flexibilities”. The Scottish Government have changed payment schedules and allowed for direct payment to landlords and separate payments to tackle financial abuse. However, the use of those flexibilities incurs a payment to the Department for Work and Pensions for the administration of them—money I am sure all of us agree could be spent directly on the frontline.
I want to make it absolutely clear that I want this policy to go everywhere and not just throughout Scotland. I have campaigned on a cross-party basis to that end, particularly for women in Northern Ireland, who have often been unrepresented in this place and who have to fill out a separate rape clause form, because they were at risk of prosecution just for filling out the original form. That is why I want to make sure that no woman in the UK gets left behind by this policy. We should be campaigning against this Tory Government and focusing all our fire on the Conservative party, which wants to make women go through this trauma.
However, let us not forget that the Labour party’s official position back in 2015 was to support the two-child limit. Perhaps if Labour Members had voted with us back then on the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016, we would not be here—three years, four months and 20 days later—discussing this issue today.
I am coming to the end of my remarks; I am sure that Members will get in later with what they want to say.
All of this policy is illogical and bad for the economy. In other parts of my casework, I see working people being denied leave to remain with their families. I see EU nationals being scunnered and moving away from the country that they had called home, due to this UK Tory Government’s Brexit shambles. On DWP policy, I see people being discouraged—actively discouraged—from having children. Who will participate in the labour market in the future? Having children is an economic good. Who will look after the Minister and his family when he is old and in need of care? The UK Government should wise up to the demographic time bomb they are creating with this policy and so many other policies that make no sense. The “Unhappy Birthday!” report produced by End Child Poverty, the Child Poverty Action Group and the Church of England states:
“If you set out to design a policy that was targeted to increase child poverty, then you could not do much better than the two-child limit.”
I would like to know what assessment the Minister has made, other than the numbers released in April, of the impact of the two-child cap on all the areas I have mentioned in my speech—not just one or two of them, but all of them—because there are still too many flaws in the two-child cap, as I have laid out, and as I am sure other Members will wish to. I want to know how he can roll this policy out without that assessment having been done. The assessment has been left to the third sector, the Church—as the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) pointed out—and to so many other organisations. The Government have not taken on this work; they have left it to others to do, which is absolutely unacceptable. They need to know what the impact of their policies will be on the ordinary people we represent.
I also want the Minister to explain why he is pressing ahead with extending this policy to all families come February next year, because, on the basis of this policy, people could not reasonably have planned the children that they have had. It is completely unreasonable to expect somebody in good times to think, “Perhaps six or seven years after I have had my child, I might—might—be made unemployed and I might need to claim universal credit.” That would not be in their head; that is not how people make decisions about their families. It is an absolutely flawed notion that people can do that. I want the Minister to pause and reflect, and to tell us that he can pause the policy, stop it rolling out further and end it for good.
Order. Seven colleagues at least have notified me of their intention to speak, and one or two more are rising. The winding-up speeches begin at 3.30 pm, so please use a voluntary time limit of four or five minutes each, if you would not mind.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) on her tireless campaign on this very important subject and on securing today’s debate.
The issue sits in the context of the wider debate about universal credit, which will affect 1 million homeowners, slightly fewer than 750,000 households on disability benefits and 600,000 single parents. On universal credit, two in five households will lose about £52 a week in payments, and across many constituencies entire families will be severely affected—if they are not already. In areas where universal credit has already been rolled out, food bank use has increased by 52%. As the hon. Lady said, as part of the 2015 package, from April 2017 low-income families with a third or subsequent child lost their entitlement to additional support through child tax credits.
Does my hon. Friend agree that contrary to what the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) suggested, Labour did not support the two-child limit? We abstained on the Second Reading of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill but voted against Third Reading. Does she agree that we should place that on the record?
I concur. It is really important that the Scottish National party, the Labour party and other parties that oppose the policy continue to work together, so that we can protect families. More families will be affected from February next year, as universal credit is rolled out, and the retrospective element, which the hon. Member for Glasgow Central mentioned, will be devastating. No family could have prepared for a policy that was to be applied retrospectively; nor is it right that children should be retrospectively punished in that way. This, in short, is a punishment of children, and it is totally inhumane. No Government should be standing up for such a policy. Given that the Minister has recently taken on his role and the policy was not his idea, I urge him to reflect carefully on what is being said and on the representation being made to him, to ensure that the policy is reviewed and reformed.
If the Government are concerned about family size and think that families should not be as large as they are, just as with teenage pregnancy, public education exercises can be more successful than punitive measures that punish children. In developing countries, where there is a case for encouraging smaller families because families cannot provide, families sizes have been brought down through education and women’s empowerment, but that is a different debate from what is happening here.
Philip Alston the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights recently said of the two-child limit that it is “in the same ballpark” as China’s one-child policy, because it punishes people with more than two children. Reports also state:
“The UK government has inflicted ‘great misery’ on its people with ‘punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous’ austerity policies driven by a political desire to undertake social re-engineering rather than economic necessity, the United Nations poverty envoy has found”.
It cannot be right that in one of the wealthiest economies of the world, our children face hunger and punishment.
In encouraging the Minister to reconsider, does the hon. Lady agree that it is important that he understand that most people—most of those I meet, anyway—are in favour of reform, because of the complexity of what preceded universal credit, and are in favour of encouraging people into work, but are most definitely not in favour of stigmatising or of ensuring that the very vulnerable in society are punished as a result of the first two?
I agree. I do not think that policies that punish vulnerable people are ultimately likely to succeed, which is why the Minister needs to rethink both this aspect of the universal credit policy and the policy more generally. In their attempt to simplify, the Government have found ways to cut funding. People will be worse off under universal credit.
