Published On: Fri, Jan 8th, 2021

With the economy crashing, the two-child benefit limit is crueller than ever

Seven Secretaries of State have come and gone at the Department for Work and Pensions since the two-child limit and associated rape clause appeared in the UK government’s budget in 2015.

Not one of them has felt it appropriate to annul or amend legislation that restricts entitlement to families, and in some cases, puts women at increased risk. That Tory ministers have continued to ignore calls from cross-party MPs, charities, religious organisations and women’s groups to do something about this pernicious policy tells a frightening story; that they will feebly submit to party dogma before giving consideration to the weakest and most vulnerable in our society.

For those unfamiliar with it, the two-child limit restricts financial support through tax credits and Universal Credit to the first two children in a family. Where a third or subsequent child is born on or after 6 April 2017, they are deemed ineligible for support.

Where a third or subsequent child is conceived as a result of rape, the Government ask that – in order to claim an exemption – the mother must disclose details of the assault and must not be living with the child’s father. Rightly so, charities and women’s rights groups have poured scorn on this approach, saying it risks retraumatising victims and stigmatising children.

The wafer-thin evidence base in which this wicked policy is grounded is slowly being chipped away thanks to the coordinated efforts of civil society. The Tory government have previously claimed the two-child limit was designed to level the playing field, and that families who receive benefits should have to make the same financial choices as those in employment.

The inconvenient truth for the Tories, however, is that DWP statistics have consistently shown that the majority of affected households are those where adults are in work. This anomaly was of course raised with Ministers, and it was emphasised that the policy was failing in its stated aims, but no action was taken.

Most recently, in the context of the pandemic and the resulting economic upheaval, analysis has shown that the two-child limit is playing a significant role in women’s decisions to terminate pregnancies.

The study, conducted by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) in December, included testimony from 240 women who had had abortions during the pandemic and who already had two or more children. Chillingly, the majority said that “the policy was important in their decision-making around whether or not to continue their pregnancy”.

Of course, the impacts of such a policy are not only financial. Indeed, BPAS’ research showed that many women felt great sadness or regret as a result of the circumstances in which they felt forced to end their pregnancy.

As the Church of England and representatives of Jewish families have repeatedly pointed out, many cannot make that choice, and face poverty as a result. A situation where policies devised by the state are fuelling this mental and emotional turmoil for women is completely indefensible. 

As has been said countless times by critics of the two-child limit, women and families cannot prepare for unforeseen circumstances. The policy is based on the notion that parents know all the financial challenges that may present themselves as their children grow up; a fanciful suggestion at the best of times but completely absurd and irrational in the context of the Coronavirus crisis.

What parent could reasonably predict that they would lose their job as a result of a pandemic, or be excluded from lifeline financial support by the UK Government? For many, these outcomes are completely out of their control. People have a right to expect that the state will go some way to protecting their livelihoods in their time of need. Social security should be a safety net, and far too many people are falling through it on the Tories’ watch.

The two-child limit has always been a cruel and malevolent policy that has no part in a modern, progressive society. In the context of Covid-19, the misery and trauma it inflicts on women and families across the UK is greatly amplified.

With new, more virulent strains appearing, and pressure on the NHS mounting, it is unlikely that we’re going to be out of this any time soon. It is incumbent on Ministers to recognise that this policy is making an already difficult situation much worse for many, and I will continue to make the case for it be repealed in full”. 

Alison Thewliss is the SNP MP for Glasgow Central and the party’s Treasury spokesperson

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