Thousands of families tipped on to universal credit by Covid-19 getting no support for infants – call to suspend two-child limit | CPAG

Thousands of families tipped on to universal credit by Covid-19 getting no support for infants – call to suspend two-child limit

Published on: 
05 May 2020

Survey of 974 families already affected by two-child limit in universal credit finds:

  • Families going without basics
  • Children's well-being and development compromised
  • Family stability, relationships and mental health jeopardised
  • Problems relating to exemptions for children born as a result of non-consensual conception or within an abusive relationship

Around sixty thousand families forced to claim universal credit since mid-March because of Covid-19 will discover that they will not get the support their family needs because of the controversial 'two-child policy' a new report estimates.*  

The policy restricts child allowances in universal credit (UC) and tax credits (worth up to £50 per week per child) to the first two children in a family, unless the children were born before April 2017, when the policy was introduced.

The report entitled "No one knows what the future can hold", from the Church of England and Child Poverty Action Group, says the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the injustice of the policy – which mostly (59%) affects working families – since no parent could have planned their family size with foresight of the pandemic. Yet tens of thousands more families who will have to claim universal credit – because of illness, income drops and job losses due to Covid-19 – will find there is no help in UC with the costs of a child aged under three, if they are the third or subsequent child. These families will fall into deeper hardship unless the policy is suspended. The 60,000 new claimants likely to be affected by the policy join the estimated 230,000 families (860,000 children) who have already been affected since April 2017.

A survey of 974 families who were claiming UC or tax credits and were affected by the two-child limit, mostly before the Coronavirus outbreak, found widespread evidence of hardship (see quotes below).    

The Government's rationale for the policy is that parents who receive social security support should make the same financial choices about having children as those supporting themselves solely through work. But the coronavirus has exposed the flaw in this simplistic view of family planning. Few parents, however responsible, can guarantee the financial security of their families for the next 18 years. While the current pandemic has demonstrated this acutely, it is just one example of unexpected life events experienced by families. Relationship breakdown, unemployment, and ill health can happen at any time and turn family life upside down. Families and their children should not be penalised for changes in circumstances that are beyond their control.

Every child should have the best start in life. And yet the two-child limit denies families the support they need from our social security system when they experience tough times, trapping children in poverty. It's right to support families when they need it most. Our government should lift the two-child limit and help all children to thrive.

The survey, which was largely carried out before the coronavirus lockdown, found:

Many of the families affected had come up against unexpected life events – including job loss: 
"Everything was okay up until the Covid-19. We had our own business and were paying to look after our own family with no benefits. Now our income is zero, so it is hard to manage with four kids. Just so gutted that coronavirus has happened." (Couple, 4 children, North East)

"I was in work when we decided to have our 3rd baby. Then my circumstances changed, and I lost my job through no fault of my own. We now cannot afford to live whilst I find a new job and we are in thousands of pounds of debt." Couple, 3 children, working full-time - partner, South West)

"Now lost my job and don't have my own money so had to go on [universal credit]. Now being punished for being a mother who has always worked who is going through a hard time, being made to choose between food or school shoes, food or electric, pack lunches for school or gas, nappies or sanitary products." (Single, 4 children, not working, North West)

"I was in work when I got pregnant with 4th child, but then got made redundant and the whole world came crashing down. We struggle to feed and clothe our children, uniforms are expensive - and as one of the children has special needs, the burden is even more." (Couple, 4 children, working full-time - partner, North West)

"My youngest son was born with severe allergies. I don't trust anyone else to look after him at the moment so can't go back to work until he's at least 2….I hate not working. I hate being so poor. I hate not being able to do anything with my kids. (Single, 3 children, not working, South West)

Children who were born as a result of non-consensual conception or within an abusive relationship are meant to be exempt from the two-child limit. But the survey strongly suggests that the exception is not working as intended, with a number of worrying responses from survivors of domestic abuse who appear to be unaware of the exception and one who had tried unsuccessfully to apply for it:

"I never thought I'd be in the position [of claiming benefits] when I had a third child. the two-child limit feels like it is punishment for leaving an abusive marriage." (Single, 3 children, working part-time, South East)

"I had my children during an abusive relationship. I personally didn't want to have so many children but now they are here I love and care for them. I've since departed from my ex-partner. But financially I'm struggling and have been moved away from my support network and placed on universal credit." (Single, 4 children, not working, South East)                                                                        

"I am terrified of leaving a controlling and verbally abusive husband as I won't be able to support the children without his wage, between the limit and the benefit cap I am stuck until the children are of school age and even then with no family support it is going to be difficult." (Couple, 5 children, working full-time, South West)

"I was in a relationship where I had no control over my pregnancy. I have applied for the exemption after being told by domestic abuse line that I could. My doctor was a new doctor because of moving to be away from the situation. She wrote a letter as a lot of the form we could not fill in. The DWP won't accept her letter." (Single, 4 children, working full-time, West Midlands)

Financial impact on families:

Nearly all respondents (95%) said that the two-child limit has affected their ability to pay for basic living costs, such as food and clothing (87%), gas or electric (71%), rent or mortgage (48%), travel costs (38%) or childcare (30%).