Since implementation, the policy has already affected 400,000 children, and some 3 million children are likely to be affected. That is why I echo the points the hon. Member for Glasgow Central made, calling on the Minister to review the policy and put a stop to it, certainly until the extension of the policy next February, which will be devastating for families.
In my constituency, a large number of children and families will be affected by the policy. We have a large Muslim population and, as has been mentioned, people of other faiths are also affected. I call on the Minister to take into account the unequal impact the policy will have and the fact that the equality impact assessment is flawed.
I will have to conclude, to give others the opportunity to speak. The equality impact assessment does not recognise the negative consequences for certain groups. More than 100 MPs wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, copying in the then Work and Pensions Secretary and the Chancellor, and we have still not had a response, which is really unfortunate. I encourage the Minister to go back to his Secretary of State and ensure that she responds to it and seriously rethinks the policy so that children in our country are protected.
Five minutes each. Thank you.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, and to follow the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali). She made a very reasonable speech, but I do want to correct the record. Even as she was speaking, I found an article from 2015 on the BBC News website entitled, “Harriet Harman: Labour to back child tax credit curbs”. I am happy to place a copy of it in the Library, so that the House can correct the record.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) on securing this important debate. Before my election to the House, I had the privilege of working for her for two years, and it was then that I saw at first hand how tenacious she was in pursuing the issue, when no one else had seen it and it was buried at the back of the Red Book. It is fitting that, three years on, she is still prosecuting the British Government for one of the most outrageous policies ever to emanate from Westminster.
Before I speak specifically about universal credit, I want to say a few words about the very concept of the two-child policy. Even three years on and having developed a degree of knowledge in the subject, I still cannot fathom how the policy got through Cabinet, let alone on to the statute books. In the past, the Conservative party could, probably quite justifiably, lay claim to the mantle of being the party of family values, but the two-child policy is so anti-family that I hardly know where to start.
I will start with the Conservatives’ outrageous claim that people should have only the number of children they can afford, as if that is a calculation people make when planning a family. If we followed that logic, we would be left in a position in which the only people who had more than two children would be the likes of the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg). What kind of society would we be looking at then?
The two-child policy is deeply offensive to those of us from a faith community. No matter whether it is Presbyterians or Roman Catholics, who forbid contraception, or Orthodox Jews, who for religious or cultural reasons favour larger families, the policy completely disrespects them and their views. I also argue that the two-child policy is short-sighted from an economic point of view. At a time when we have an ageing population, it is important that we also have a growing population that contributes to the tax base and helps to fund public services.
The reality is that the two-child cap is an ideological policy pursued simply to drive a wedge through society and cause a distraction from the real issues. It perpetuates the myth that there are millions of families out there breeding for benefits, when the evidence just does not back that up. The two-child cap breaks the fundamental link between need and the provision of minimum support, and it implies that some children, by virtue of their birth order, are less deserving of support. It is a large direct cut to the living standards of the poorest families of up to £2,780 per child, per year. At a time when people are struggling financially, that is a huge blow for household incomes and shows that the Government are not committed to the very concept of a social security system.
Whether it is the pernicious two-child policy, the medieval rape clause, or the wider shambles of universal credit, which is due to be unleashed next month in Glasgow, families across Scotland are rapidly concluding that social security being administered by the Westminster Government is akin to putting a lion in charge of an abattoir. I argue that a different path can be taken: one that says that social security exists for the good of all in society, and one that values every child, not just the first two. I think that people in Scotland are rapidly concluding that the only path to delivering that fairer society, with a comprehensive, fair social security system free of family caps, rape clauses and universal credit, is through an independent Scotland. Frankly, with policies such as the two-child cap and universal credit, the British Government are only hastening people more quickly along the path to independence.
I have to declare an interest as the mother of four children, albeit spread out over a period of 17 years. I can personally testify that large families have close and deep relationships, and the benefits of having a larger number of siblings are many and varied. However, this Government are seeking to punish families who have had three or more children. With only three children, those families will be losing £2,500 a year from their child element, on top of the cuts to universal credit that mean that 3 million families are set to lose over £2,000 a year. Families with four or more children will lose an average of £7,000 a year. Those families are already on a low income: they have already experienced cuts to tax credits of £1,500 on average, and a further £2,000 under universal credit.
This is not just an issue of child poverty. This is an issue of families facing destitution, with rising numbers of families with three or more children going to food banks. Families do not go to food banks unless their children are hungry. Can the Minister look not just those families in the eye, but look those children in the eye, or the parents who are trying to get their children to sleep at night when they do not have enough food in their stomach? It is absolutely inhumane. The policy will have a similar impact on large families as the benefit cap has on families in households with no work, but large families cannot escape that impact through work. In the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, we have heard of children in families to whom the benefit cap applies being taken into care because, given their levels of income, their parents cannot give those children the basic, decent standard of living that they need to survive. Is that a danger for all large families? It seems to be a return to Victorian times, with families punished for having more children and for not being able to earn enough.
