Amber Rudd's so-called "u-turn" on the two child benefit cap isn't good enough

The policy treats children like consumer goods rather than human beings. It's time to end it

January 11, 2019
Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd giving a speech at Kennington Jobcentre, London. Photo: PA
Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd giving a speech at Kennington Jobcentre, London. Photo: PA
Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd giving a speech at Kennington Jobcentre, London. Photo: PA

“Well, I never asked to be born.” It’s a teenage protest that grates on parents precisely because it makes a fair point. One reason why we’ve got a moral obligation to make sure that others don’t have an unduly miserable life is that having a life in the first place is not a choice, but something we are saddled with.

The two-child cap on Universal Credit—on which Amber Rudd has today announced a partial retreat—ignores this reality. Rather than treat children as individual people with their own interests, it imagines them as a consumer choice made by their parents.

While many benefit cuts made since 2010 have been harsh, none of the others were quite so brutally arbitrary in principle as this one. The infamous “bedroom tax,” for example, at least had a defensible theoretical rationale: of freeing up scarce social homes for big families who need them.

The absolute cap on household benefits has been painful in pricey inner London, but at least—in theory—families could escape its bite by moving to other places where rents are cheaper. But a poor family deemed to have had “too many” children, and then punished for that, has no option but getting poorer.

Every scheme of poor relief since the Elizabethan poor law has paid regard to how many mouths a family has to feed. But like China’s abandoned one-child policy, this two-child policy sacrificed the welfare of individuals who happen to have been born into larger families to some presumptuous idea of the greater good. 

The moralising former welfare secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, was reported to be a particular enthusiast for a cut that was intended to jolt parents into behavioural change, and taking responsibility for the size of their brood.

Philosophically speaking, however, making a child poorer because of its number of siblings offends the against human rights approach so central to our democracy elsewhere. 

The need for a get-out clause for mothers who could demonstrate that third children were conceived non-consensually—the so-called ‘rape clause’—illustrates the grotesque place where social policy can end up when it ceases to be arranged around the needs of the child, and is instead designed around tests of parents’ sexual responsibilities. In practice, the policy gets even more divisive because it falls disproportionately on Bangladeshi and other migrant communities where average family sizes are larger.

Nobody who regards children the way this policy does can be serious about the equality of opportunity about which all mainstream politicians preach. But it has been left to unravel only after being snared on its own flaws, with little help from the established forces at Westminster.

The buck stops, of course, with the Conservative government. But this wheeze was part of the post-2015 election welfare cuts. Labour’s self-styled moderates ought to reflect on how space opened up for the oppositionist Corbyn after the party’s then-frontbench hedged its bets over those cuts. The Liberal Democrats were out of government by this time, but not so long before they were happy to trade harsher benefit sanctions for a plastic bag tax, contributing to a climate in which the right could get away with this.

Now, in a context where the introduction of universal credit has been somewhere between the creaking and the collapsing, Whitehall has obviously made the sensible judgment that overlaying huge reductions in entitlements—the foregone child element is £2,780 for every kid beyond the second—is not a risk it wants to run.

Intriguingly, though, in announcing her U-turn welfare secretary Rudd, who is known as a liberal, did not restrict herself to the practicalities but instead justified the move as “compassionate and fair.”

The casual listener may have concluded that the long days of making poor children pay for austerity were coming to an end. But the details of the retreat make clear that the mindset that hasn’t necessarily changed. 

Rudd is cancelling the cut for third and fourth children born before the policy began to bite, but not yet committing to do anything for those who come into the world after that date.

The only way you could justify this date-based distinction would be if you see the all-important test as being whether parents were expecting the reduced support at the time of their third or fourth child—if, in other words, public policy continues to regard the child as a choice of the parents, rather than a human being with legitimate interests of its own.

It is a retreat to be cheered. The real celebrations, however, will have to await the abandonment of the policy. Only then can we restore the traditional—and civilised—perspective of social policy: a perspective that starts with the idea that every child matters.