Children's Commissioner Maggie Atkinson has published a damning assessment of the impact of the Welfare Reform Bill (WRB) on children's rights in England.
As the WRB continues its report stage, following three significant defeats for the government in the House of Lords on 11 January 2012, Ms Atkinson welcomes the idea that a universal credit will help incentivise work and lift people out of poverty, but says that the WRB as presently constituted poses real risks to the rights of children.
The UK is party to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and Ms Atkinson notes that in December 2010 Children's Minister Sarah Teather promised that the government would give "due regard" to the convention when making new policy and legislation.
In the lights of this commitment, the Children's Commissioner for England says the that "the following risks are of real concern":
• An increase in child poverty as a result of the household benefit cap and housing benefit changes, resulting in poor health and educational outcomes for children
• The threat of a potential increase in household rent arrears due to reduced housing benefit payments
• Families living in poverty diverting money away from necessities for children's health and wellbeing such as heating, warm clothing, and nutritious food in order to cover their housing costs
• Children becoming homeless as a result of unaffordable housing for their families
• A disproportionate impact of some of the Bill's benefit changes on children from some BME groups, disabled children, and children of disabled parents
• Families having no crisis support in the event of flood, fire, or serious illness as a result of the Bill's abolition of the Social Fund.
Ms Atkinson adds: "We have identified groups of children whose rights may be breached by the implementation of the Bill. Children whose families receive welfare benefits are particularly vulnerable due to the high level of poverty amongst this group."
"Children have no power to take up incentives in the Bill to find work or move to cheaper accommodation in order to have more money to live on. Creating such incentives may have a serious impact on them as independent rights-holders," she concludes.
The Rt Rev John Packer, Anglican Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, a member of the House of Lords, is due to table an amendment to remove child benefit from the benefit cap.
The Lords, though unelected, are playing a "very significant role" in the WRB he says, showing were the Bill is "really damaging, for instance for those who are disabled, single mothers, and to say 'come on government, we can do better than this'."
The Welfare Reform Bill is now facing severe criticism across the political spectrum - with charities, the Trades Union Congress, MPs, public figures, the thinktank Ekklesia and many others calling for a pause in the legislative process to allow a significant rethink of welfare reform in the light of considered evidence and the views of vulnerable groups themselves.
* The report on DLA changes written by disabled people themselves, 'Responsible Reform' is being made available online at Ekklesia and elsewhere. See: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/responsiblereformDLA An easy-read version has been made available by United Response: http://bit.ly/xy0elw
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