Child tax credit and the child element of universal credit, which stands at £2,780 a year, is paid because successive Governments have recognised that doing so goes some way towards meeting the costs of a child, and have signed up to the ambition of reducing child poverty and increasing children’s life chances. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation produced a study that showed the impact of reducing incomes on children’s outcomes. Having reviewed over 34 studies, it concluded that increases in income appear to have an impact on cognitive outcomes comparable to the impacts of spending on early childhood programmes or education. However, income influences many different outcomes at the same time, including maternal mental health and children’s anxiety levels and behaviour. Few other policies are likely to affect such a range of outcomes at once. It is sad that the Government did not see fit to do an impact assessment on this policy, or to publish that assessment, before they went ahead.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work of the all-party parliamentary group on universal credit, which she chairs. Is she aware of the figures that show that 60% of Muslim children and 52% of Jewish children live in families with three or more children? My hon. Friend is doing a great demolition job on this Government, who balance their books on the backs of the poor.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. The policy will certainly have a disproportionate impact on some faith groups, but also on anyone who, for whatever reason, has chosen to have three or more children—people like my constituent who posted on my Facebook page comments regarding this policy. She wrote that her husband died when she had three children and he was just 40. Why are the Government seeking to punish those children even more? They have already suffered the death of their father, and can now expect to see their income reduced as well. This policy simply does not make sense for the long-term economy of this country, which needs to invest in our children’s future in order to grow its way out of the economic mess that the past eight years have left us in. This country also needs to look at the interests of those children, and the impact of poverty and destitution on the 3 million children who will be affected by this policy. Please do not roll this out next February.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, and I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) for securing this timely debate. As others have said, hon. Members might find themselves experiencing a sense of déjà vu, having once again gathered in Westminster Hall to highlight a Government policy focused on hitting the poorest families the hardest. There are 870,000 families with more than three children currently claiming these benefits, with the bottom fifth of the income distribution expecting to lose the largest proportion of their income. We know the policy is set to save the Government £1.6 billion by 2020, which is no small amount. However, compared with the £2.7 billion that the Government are spending on giving an income tax cut to the highest earners, they continue to make it clear that they are not governing in the interests of ordinary working people.
The hon. Gentleman might be interested to know that I have House of Commons Library extrapolations of the budget impact of the 2017-18 tax giveaways. The figure for inheritance tax, capital gains tax and corporation tax is £80 billion over the period 2017 to 2025. Does that not show how wrong the Government’s priorities are?
I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. The Prime Minister often talks about supporting those who are striving and working hard, but unfortunately in reality, the consequences of Government policy are the precise opposite.
We know that the Government are targeting minority and religious groups with this policy. In my constituency, the Haredi community will be the hardest hit. There is a substantial differential impact on religious communities for whom family size is determined by beliefs and for whom culture is also a determining factor. That was omitted from the Government’s impact assessment, and the Minister might want to respond to that in his concluding remarks. Some 31% of all children live in households with three or more children. For families of the Jewish faith, the proportion is 52%; for families of the Muslim faith, it is 60%; and we know that many families of the Christian faith also have three or more children. We do not expect that those families will change their behaviour because of this policy, which significantly penalises them for their religious beliefs. What has it come to when a Conservative Government are attacking the concept of religious freedom in our society, which is precisely what this policy does? I know that sometimes people do not like talking about faith, but we should say that the concept of religious freedom is central to British values. This policy goes right to the heart of undermining that principle, but it was not even part of the Government’s impact assessment, which is absolutely shameful.
Families with more than two children face a cruel poverty trap, as others have said. They are unable to work their way out of poverty because, for every extra pound they earn, the Government will reduce their two-child allowance by 75p. Those changes severely undermine the financial security of larger families, who stand to lose up to £2,780 for each additional child beyond the first two. Many families will be unable to meet their children’s essential needs. An estimated 200,000 more children will be in poverty as a direct result of this policy. Children raised in poverty, as many hon. Members know, face many disadvantages: worse life expectancy, worse educational performance, and poorer health. Although the policy may make some short-term savings, in the long term it causes tremendous economic and social costs to our society.
One of the most shameful things about the Government’s record is the abandonment of any notion of a child poverty strategy. Right at the heart of any Government that sought to govern in the interests of all of the people of this country, as a top priority, whatever one’s ideology, should be the fight against child poverty. The Government have abandoned strategy and a cross-Government approach. They no longer have targets, which means there are consequences. There is no focus whatever in Government to tackle child poverty as a policy priority. We then end up with policies such as those we are debating today, where no impact assessments have been done, adding to child poverty. What kind of society is the Government seeking to create? Most of those affected are working families who are in the just about managing group. Again, the Prime Minister talks about that all the time, but there is a gap between rhetoric and reality. Substantially cutting support sends an unhelpful message about the rewards of work.
In conclusion, the policy does a number of things. It hits the poorest the hardest. It increases child poverty, risks an increase in abortion, undermines religious freedom and causes vulnerable women to be even more vulnerable. The Minister must surely accept that now is the time to U-turn on such an appalling policy.
I call Jim Shannon. You have five minutes.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Streeter. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) for securing this debate and for her perseverance in this matter. She has been an absolute stalwart and it is a pleasure to come and support her in these debates in Westminster Hall or wherever they might be.
As soon as I heard of this proposal, my immediate thoughts went to China and its child limitation policy. I can remember thinking, “How can we say that the state should help a mother to work and care for two children, but not three children or four? Why should the state and we in this House make that decision?” My parliamentary aide is the youngest of five children and she takes great pride in saying her parents kept going until they reached perfection, and Naomi is undoubtedly perfection. I can never say anything other than that. She will listen to this debate and that will confirm it. Probably I will be in her good books on Friday morning when I see her once again. I say that tongue in cheek, of course, but the principle is that her parents wanted a large family. It was their decision. Mum worked a little and dad had a full-time job. Today mum would not be able to work at all. That is a fact. Is that what we seek to promote? I say to the Minister with great respect that we must review this.
