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The two-child benefit cap shames our country – it’s time to end it

Ending the cap would immediately lift some 250,000 children out of poverty. For Labour not to make ending it a policy is madness, argues CLAUDIA WEBBE MP

BRITAIN is a country shamed by the poverty of its children — and it’s a scandal that there is no urgent political will or interest in changing one of the main drivers of this catastrophe.

Some 4.2 million of our children are living in poverty — one in three of our kids — with almost three million of them in “deep” poverty, whose families earn less than half of the median income.

This number, in the midst of an induced cost-of-living emergency and soaring interest rates, is only going in one direction, yet there seems little parliamentary interest in stopping the rise.

The cruel two-child benefit cap is at the heart of this appalling situation — analysis by the LSE’s Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion suggests that rising child poverty has been driven almost entirely by increasing poverty among households with three or more children.

The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) agrees, pointing out that 400,000 families and 1.5 million children have been driven below the poverty line, or deeper into poverty, by the cap — and the Resolution Foundation notes that nearly half of families with three or more children are in poverty, up from a third in 2012.

This cap costs affected families on average almost £3,000 a year and in my constituency of Leicester East, child poverty was already endemic before this additional horror was imposed.

In 2020, long before the cost-of-living emergency, 42 per cent of Leicester East children were in poverty and more than half in some neighbourhoods.

Across the city, three out of 10 children live in poverty — and around 44,000 across Leicestershire. Of these, more than two-thirds face worse hardship because of this inhumane policy.

The government’s favourite mantra is that work lifts people out of poverty, but this is simply untrue — across the UK, 57 per cent of families affected by this cap have at least one parent in work.

In Leicester East, where low pay and exploitative employment are a major issue that I have been fighting for a long time, it’s even higher — two-thirds of families hit are in work.

In our broken system, work is no guarantee of escaping this intentional poverty trap.

The scale of the issue facing British families because of the benefit cap is huge: according to CPAG, the difference between the cost of raising a child and the level of support received by those families is more than £7,000 a year, an increase of £938 in 2022 compared to the year before.

This situation was worsened by the government’s decision to end the £20 uplift for universal credit claimants in the middle of the cost-of-living emergency — and the government’s temporary support during the crisis has also been shown to go proportionally less to families with more children.

CPAG’s research also discovered that 95 per cent of families had been unable to afford at least some essential basics because of the cap — a staggering 88 per cent had been unable to afford food or clothes, despite working every available hour.

And according to the Food Foundation, in September last year, more than a quarter of our children are in constant food insecurity — this was an increase of more than 50 per cent in just five months. The scale of the suffering caused by this conscious cruelty is appalling.

The consequences of that suffering are also enormous for children and their parents.

The Royal College of Paediatrics said last autumn that its members are frequently treating malnourished children — and that children in poverty are 72 per cent more likely to develop long-term illness, further entrenching the disadvantage that millions of children face through no fault of their own.

Likewise, the Marmot review found that the cold and unhealthy living conditions of poor children lead to lung damage, underdevelopment and psychological damage.

The consequences of this injustice are seen daily on the front line. The Institute of Health Visiting says that 84 per cent of front-line health visitors report an increase in the children they are seeing with speech, language and communication delay, damaging children’s life prospects educationally as well.

This harm continues beyond early years. A Survation poll by the Chefs in Schools charity found that more than eight out of 10 primary school teachers reported children coming to their class hungry, leaving children lacking energy, struggling to concentrate and learn, and prone to anxiety, stigma and disruptive behaviour.

In any nation, this situation would be a scandal. In one of the world’s “wealthiest” nations, it is unforgivable and criminal — it is going to get worse unless there is a fundamental change in British politics, so it’s deeply disappointing — and some would argue shameful — that Keir Starmer said, as recently as this week, that the Labour Party will definitely not end the cap, when in government.

The Resolution Foundation’s 2023 Living Standards Outlook notes that “child poverty in 2027-28 is forecast to be the highest since 1998-99, with 170,000 more children in poverty than in 2021-22 … child poverty for families with three or more children is set to hit 55 per cent in 2027-28, and 77 per cent of children in families with four or more children will be in poverty by 2027-28.”

The government’s policy is also inherently discriminatory against women and racialised groups. While 5 per cent of the families affected by the cap are headed by a male single parent, 40 per cent are run by a female lone parent.

High rates of poverty among black, African, Caribbean and Asian families — double the rate among white families — means that they are far more likely to be among benefit claimants hit by this cap.

Added to this, of course, is the brutal, demeaning and offensive requirement for women to prove rape if they need to claim for a third child.

Even leaving aside the inhumanity of this policy, it is economically counterproductive. While it would cost only around £1.3 billion to end the injustice of the cap, CPAG estimates that the cap costs the UK almost £40bn a year in lost revenues and consequential costs of the poverty it inflicts.

There is simply no justification for it, not even a cold-hearted penny-pinching one. The two-child benefit cap is intentionally cruel, devastating for children and their families and doesn’t even save money. The aim is to punish and control working-class families through increasing social and material losses.

Ending the cap would immediately lift some 250,000 children out of poverty. If the Tories are uninterested in helping them, for Labour not to make ending it a policy is madness: many of the worst-hit constituencies are in the former Labour seats in the Midlands and north of England that Labour needs to win back.

On average, 12 per cent of children living in those seats are suffering because of the cap, significantly higher than in other constituencies.

A commitment to ending the cap would also help Labour among racialised groups, where trust in Labour is at an all-time low. Compared to the least diverse communities, almost twice as many children in ethnically diverse communities are hit by the cap — again reflecting the inherent discrimination of the policy.

It is surely time — long past time — for this cruel and shameful cap to cease and for Britain to end its shame of the way it treats its children, its poor and its vulnerable. We must demand nothing less.

Claudia Webbe MP is the Member of Parliament for Leicester East.

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