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DWP: Support for Larger Families

Volume 817: debated on Tuesday 11 January 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the adequacy of support offered by the Department for Work and Pensions to larger families.

No assessment has been made as every household has different requirements. While there is no objective way of deciding what an adequate level of support should be, the department will spend more than £110 billion this year—4.8% of GDP—on working-age benefits. Additionally, the Government offer a wide range of support to families with children depending on their circumstances, including free school meals, childcare, Healthy Start vouchers and the household support fund.

I thank the Minister for her response. According to the benefit changes and large families research carried out by the Child Poverty Action Group with the Universities of York and Oxford and the LSE, the increase in child poverty since 2012-13 has been sharpest among families with three or more children at 47%, compared with 24% for families with one or two children. These families are deeply affected by the two-child limit. They have been severely affected by the £20 cut to universal credit last September and they are less able to increase their working hours due to childcare demands. What are the Government planning to do to address the levels of poverty among larger families while the cost of living is rising steeply?

The right reverend Prelate is always consistent in raising these important points. To start with, let me say that I quite understand, as do others, the issue of childcare. We must do what we can to try to improve opportunity and facility. The right reverend Prelate asked me what we plan to do. Let me say what we have done. We continue to take action to support living standards by increasing the national living wage and reducing the universal credit taper rate, which has more than compensated for the £20 uplift in UC. We also recognise that some people will need extra help this winter as the economy recovers, so we have made £500 million of funding available across the UK to help. Rather than read out a whole list of things that we have done, let me say that I am sure the Government are doing everything they can to help people in these circumstances.

My Lords, I am not so sure. The Government may not have made any assessment of the position of families, but let me give the Minister one assessment. The director of the IFS has said that the cost of living crisis we are facing right now could hit someone on average earnings harder than the financial crash of 2008. Taxes are rising, inflation is soaring and energy prices are going through the roof. Earnings and benefits simply cannot keep up. If the average worker is in trouble, what of larger families? The two-child limit caps what they get and they have already been hit by the £20 limit. They are in the position right now of having to decide whether to feed the meter or feed the kids. What are the Government going to do about that?

On the two-child policy, families can claim for up to two children and there may be further entitlement for other children if they were born before 6 April. There are also exceptions, but at the end of the day we are trying to make it possible for people who are working to make decisions about how many children they have over affordability. We have no intention of changing the Government’s two-child policy.

My particular concern is with those vulnerable households who are unable to work at all and therefore cannot benefit from the welcome improved take-up. What is my noble friend doing to help that group?

We recognise that some people may require extra support over the winter as we enter the final stages of recovery. That is why vulnerable households across the country will now be able to access the new £500 million support fund to help them with essentials. We have provided £670 million in 2021-22 for local authorities to support these people. We are investing over £200 million per year in holiday activities. We are increasing healthy-start vouchers. We are establishing a 60-day breathing period and, as I have said before, without reading out a long shopping list, I will say that we are doing a lot to help people.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Jones of Cheltenham, wishes to speak virtually, and I think this is a convenient point to call him.

My Lords, every child deserves decent food, shelter and care, and an equal opportunity for good education and healthcare, whatever the size of their family. Leading environmentalists, including Sir David Attenborough, say that the world’s greatest problem is an ever-increasing human population. Do the Government believe that vasectomies provide part of the answer and do they think that male sports stars, celebrities and politicians who have six, seven or eight children should have a vasectomy to set an example and help save the planet?

Now there is a question—a rather cutting one, if I may say so. It is very important that children have an equal opportunity to healthcare, to education and to opportunities to thrive. I assure the noble Lord and the House that we are doing all that we can—but we know we need to do more.

The Minister made an uncharacteristically harsh observation in her response to my noble friend Lady Sherlock when she said that the Government had no intention of changing. She has had put to her a number of ways in which the world has changed since this policy was developed. Does she really think that it is appropriate for the Government to take such an intransigent view at this point?

I am sorry if my response was harsh. That would never be my intention in this Chamber. However, I believe in being absolutely truthful and I am reporting that the Government at the moment will continue with the two-child policy. But, as ever, if people have other ideas and things they want to talk about, the door is open.

My Lords, not supporting children in the early stages of their lives will cause a ricochet through the years. We should take into account that fact. I also have to say that my snip came too late as I have five children.

We do seem to be sharing today, do we not? The noble Lord’s serious point is that unless we deal with things before they become a problem, we bank up problems for the future. That is why early intervention is critical, and why we are working with the Early Intervention Foundation on reducing parental conflicts so that young children can have a better start in life, and the family hubs network is coming in. However, I understand the noble Lord’s point and it is well made.

My Lords, the benefit cap level appears the same whether a couple or a single parent heads a household, yet two adults cost more than one. While there are more opportunities to avoid the cap by working if there are two adults, given strong evidence for the health and societal benefits of stable two-parent family structures, what measures are in place to ensure that the benefit cap does not create a couple penalty and discriminate against couple families and children?

My noble friend again makes a very good point. We understand that where children grow up with parents and healthy support, they do much better and they thrive. But the Government firmly believe that, where possible, it is in the best interests of children to be in working households, and the benefit cap provides a clear incentive to work. Household earnings of only £617 a month provide an exemption from the cap, and exemptions apply for the most vulnerable claimants who are receiving disability benefits or are entitled to carer benefits.

Following on from the Minister’s answer to the noble Lord, Lord Bird, in which she talked preventing problems, is she aware of the report in Community Care last week on research by academics from Huddersfield and Liverpool which found that, between 2015 and 2020, benefit cuts meant that 10,000 more children had been taken into care and an additional 22,000 children were placed on child protection plans? This disproportionately affected poorer boroughs. In light of levelling up and the desire for prevention, will the Minister look at this report, and are the Government counting the actual cost of these policies in terms of children in care?

I will certainly look at the report if the noble Baroness will send it to me. We have a grave sense of concern about children going into care and child protection, and I can assure her that we are looking at early intervention. I am very happy to speak to the noble Baroness outside the Chamber.