In the short time that I have I want to speak specifically about one organisation that contacted me. I will provide some background on the organisation called Refuge and what its opinion is. I had not considered entirely the implication of the rule for families experiencing domestic abuse until I read a briefing by Refuge. It certainly opened my eyes to the harsh reality for families throughout the UK. I sincerely hope the Minister hears what I say about the facts of the case. I hope it will open Government eyes to the situation and how we must change it to address the issues in my constituency of Strangford and in every other constituency in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The briefing highlighted opinion based on experience in Refuge centres throughout the United Kingdom. There is vast experience in the service that supports more than 6,500 women and children on any given day. That is the magnitude of what Refuge does. The services that Refuge provides include a national network of 42 refuges, community outreach, independent advocacy, child support services, and the freephone 24-hour national domestic violence helpline run in partnership with Women’s Aid. It does tremendous work. Refuge highlighted the problem:
“Policies which limit what is typically women’s income will inevitably lead to difficulties for survivors of gender-based violence. The two child limit inhibits and deters survivors from fleeing their abusers, where some cannot even afford to travel to a refuge. Once women have decided to leave, the added financial barriers to rebuilding their lives lead some women to question their decision, and sometimes return to their abusers.”
That is unfortunate. We do not want that to happen and I know that the Minister would not want that to happen. Refuge further explained:
“The policy itself has also been used as an excuse to perpetrate abuse. Refuge has supported a survivor whose abuser attempted to induce a miscarriage with violence because they wouldn’t get money for another baby.”
We must not let that happen, nor would the Government agree to that. That example shook me to my core, and it should shake everyone in this House to their core. It is clear that consideration must be given to circumstances such as those, and the limit must be changed.
The Refuge research found that the two-child limit is forcing survivors and their children into poverty and increases financial dependence on perpetrators. The two-child limit and lack of adequate support also act as a deterrent for many women who do not want to leave, as they fear they will be unable to support themselves and their children. Women’s lack of economic resources when they decide to flee and the added financial barriers to rebuilding their lives leads some women to question their decision to leave, which for some leads to their return to abusers.
In conclusion, the experience of Refuge, Women’s Aid and other charitable institutions must be recognised and must drive a review of the policy. I wholeheartedly ask the Minister to consider that. Life is tough for families and tougher still for those in abusive situations. We need to do what we can to help, and imposing a two-child limit on help to enable women and families to be financially secure is not helping. If we listen to the charitable institutions, it actually does harm. We must make a change, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) for securing this very important debate and for highlighting the appalling impact of the policy. Her speech was very emotional. She covered the exemptions very well, so I will not touch on those because time is tight, but I want to voice my disgust at the rape clause and echo what she said in her speech about how unfair and unjust the other exemptions are. We agree that the Tory cuts are abhorrent and must be scrapped immediately.
In 2018-19, families with three children will lose up to £2,780 each year per child who does not qualify. I am not sure what impact that would have on some Cabinet members, but for families in my constituency in Midlothian it will have a massive and detrimental impact on their lives. An Institute for Fiscal Studies study from last year estimated that relative child poverty would increase over the next four years by 7%. It highlighted the two-child limit as a major factor in that rise. The Government’s own impact assessment in 2015—there have not been any more recent impact assessments—in the section entitled “Impact on protected groups”, acknowledges that the policy will probably have a disproportionate impact on women, ethnic minorities and people with other protected characteristics, yet there are no measures set out by the Government to mitigate that impact.
We have heard about the retroactive element of the policy. Households with three or more children who make a new claim will be required, as of February 2019, to claim universal credit, so they will be impacted by that and affected by the two-child limit, even if their child was born before April 2017. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central highlighted a letter from a constituent and the absurdity of the impact. Last month, I asked the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions how the retrospective implementation of the policy would
“encourage families to reflect carefully on their readiness to support an additional child”,
Which is one of the stated aims of the policy, but I was given no coherent answer. Will the Minister answer that for me today? Scottish Labour would scrap the two-child cap in the upcoming Scottish Budget. That is we will call for.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) is absolutely right to get stuck into the Government over this abhorrent policy? As in the case of the bedroom tax, whether there is anything at all that the Scottish Government can do to help, we simply cannot and must not look our constituents in the eye and say, “We can act, but we are not going to because we should not have to.”
I agree with my hon. Friend.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I only have two minutes left, so I must press on.
The SNP have argued against covering for Tory welfare reform, and I agree that it should not exist in the first place; but such political posturing helps no one. The powers of the Scottish Parliament should be used to stop families struggling.
On that point, will the hon. Lady give way?
I am sorry, but I must press on. I am quite confused about SNP policy, because the hon. Member for Glasgow Central said she cares about families and children across the UK and wants the policy to be stopped across the UK; but the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) said that the only way to end the situation was independence for Scotland. I should like to know whether they care about people across the UK, or only about people in Scotland.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will not. I want to ask the Minister how he thinks the retroactive application of the policy will affect families who already have more than two children. How will it achieve the policy’s stated aim of making the system fairer and changing people’s financial choices about having children? In addition, there is no evidence that that would happen. What steps are being taken to ensure that women, ethnic minorities and other protected groups are not affected disproportionately by the cap? Have the Government made any assessment of the mental health and wellbeing impact of the policy?
The policy pushes more children into poverty. It targets women with no real assessment, and it is a good example of the Government engineering society to punish the less privileged for having children.
Order. There are eight minutes to go and two Members left to speak. I call Paul Sweeney; there are four minutes each.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) on obtaining the debate and on her tenacious campaigning on the issue over several years.
The policy is totemic, highlighting the callousness of conservatism at its core. By contrast, the previous Labour Government reduced child poverty from 3 million in 1998 to 1.6 million in 2010. That was a remarkable achievement, unprecedented in modern history—an amazing societal achievement for our country. It was not done by accident. If support for households had increased only with inflation, child poverty would have been 4.3 million by 2010. The reduction happened because of huge, sustained above-inflation increases in targeted support for families and children. That is how we were able massively to reduce child poverty in this country and it is why I am proud to be a Labour party Member of Parliament. It will always be the party that defends the most vulnerable in society. We can look towards the contrast between what was achieved under Labour, and the disgusting policy of the Tory Government with the introduction of universal credit, which the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) praised, saying it would allow the poorest families to make the same financial decisions as other families who are not reliant on welfare. That is clearly absurd, when we consider that approaching half the workers in this country earn less than £13,000 a year.
