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Unintended consequences?

MaeveSherlock.jpgMaeve Sherlock on the carelessness running through the Tories new welfare policies

This week sees the House of Lords begin its Committee stage scrutiny of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill. With the likely impact of the proposed legislation yet to be uncovered, the first day (Monday) will focus on two issues: the ‘two child limit’ and child poverty strategies. 

First up is the disgraceful proposal to limit most tax credits and Universal Credit to the first two children in any family. The ways in which the Conservatives justify this policy seems to imply that poorer families have lots of kids that their hard working counterparts could not afford. The reality however, is that the latter make up almost two thirds of those currently entitled to these credits. Moreover, statistics show low income families are no more likely to have large families than the rich in our country.  And of course, if people only had children where they knew at the point of conception that they could support them for the next 18 years, who would ever do it? The best laid plans can be knocked aside by illness, bereavement or redundancy. 

The only exemptions Ministers are allowing to the proposals are for multiple births, as well as cases of rape.  Although to date, they have not been forthcoming on how a woman is meant to prove to the DWP that her pregnancy is as a result of such an attack. It really doesn’t bear thinking about. But what also about those fleeing domestic violence? 

What too about third children already alive and kicking who won’t be covered in some brand new Universal Credit claims? And then there are all of the unintended consequences, for example deterring the formation of stepfamilies or putting off kinship carers and adopters. One woman I spoke to last week had adopted three siblings and could only manage because tax credits helped top up her vicar husband’s low income.

This is a vicious policy that will increase child poverty – the second issue taking up much of the opening day of Committee, and something that is already 35% higher in larger families. Its real victims will be those kids who didn’t choose to be born as younger siblings into larger families but whose life chances will damaged because the Conservatives want to punish their parents.  And if parents stop having children, who is going to pay our pensions when we need them? Whose taxes will fund our NHS and social care in our ageing society?

With approximately 3.7 million children living in poverty in the UK, it is shocking to find that hidden in the detail of the Bill, is an attempt by the government to effectively repeal the 2010 Child Poverty Act introduced by Labour. In particular, they want to remove the duty on Ministers to set targets and draft strategies, and erase any mention of poverty. Instead, they want to re-brand the legislation, the policy area, and even the Social Mobility Commission to include the shiny new title of ‘life chances’. 

How exactly is the government choosing to measure this? By reporting on children living in workless households and their educational attainment – that’s how. All fine as far as it goes, but in effect declaring that poverty in future will have nothing to do with money, when there is loads of crucial evidence showing the lifelong harm caused to kids growing up in low income households.

Labour will therefore be pursuing and supporting amendments throughout the course of this Bill to ensure targets and strategies for tackling child poverty remain in place, and with accurate measurements. If Ministers accept anything less, they will find themselves unable to assemble an accurate picture of what is happening in our country and, perhaps wilfully, allow the suffering of children and their families to go unchecked.

Baroness Maeve Sherlock is Shadow DWP Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @MaeveSherlock

Published 6th April 2015

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