The scandal that isn’t: poverty and this election campaign

Labour’s manifesto shrinks from the one change Britain needs most—scrapping the two-child benefit limit

June 13, 2024
Image: PA Images / Alamy
Image: PA Images / Alamy

Take a moment to absorb a few facts concerning the condition of too many children in Britain. The official count of poor youngsters is now rising not only on the “relative” measure preferred by campaigners, but the “absolute” gauge which Rishi Sunak had previously reached for to suggest all was well.

The giant Destitution in the UK report, published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation last year, heads into soup kitchens, housing rights bureaus and other crisis centres, homing in on those unable to keep warm, dry, clean and fed. Its most recent release found a million children had had a brush with such penury over 12 months, a virtual tripling in five years. A million children are settling down at night without their own bed; 11 per cent of our teenagers are regularly skipping meals; and, more families with kids have recently been getting stuck in (reliably dreadful) temporary accommodation. ITV News trawled records since 2019, and identified conditions in such digs as a contributing factor in the deaths of 55 children—42 of them babies.

Until these problems—some of which got a useful airing at Thursday’s manifesto launch—are sorted out, Keir Starmer’s splendid avowed “mission” to shatter the “class ceiling” will be impossible to achieve. Kids forced to sleep on the floor or going without adequate food will never able to compete with their more fortunate peers. Still, amid the heat of an election campaign, Starmer’s “safety first” preference has been to avoid any costly specifics and take refuge in complexity, presenting child poverty as a sprawling mess of a problem that defies easy answers, something best tackled by somehow getting different parts of the state to co-ordinate better, once he’s safely in office.

In truth, the child poverty problem has been getting a lot simpler. The recent rise in the poverty rate is accounted for by larger families. While there are always many things going on, one policy stands out here like a discarded revolver next to a corpse: the two-child benefit limit, which flatly denies poor families any support through their main benefits for their third, fourth or (very rarely) fifth or sixth kid.

Dreamt up by former chancellor George Osborne, this “reform” is the most fundamental of all recent attacks on old ideals of social security, because it wilfully breaks a link embodied in social policies since the Elizabethan poor laws: namely, the connection between the support a family receives and the number of mouths it has to feed. It declines to regard children born with more than one sibling as people with their own needs and rights, and reimagines them instead as irresponsible consumer choices made by their parents. Even if thought of as a populist dash of collective punishment for “workshy” families, the policy is misdirected: someone is working in most of the households affected. Talk to social policy experts from elsewhere in the world, and they’ll ask you to describe it twice, struggling to believe it on first hearing. It is a moral disgrace.

The practical effect, often £60 or more a week for each “surplus” child, is just too large for families to absorb. Already, a stark connection to hunger is evident. The government’s own data records that large families were twice as likely as others to have turned to a foodbank over the past year. Focusing on more recent foodbank use, the Resolution Foundation thinktank reported an even bigger differential, as well as a more than doubling of the risks of food insecurity.

The limit is not only a very damaging policy, but an increasingly damaging one. Biting on children born after April 2017, it is set to cast ever-more children, ever-further up the age range, into extreme poverty as the next decade goes by.

Running for Labour leader, Starmer himself identified the two-child benefit cap as one fixable source of “social injustice in our country”. Unfortunately, last July he made the most brutal of his many U-turns, telling the BBC it was something “we’re not changing”. And while he has recently gone out of his way to make a far more expensive “as soon as resources allow” pledge for raising defence spending, when asked about axing the two-child limit on the Today programme last month he brushed off Mishal Hussain’s questions by saying “in an ideal world, of course, but we haven’t got the resources”.

Now we have his manifesto, which is silent on this very issue. It does talk vaguely about “reviewing Universal Credit so that it makes work pay and tackles poverty”. This gives campaigners something to cling to, as reviews can open doors, and any review would—if rationally run—inevitably expose the policy’s flaws. Some hope the refusal to commit to doing the right thing is part of some cunning plan for stakeholder management, whereby the resources to fix things will be found in office, giving supporters reason to keep the faith through the first couple of thorny years of a Labour government. Who knows? It hardly seems reasonable, however, to ask families on the edge and losing hope right now to wait for such a political scheme to play out, if it even exists. 

The last refuge for holding out against decency towards children is that it is “unaffordable”. But remember this: while the £3bn or so needed to end the limit remains taboo, over the past year Westminster has twice nodded through hugely expensive cuts to National Insurance rates worth most to people on decent pay—blowing a hole in the public finances that will soon tot up to £20bn a year. What ranks as affordable is always a decision, and a political one at that. 

Even the Liberal Democrats, co-authors of slightly less brutal austerity before 2015, now give an explicit commitment to remove the limit. Labour’s failure to match that drains its one-word campaign vow—“change”—of credibility to the very Britons who need change most. The party goes into this election choosing not to challenge a scheme designed to punish children simply for being born with too many siblings. Unless it rapidly changes course in office, the buck for the deepening scars on our society will soon stop with Starmer.

Tom Clark’s edited collection Broke: Fixing Britain’s Poverty Crisis (Biteback) is out in updated paperback on June 20