The hon. Gentleman is right to point to the record of the Labour Government; it has a strong record on the issue. However, does he regret the comments of his colleague, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), when she was acting leader of the Labour party during the passage of the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016, that she could not oppose the Government’s plan to reduce the benefit cap and would back the two-child limit?
Let me make one point clear: the evidence is that we voted against the Third Reading of that Bill, when it mattered. The rhetoric at the time is irrelevant. Also, the Labour party is of course now under very new management, with a radical approach to abolishing the policy. The point is irrelevant.
A Government who react to children’s pain in the way that is the subject of the debate—by callously making a comparison with a market decision such as buying a car or a house—are not fit to govern. That is what we face when the Conservative Government take that attitude towards children’s pain. The children do not make those decisions. We have a duty to establish a welfare state that goes back to its founding principles of drawing a line below which no one will fall, and above which everyone can rise. That is the fundamental principle of the universal system of welfare in this country. While I want a UK Labour Government who fulfil their pledge to end the rape clause across the whole UK, we should use powers wherever they can be found to mitigate the policy and reduce harms in society where possible.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am sorry, but I have already given way and have only five minutes for my speech.
We have the opportunity to make an impact in the Scottish Parliament, where there are powers to mitigate what is being done. It is four years since the Smith Commission, and the SNP has delivered only a single payment to carers. Families suffering the evil Tory cap on welfare need help right now. Indeed, that is not beyond the realm of possibility: to eliminate it in Scotland would cost £4,000 per child, which is less than less than 10% of the budget underspend of the Scottish Government. It is very much in their gift and they can achieve it, with the £10 billion extra they achieve from the Barnett formula. We must take action on all fronts to oppose the callousness of the Conservative party. Let us not pretend we cannot take robust action at all levels of Government to deal with the matter and minimise the harms faced by children.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) on an interesting speech that combined elegance and passion.
I am a father of three: they enrich my life, and my wife’s life. A point was made in the debate about twins, which struck home with me, because I am the father of twins. I can see what a big difference the order of their birth could make. I have a certain reputation in this place for talking about universal credit, and I have so far concentrated on the rural issue of lack of IT access and perhaps of people trained to use it. I make no apology for always stressing the issue of remoteness, given the constituency that I represent.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, given that in rural areas across the UK employment can be a challenge, and that 30% of benefit claimants are in work, the policy will disproportionately affect families in rural areas, where depopulation is a huge challenge?
That is an entirely fair intervention, and I accept it for what it is.
Let me give the example of a family, perhaps living in a remote strath in Caithness, Sutherland or Easter Ross, and consider the problems they would have. The cash, as we know, is limited after the birth of two children. The mum would almost certainly face increased costs for transport—to school or to use the NHS—and for food, because sadly prices get higher the further a place is from Edinburgh and Glasgow. There would be higher costs for heating and delivery. I want to raise with the Minister this afternoon the fact that we pay an extra charge for having some basic things delivered to our homes in the remotest areas. There would be higher costs for the children’s clothes or—let me put it this way—for getting to the charity shop, which is the challenge for many families. Even harsher still is the cost of getting to the food bank—not that I approve in any way of the fact that we have to have food banks in this day and age. It is a concept that was unheard of in my parents’ time in Scotland.
In fairness to the Scottish Government, I am aware of the good work that has been done on the bedroom tax, and I know there is a limit in absolute terms to what the Scottish Government can do. Having been a Member of the Scottish Parliament for some years I recognise that, and it is best to be absolutely straight about it.
I had a happy childhood, and am extremely fortunate to have done so. It was free from anxiety. There is no doubt that anxiety can scar today’s children for the rest of their lives. To quote the hon. Member for Glasgow Central—I hope I do so correctly—the social security safety net should be for everyone. That includes people in my constituency in the remotest parts of the UK, as well as those who live in more central areas. I hope and trust that the Minister will take my points on board. I mean them sincerely, for the sake of the people I represent.
We now move to the speeches of the three Front-Bench spokesmen—one speaking from the Back Benches, I see, which is fine. We will leave a minute and a half for Alison to have the final word. I call Andy Gray—I mean Neil Gray. I beg your pardon.
I wish I had Andy Gray’s left foot, Mr Streeter. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and to receive that footballing accolade. That was some light relief after a stark debate.
I welcome, congratulate and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who secured the debate. She has been tenacious, dogged and diligent in her campaigning, and it has been a pleasure to be on the Benches with her as she has gone about that in the past three years, and to provide what support I have been able to give for her work. It has merited awards at all levels, although I know that is not why she does it. She does that work to make the lives of her constituents and of the people up and down these isles better. She recognises injustice when she sees it, and she seeks to tackle it. I commend her campaigning efforts, which continue today.
My hon. Friend’s speech, as ever, was detailed. She highlighted the fact that next year this abominable scheme is set to get even worse, as children will be targeted regardless of when they were born. She is right to challenge people—Ministers in particular—to state the circumstances in which those children will be living for the duration of their childhood and the ways parents should budget for them. I would love to see an 18-year family budget in front of me. She was also right to say that 73,500 households have already been affected, a large proportion of which already include people in work. The apparent principle behind this policy, which is to get more parents into work, is self-defeating as it is already happening. I suspect there is an ulterior motive that the Government do not wish to discuss.
