Church of England calls on government to suspend the two-child limit

By agency reporter
May 5, 2020

Around sixty thousand families forced to claim universal credit since mid-March because of COVID-19 will discover that they will not get the support their family needs because of the controversial 'two-child policy', a new report estimates.  

The policy restricts child allowances in universal credit (UC) and tax credits (worth up to £50 per week per child) to the first two children in a family, unless the children were born before April 2017, when the policy was introduced. 

The report entitled, No one knows what the future can hold from the Church of England and Child Poverty Action Group, says the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the injustice of the policy,which mostly (59 per cent) affects working families,since no parent could have planned their family size with foresight of the pandemic.  Yet tens of thousands more families who will have to claim universal credit – because of illness, income drops and job losses due to COVID-19 – will find there is no help in UC  for the costs of a child aged under three, if they are the third or subsequent child. These families will fall into deeper hardship unless the policy is suspended. The 60,000 new claimants likely to be affected by the policy join the estimated 230,000 families (860,000 children) who have already been affected since April 2017.

A survey of 974 families who were claiming UC or tax credits and were affected by the two-child limit, mostly before the Coronavirus outbreak, found widespread evidence of hardship.

The Government's rationale for the policy is that parents who receive social security support should make the same financial choices about having children as those supporting themselves solely through work. But the coronavirus has exposed the flaw in this simplistic view of family planning. Few parents, however responsible, can guarantee the financial security of their families for the next 18 years. While the current pandemic has demonstrated this acutely, it is just one example of unexpected life events experienced by families. Relationship breakdown, unemployment, and ill health can happen at any time and turn family life upside down. Families and their children should not be penalised for changes in circumstances that are beyond their control.

Every child should have the best start in life. And yet the two-child limit denies families the support they need from the social security system when they experience tough times, trapping children in poverty. It is right to support families when they need it most, says the report. Our government should lift the two-child limit and help all children to thrive.

The survey, which was largely carried out before the coronavirus lockdown, found:

Many of the families affected had come up against unexpected life events, including job loss: 

"Everything was okay up until the covid-19. We had our own business and were paying to look after our own family with no benefits. Now our income is zero, so it is hard to manage with four kids. Just so gutted that coronavirus has happened." (Couple, four children, North East)

Children who were born as a result of non-consensual conception or within an abusive relationship are meant to be exempt from the two-child limit. But the survey strongly suggests that the exception is not working as intended, with a number of worrying responses from survivors of domestic abuse who appear to be unaware of the exception and one who had tried unsuccessfully to apply for it:

"I had my children during an abusive relationship. I personally didn't want to have so many children but now they are here I love and care for them. I've since departed from my ex-partner. But financially I'm struggling and have been moved away from my support network and placed on universal credit."  (Single, four children, not working, South East)                                                                        

Financial impact on families:

Nearly all respondents (95 per cent) said that the two-child limit has affected their ability to pay for basic living costs, such as food and clothing (87 per cent), gas or electricity (71 per cent), rent or mortgage (48 per cent), travel costs (38 per cent) or childcare (30 per cent).

"I work 34.5 hours per week as a nurse working in an NHS trust. After bills I struggle to afford money for basic things like clothes on my children's back, affording rent and even food shopping. It's not like I don't want to work, I love my job and do not want to rely on benefits, I would just appreciate to have the child tax credit for my third child." (Single, three children, working part-time, London)

"After I pay my rent and bills, I am left with 85 pounds a month. I rely heavily on family and friends to support me. I was aware of the policy, but could not face an abortion even though I am separated from my ex-partner… I use a local food bank and cannot afford any luxuries such as bus travel, haircuts, furniture or clothes. Although my baby is just one week old, I am already looking for employment." (Single, three children, not working, South East)

Inability to make up the loss by working more:

"I work as a community nurse and had to work extra shifts to pay my bills and pay for food. I got exhausted, due to the amount of hours worked and have had to cut back." (Couple, four children, working full-time, West Midlands)

Impact on relationships. family life and mental health:

"We have even considered breaking up our family in the hope that if I take the younger three and my partner takes the older two that we will at least both get help for four out of the five children and maybe we can survive. But, breaking up a family and a solid relationship for survival is an awful heart-breaking prospect."  (Couple, five children, working full-time, South West)

"The two child limit means I struggle to afford to get my new baby to hospital for his appointments, I can't afford to heat my house, and ultimately myself and my partner have decided to separate in the new year because we are just getting more and more in debt trying to stay together as a family."  (Couple, three children, working full-time, South West)

Impact on children's  well-being and development:

"My toddler started walking and we can't even afford to get him shoes, so we have to stay indoors all the time… The kids have to refuse all birthday parties as we can't afford to take them or even buy a card for the child who invited them. My eldest child used to exceed and thrive in education and was part of the gifted and able programmes, but he has lost his enthusiasm… They are constantly worried we are losing our home and we are too, of course."  (Couple, five children, working full-time, South West)

"My partner works, but we are still scrabbling around every month, having to borrow from friends and family and even sell belongings. We go without food just to make sure the children have enough. It is having a serious impact on my mental health which in turn affects my children."  (Couple, three children, working full-time, South-East)                                                                                                                                                          

The Chief Executive of Child Poverty Action Group, Alison Garnham said: "As millions of families grapple with the deep financial impacts of COVID-19, the injustice of the two-child limit is being laid bare.  Sadly, many parents who could comfortably support a third or subsequent child before the pandemic will be shocked to find that as their financial security falls away because of the virus and they are forced to rely on social security, there is no support in universal credit for their third or subsequent child– born in better times – only for his or her older siblings.  That isn't right.  It is at odds with our shared belief that all children are equally entitled to support. 

"The rationale for the two-child limit was that parents' choices about family size should be based on their earnings, but the pandemic has exposed that reasoning as without foundation.  No parent can see into the future with certainty – no parent could have seen COVID-19  coming.  

 "The two-child limit is arbitrary and very damaging for children.  More than any other single policy, it is driving up child poverty in the UK – even before the effects of the pandemic, which will further increase hardship. 

"The government has been quick to respond so far but further steps are needed and this policy should be suspended immediately to prevent more families – many of whom never expected to claim social security – from falling into real hardship. The evidence that the policy damages children and family life is there in our survey findings.  The case for re-installing a safety net that can support every child – not just some – has never been clearer."

The Rt Rev Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham said: "Whilst acknowledging the significant decisions made to improve support through Universal Credit in the wake of the coronavirus, we must highlight that families affected by the two-child limit are among the worst affected by the economic fallout of this pandemic – denied support for their children when they need it most.  At a time like this, we understand more than ever that life is unpredictable, and that it is important to help one another through difficult times. The Government should lift the two-child limit and protect all children."

An estimated 230,000 families had been affected by the two-child limit by April 2020, and this will rise to more than 600,000 families by the end of this Parliament.

Child Poverty Action Group's research shows 300,000 more children will be pushed into poverty by 2023/24, as a direct result of the two-child limit and a further one million children, who are already living in poverty, will be pushed even deeper into poverty.

* Read No one knows what the future can hold : the impact of the two-child limit after three years here

* Church of England https://www.churchofengland.org/

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

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