Government urged to increase child benefit if schools close

By agency reporter
March 17, 2020

Child Poverty Action Group is urging the Government to increase payments for children if schools close because of the coronavirus, to protect children in low-income families facing extra financial pressure and the loss of free school meals.   

Ideally the payments could be made through a £10 per week uplift in child benefit for the duration of the pandemic. Alternatively, the payments could be made through universal credit (UC) – if the two child limit in UC and the benefit cap were suspended.  

The charity is also calling for universal credit advances to be made non-repayable, so that low-income parents hit by virus-related hardship do not face an invidious choice of waiting five weeks for a first payment or beginning their UC claim with a debt.  

Child benefit has been subject to freezes and sub-inflationary uprating since 2011. Half the recommended £10 per week increase would simply bring the benefit back to its 2010 value. The charity says emergency support measures for struggling families should prioritise boosting incomes over handing out more food parcels.

The Chief Executive of Child poverty Action Group, Alison Garnham, said: “We are in very uncertain times and the impact of the COVID-19 coronavirus will place additional financial pressures on families who are already struggling to get by. Children's needs will not be any less and, if schools close, many struggling families will lose the benefit of free school meals for their children. Many families will already have made a claim for universal credit and be waiting for their first payment to come through. Struggle may quickly turn to real hardship for many.

“The policy solution should not be to turn to the voluntary sector to boost food distribution projects, or to create new ones. As well as the loss of their dignity, families being forced into food banks are likely to increase the risk of infection from COVID-19 and further its transmission in already vulnerable communities.

“Child Poverty Action Group is calling on the government to match the support it is providing to small business and boost the income of struggling families with children by increasing child benefit by £10 per week for the duration of the pandemic response. This is the best way to get money to families with children quickly as the infrastructure already exists and families will get the help they need directly to their bank accounts.” 

“This would cost £127 million per week, a substantial additional support package for the nation's children, but less that the £2 billion available for cash grants for small business. Meeting the needs of families is no less important.”

Child Benefit is currently £20.70 per week for an eldest child and £13.70 per week for subsequent children.  Child benefit was £20.30 per week (for the eldest child) in 2011 when the then Chancellor George Osborne announced a three-year freeze (which pre-dated a more general benefit freeze). In 2015 and 2016 Child Benefit was increased by one per cent (less than inflation).

 Since 2016 Child Benefit was frozen as part of a more general benefit freeze. If it had increased by inflation since 2011, it would have been worth £24.50 (CPI) or £26.20 (RPI) depending on the inflation measure used. Using RPI, a family with two children is £475 a year worse off because of sub-inflationary increases/freezes to Child Benefit (£324 using CPI)

If, rather than boosting Child Benefit, the Government chooses to increase payments for children through universal credit, it will be essential to suspend the two-child limit policy, which axed child allowances in tax credits and universal credit for third or subsequent children born after April 2017 – not least because families with three or more children already have an elevated risk of poverty.  The benefit cap, which limits the total amount of benefits a household can receive, would also have to be removed.

Example of Ireland: 

Ireland has introduced a 'COVID-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment' for all those who lose work due to the economic downturn caused by the virus. 

“The payment has a simple one–page application form and will be paid for a period of six weeks at a flat rate payment of €203 per week for jobseekers. It is designed to quickly deliver a social welfare payment to the unemployed and provide income security during this six-week period.

"Individuals applying for the payment will be required to apply for the normal jobseeker’s payments within this six-week period. Once this normal jobseeker claim is subsequently received, the department will process these claims and accommodate payments at that time. This will involve backdating increased payments for certain customers.”

Ireland has also introduced an 'Illness Benefit for COVID-19 absences' which is €305 per week for anyone advised by a Doctor (by telephone) to self-isolate or who has the virus.  An online claim form for this will be available by the end of March.

* More information on Ireland's COVID-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment here

* More inormation on Ireland's Illness Benefit for COVID-19 absences here

* Child Poverty Action Group https://cpag.org.uk/

[Ekk/6]

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