My hon. Friend was right to mention the rape clause exemption, because that despicable, disgusting example of UK Government policy has meant that 190 women have had to note the names of children who were born as a result of rape. That we allow that to continue is a stain on us as a society. I find it extraordinary that the Minister can sit and listen to the stories that my hon. Friend read out and the examples from Turn2Us of people in desperate need of help, and then shrug his shoulders as if this is not an issue and nothing needs to be done. I suggest that he comes to one of our constituencies to hear how this policy is impacting on our constituents. Perhaps he could do a shift at Turn2Us and listen to people in desperate need of help as a result of policies that he continues to support. My hon. Friend was right to say that the children impacted by this policy have no say over events that control their lives. They have been targeted by austerity, which is shameful.
The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) was right to point out how incompatible this policy would have been if the Government had targets to reduce child poverty. No wonder that the new Secretary of State and Ministers were so desperate to attack Philip Alston personally for the initial findings in his report. I think they protest too much, because they know all too well the problems with child poverty that they are causing.
Again, I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central, and thank her for securing this debate. It has been a good, positive and largely consensual debate, not least because no Conservative Member chose to speak. From the Labour Benches, the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) was absolutely right and made an interesting speech, and I welcome her support for my hon. Friend’s campaign. The hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) made another helpful speech, and I commend her work as chair of the all-party group on universal credit. She gave good, if horrible, examples of the traumatic devastation caused by this policy. The hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) was right to point out the poor choices made by this Government. We made those points clear during a debate on the Budget, and that was reinforced by the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), who highlighted that between 2017 and 2025, £80 billion will have been spent by the Government on tax giveaways. That should give us all pause for thought.
The hon. Member for Midlothian (Danielle Rowley) was right to say that the policy will have a disproportionate impact on women and people from ethnic minority groups, and the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) was right to point to Labour’s record in government, which I acknowledged, although Labour policy has perhaps been rather sketchy from then until now. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) was right to ask how on earth, when discussing policy around the Cabinet table, nobody stood up and said, “Actually, you know what? I see where this is going. This is a disaster of a policy. This is disgraceful, not just from a social perspective but economically in terms of forcing people, including children, into poverty.” How did nobody round that table, or since then, speak up and say that this is wrong? I find that incredible. My hon. Friend was also right to highlight the religious discrimination at the heart of this policy, and I commend him for that.
This would not be a Westminster Hall debate if I did not sum up a good speech by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). The question why we should make these choices for families was at the heart of his remarks, which is absolutely right. This policy is not about people making choices about being in or out of work, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central so eloquently put it; this is about limiting the choices of people on low incomes and their families, and about how many children they can have and what they do in their circumstances. The hon. Gentleman was also right to highlight evidence from Women’s Aid and Refuge. The list of organisations that the Government are ignoring and being tin-eared about could go on.
In conclusion, let me mention the work that the Scottish Government have done since 2010 to mitigate the UK Government’s disastrous austerity policies. Work on the bedroom tax involving more than £100 million a year has been mentioned, but something that is often forgotten about, and one reason why Scotland performs much better than the UK on child poverty levels, is the council tax reduction scheme. That scheme has cost the Scottish Government £1.4 billion in recent years—a substantial investment to ensure that people on low incomes do not suffer the burden of council tax in the same way as other people across the UK, whose council tax reduction scheme has been scrapped by the Government. In Scotland we have also utilised some of the flexibilities available to us for universal credit, which costs another £1 million a year.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am just about to conclude my speech and I am conscious of time.
The Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government will continue to do all they can to ensure that we do the best possible, and the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) was right in his bipartisan and measured speech. He said that the Scottish Parliament cannot be a Tory mitigation Chamber; it has to be more than that. There must be a limit to saying that the Scottish Government must always paper over cracks that have emerged from Tory policies. We must go after the problem at source. Therefore, rather than having a party political fight with the Labour party—I am not interested in that—I want us to continue with what, for the majority of this debate, was a cross-party attack on the Government’s policies. If Scottish Labour Members continue with that focus, instead of attacking a Scottish Government who are already mitigating the effect and doing what they can to reduce child poverty in Scotland, we will have a fair debate. We must end this two-child cap and the benefit freeze, and ensure that the Government do what they can in terms of work allowances and universal credit. Until that time we will not stop campaigning against this Government, and I hope Labour Members will join us in that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, and I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) for securing such an important debate. She shares my view, and that of many colleagues, that the two-child limit is unfair and adversely affects tens of thousands of families. That policy stands out, tragically, as a clear example—perhaps the clearest example—of a Tory welfare system that is failing and unsupportive of those most in need. That view is shared not just by those of us in this debate; it is shared by charities and many advocacy groups, and much of civil society.
Earlier this year, 60 Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious leaders strongly condemned the policy, arguing that it sent a message that some children matter less than others. Disappointingly, however, some do not share that view. The former Work and Pensions Secretary, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), described it as a “brilliant idea”, and believed that it would force claimants to make the same life choices as families who are not on benefits, and incentivise them to seek work or increase their hours. We have heard from this debate that it is certainly not a brilliant idea. The claims about life choices and incentives show nothing but disdain for the people and families who our welfare state should be supporting and show no understanding of the precarious reality of the world of work for many at the sharp end.
While the two-child limit was possibly the most pernicious element of the approach, we should not forget that it was part of a package of welfare reforms to tax credits and universal credit announced in the 2015 Budget. The Child Poverty Action Group has estimated, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) pointed out, that the two-child limit alone will lead to 200,000 more children growing up in poverty by 2020. It is also a policy that causes one sibling to lose out at the expense of another, with one child being of more value than another. Surely that is not fair or right.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a simple unfairness at the heart of the policy? We should no more support it than support one child in a family getting access to education and another not, or one getting access to health services and another not.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend and neighbour. Children are children.
From April 2017, low-income families lost entitlement to additional support through child tax credits or the child element of universal credit for a third or subsequent child born after that date. If the family was already claiming support for three or more children before that date, in principle they continue to receive support. However, to demonstrate the absurdity of the policy, if a third or subsequent child born after April 2017 is disabled, the family will receive child tax credits or the child element of universal credit for that child, but one of the other two children will lose out. As was rightly pointed out by hon. Friends across the Chamber, that is an attack on some of the most vulnerable in society: children. The policy also discredits the claim of this Conservative Government that they are the party of the family and of religious freedom. It is yet another example of why the roll-out of universal credit needs to be stopped.
The Government must end the delays in payment, and it must also end one of the most shocking consequences of the legislation: the rape clause. Another former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Tatton (Ms McVey), made the extraordinary claim that the policy potentially offered rape victims double support: social security and “an opportunity to talk” about the assault. That was insensitive to say the least. As hon. Friends have pointed out, it was absolutely appalling.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very powerful point. Does he agree that it is a very special kind of grim hypocrisy for a Government who have scrapped the child poverty targets and are heading towards a Brexit disaster that will see tens if not hundreds of thousands of jobs lost to then target the most vulnerable in society? They will no doubt be losing jobs as a result of Brexit, but the Government have brought in a policy that marginalises and breaches the human rights of so many vulnerable members of our society.
I agree entirely with the hon. Lady. What the former Secretary of State said demonstrates how out of touch Ministers are. Perhaps more of them should have attended the debate today, because they would have heard many contributions that have laid bare the misery the policy is causing. We heard contributions from 10 Members: my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney), for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq), for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali), the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), my hon. Friends the Members for High Peak (Ruth George) and for Bury South, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Danielle Rowley), and the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone). They are all very powerful voices for vulnerable children in this place.
This weekend, the leader of Scottish Labour called on the Scottish Government to mitigate the impact of the two-child limit. I urge the Scottish Government to use their powers to do so in advance of the budget on 12 December. They are already planning to use the new social security powers to introduce an income supplement. I urge them to help the 4,000.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept the early points made about the limits to what the Scottish Government can do? He should bear in mind that they are not only trying to mitigate Tory cuts; these things are happening against a £2 billion cut to the Scottish budget in real terms. They are trying to mitigate Tory cuts with both hands tied behind their back.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East said, there is a £10 billion supplement from the Barnett formula. We have heard the stories, and I have questions for the Minister.
I am sorry, I cannot give way any more; I must move on.
Some 59% of the 73,500 families who lost financial support are in work. What does it say about the Government’s claim that they are encouraging people into work if their policy chastises those very people? According to the Government’s own figures, each family claiming benefit lost up to £2,800 in 2017-18 as a result of the two-child limit. How is such a callous approach helping to support families and helping to tackle poverty? Some 2,820 households were exempted during the first year, the majority because they had breached the two-child limit after having twins or triplets. It would seem that Government policy is divorced from reality. In fact, it is divorced from biology. It is yet another example of a policy conceived out of ideological spite and prejudice, rather than an understanding of real life, of what motivates people’s choices and outcomes and even of basic biology.
From February 2019, all households with three or more children who make a new claim will be required to claim universal credit and will also be subject to the two-child limit, irrespective of when their children were born. That cannot be right. It is not fair that the policy is applied retrospectively. Finally, yesterday, the Bishop of Durham and a cross-party group called for a ministerial direction to delay the February 2019 deadline. Will the Secretary of State and the Minister apply such a direction?
We have seen the effect that the policy is having on many households across the UK. We have seen how it is just one example of how Government social security chaos punishes rather than provides and focuses on savings, not support. The Government need to accept that their approach to social security has failed. They need to stop it, they need to fix it, and they need to fund it. Our communities, our families and, as we have heard today, our children deserve nothing less.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) for securing this debate. I know she has a long-standing interest in the subject, and earlier this year we met at the Department for Work and Pensions to discuss issues relating to this particular policy. Yesterday, as the shadow Minister just pointed out, there was a cross-party roundtable led by the Bishop of Durham to discuss these issues and I took part for some of the time, as did the hon. Lady. I thank all Members who have contributed to today’s debate.
My style is generally not to feed rancour in a debate, because I think it is important that we have a civilised discussion and colleagues have an opportunity to raise issues that are important to them, but the hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) talked about the fact that an economic mess has been created over the past eight years. I respectfully say to her that she was not in this House in 2010. A number of us were, and I would say that the economic mess we inherited was from the previous Labour Government. I must point out that 3.3 million jobs have been created since 2010—I see hon. Members shaking their heads in disbelief, but that is a fact—and wages are now outpacing inflation. The vast majority of those jobs are full-time and permanent, at a high level of education. That is not an economic mess.
Will the Minister address the social mess that his Government have created? That includes not only this policy, but welfare and policing—the list goes on. Will he respond to the serious concerns that hon. Members have raised today? That is what we are after: not looking backwards, but addressing the problem at hand.
Of course I will address the issues, but it is important to look back and see where we have come from to reach the policies that we are now putting in place.
Several hon. Members mentioned universal credit. I know that this debate is not about universal credit, but I am afraid I must point out that the legacy benefits system is not really fit for purpose. It is incredibly complicated, and as a result 700,000 households are not claiming—or are not able to get hold of—the full amount owed to them. Under universal credit, those households will be £285 better off on average per month. Likewise, 1.4 million people spent the best part of a decade on unemployment benefits under the last Labour Government, but that is changing.
I accept there has been discussion about finances, but I must say to SNP colleagues that, as Labour Members have pointed out, the Scottish Government have the power to create new benefits in devolved areas. They are able to provide assistance to meet short-term risk and they have the ability to top up reserved benefits from their own resources.
Will the Minister give way?
I will, but I point out for the record that the hon. Gentleman did not give way when Labour colleagues wished to raise that precise point with him.
The Minister points out that I did not give way, but of course I was at the end of my speech; I was winding up to allow him enough time to contribute to the debate. He says that the Budget interventions will make people better off, but the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Tatton (Ms McVey), suggested that people on universal credit were £2,400 worse off. If the Government are suggesting that their intervention will make people £600 better off, does that not mean that people will still be £1,700 worse off as a result of their actions on universal credit?
Again, I must respectfully say to the hon. Gentleman and to other Opposition colleagues that it is one thing to say that they want to support their constituents and that I should be prepared to look people in the eye—but they too should be prepared to look their constituents in the eye and explain why they would not vote either for the additional £1.5 billion that we brought in earlier this year to support people on universal credit or for the Budget measures, which I will talk about in more detail.
If I may, I would like to make some progress.
The fundamental aim of our policy is to strike the appropriate balance between support for claimants with children and fairness to taxpayers and families with children who support themselves solely through work. Colleagues may disagree, but a benefits structure that adjusts automatically to family size is ultimately not sustainable. Our benefits system needs to be fair both to those who need the support and to taxpayers, but ultimately it needs to be sustainable. Parents who support themselves solely through work would not generally expect to see their wages increase simply because of the addition of a new child to their family. Of course we recognise that some claimants are not able to make the same choices about the number of children they have; that is why we have exceptions in place for additional children in multiple births and children likely to be born as a result of non-consensual conception.
The Minister makes his case about children who are due to be born. What arguments does he make to parents and families who already have three or more children, who are all going to be affected by this policy and who have absolutely no choice about it?
The hon. Lady raises a perfectly valid point, which I will get to if she gives me the opportunity.
From 28 November, exceptions will also apply to children in kinship care, regardless of the order in which they joined the household. The exception will also be extended to children who are adopted who would otherwise be in local authority care. It is also worth noting that as a result of natural or managed migration to universal credit, families’ existing entitlement will be protected as long as they remain responsible for the same children and remain entitled to benefits; that will apply regardless of the number of children in their household or their date of birth.
As hon. Members will know, a judicial review of the policy was heard in the High Court earlier this year. The Court found that it was lawful overall—a judgment that the Government welcomed. Several colleagues have spoken about the impact of the policy on particular groups, but I should point out that the High Court judgment on 20 April found that the policy did not breach the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
The Government remain committed to providing support for families. Under universal credit, 85% of childcare costs are covered—up from 70% under the old system—and, for the first time, people in part-time work can get help. That comes on top of the Department for Education’s 30 hours of free childcare provision for 3 and 4-year-olds in England.
Will the Minister give way?
No, I will not, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind.
The flexible support fund is available to help eligible parents who are moving into work to pay up-front childcare costs or deposits. Child benefit continues to be paid to parents regardless of the number of children within the household. There is also an additional amount in universal credit designed to support disabled children, again regardless of the total number of children in a household.
To return to the Budget, we have listened to feedback about the support available for families on universal credit and we have acted. In last month’s Budget, the Chancellor announced that an extra £1.7 billion a year will be put into increasing work allowances for families with children and disabled people, strengthening universal credit work incentives and providing a boost to the incomes of the lowest-paid. This will result in 2.4 million families keeping an extra £630 per year of what they earn.
Does the Minister concede that a reduced cut to someone’s income is still a cut?
I have just explained how, as a result of these work allowances, more money is going into the system. As I say, if the hon. Lady wants that to happen, she should help us and vote for these policies.
Given the points made about poverty, it is worth pointing out that 1 million fewer people are living in absolute poverty than in 2010, including 500,000 working adults and 300,000 children. That is a positive outcome. Children living in workless households are approximately five times more likely to be in poverty than those living in households in which all adults work. There are now 637,000 fewer children in workless households than in 2010—a 33% decrease. The number now stands at a record low.
The Government continue to take action to help families with the cost of living through the national living wage, through reducing the universal credit taper to 63%, through raising the income tax personal allowance, and through childcare support, which I have already spoken about.
Several colleagues raised the changes to be made in February. I will simply point out that the High Court has found the policy to be lawful. From the Government’s perspective, this is an issue of fairness, but I will reflect on all the discussions that we have had in this debate.
This has been a useful debate in which colleagues have had the chance to air their views. I hope that I have demonstrated that we are a Government who listen. We have introduced support for families in the system and, of course, we will continue to listen and reflect.
Alison Thewliss has the final word.
I thank all hon. Members who have come along today and contributed to the debate. The opposition to the policy is overwhelming; the fact that not one Tory MP could be bothered to turn up and defend it tells us all we need to know.
The Minister continues to be in denial about this indefensible policy, which takes no account of people’s circumstances, instead punishing them for circumstances that they can do nothing about. It is based not on the reality of people’s lives but on an entirely twisted perception that poor people should not have children and that women should be forced into having abortions rather than proceeding with healthy pregnancies.
There is overwhelming evidence of the harm that the policy will cause. Figures suggest that it will move the dial on child poverty from 33% to 42%. It has united people across all faiths and all women’s organisations around the country—a very unusual thing to achieve. It leaves people in a poverty trap; as has been outlined, a single mum with three kids would have to work a 45-hour week to make up the gap that the Government are leaving in her budget.
I plead with the Minister, as we have all done today. He has the option to halt the policy and prevent it from proceeding in February. I beg him to do so.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).