"I work 34.5 hours per week as a nurse working in an NHS trust. After bills I struggle to afford money for basic things like clothes on my children's back, affording rent and even food shopping. It's not like I don't want to work, I love my job and do not want to rely on benefits, I would just appreciate to have the child tax credit for my 3rd child." (Single, 3 children, working part-time, London)

"After I pay my rent and bills, I am left with 85 pounds a month. I rely heavily on family and friends to support me. I was aware of the policy, but could not face an abortion even though I am separated from my ex-partner… I use a local food bank and cannot afford any luxuries such as bus travel, haircuts, furniture or clothes. Although my baby is just one week old, I am already looking for employment." (Single, 3 children, not working, South East)

Inability to make up the loss by working more:

"I work as a community nurse and had to work extra shifts to pay my bills and pay for food. I got exhausted, due to the amount of hours worked and have had to cut back." (Couple, 4 children, working full-time, West Midlands)

Impact on relationships. family life and mental health:

"We have even considered breaking up our family in the hope that if I take the younger 3 and my partner takes the older 2 that we will at least both get help for 4 out of the 5 children and maybe we can survive. But, breaking up a family and a solid relationship for survival is an awful heart-breaking prospect." (Couple, 5 children, working full-time, South West)

"The two child limit means I struggle to afford to get my new baby to hospital for his appointments, I can't afford to heat my house, and ultimately myself and my partner have decided to separate in the new year because we are just getting more and more in debt trying to stay together as a family." (Couple, 3 children, working full-time, South West)

Impact on children's well-being and development: 

"My toddler started walking and we can't even afford to get him shoes, so we have to stay indoors all the time… The kids have to refuse all birthday parties as we can't afford to take them or even buy a card for the child who invited them. My eldest child used to exceed and thrive in education and was part of the gifted and able programs, but he has lost his enthusiasm… They are constantly worried we are losing our home and we are too, of course." (Couple, 5 children, working full-time, South West)

"The most heart breaking thing is knowing that I can't afford to put clothes on my children's backs and can hardly afford to keep them warm! I can't remember the last time we went on a family day out, because we simply can't afford it!" (Single, 3 children, not working, South West)

"My partner works, but we are still scrabbling around every month, having to borrow from friends and family and even sell belongings. We go without food just to make sure the children have enough. It is having a serious impact on my mental health which in turn affects my children." (Couple, 3 children, working full-time, South-East)          

Chief Executive of Child Poverty Action Group, Alison Garnham said:

"As millions of families grapple with the deep financial impacts of Covid-19, the injustice of the two-child limit is being laid bare. Sadly, many parents who could comfortably support a third or subsequent child before the pandemic will be shocked to find that as their financial security falls away because of the virus and they are forced to rely on social security, there is no support in universal credit for their third or subsequent child– born in better times – only for his or her older siblings. That isn't right. It is at odds with our shared belief that all children are equally entitled to support.

"The rationale for the two-child limit was that parents' choices about family size should be based on their earnings, but the pandemic has exposed that reasoning as without foundation. No parent can see into the future with certainty – no parent could have seen Covid-19 coming.

"The two-child limit is arbitrary and very damaging for children. More than any other single policy, it is driving up child poverty in the UK – even before the effects of the pandemic, which will further increase hardship.

"The government has been quick to respond so far but further steps are needed and this policy should be suspended immediately to prevent more families – many of whom never expected to claim social security – from falling into real hardship. The evidence that the policy damages children and family life is there in our survey findings. The case for re-installing a safety net that can support every child – not just some – has never been clearer."

The Rt Revd Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham said:

"Whilst acknowledging the significant decisions made to improve support through Universal Credit in the wake of the coronavirus, we must highlight that families affected by the two-child limit are among the worst affected by the economic fallout of this pandemic – denied support for their children when they need it most. At a time like this, we understand more than ever that life is unpredictable, and that it is important to help one another through difficult times. The Government should lift the two-child limit and protect all children."

An estimated 230,000 families had been affected by the two-child limit by April 2020, and this will rise to more than 600,000 families by the end of this Parliament.

Child Poverty Action Group's research shows 300,000 more children will be pushed into poverty by 2023/24, as a direct result of the two-child limit and a further one million children, who are already living in poverty, will be pushed even deeper into poverty.

Notes to Editors:

The report – "No one knows what the future can hold: the impact of the two-child limit after three years"– is here

The survey of 974 families affected by the two-child limit was carried out between February 2019 and April 2020, using the Entitledto benefits calculator to identify tax credit or universal credit claimants who had a third or subsequent child since April 6th 2017. Respondents were invited to complete a short online survey about the impact of the policy on their family. All the quotes in the report are from the 536 people who have responded to our survey since the publication of our last report, All Kids Count, in June 2019. In addition, we present evidence from various freedom of information requests, including constituency data on the number of families and children who are likely to be affected by the two-child limit (see Annex).

*On 21st April 2020, the DWP reported that it had received over 1.8 million new claims for universal credit in the first 6 weeks of the pandemic – almost five times higher – or 1.44 million more claims – than received over the same period last year. Based on the current profile of all claimants, we estimate that just over 4% of these claims – around 60,000 families - will be affected by the two-child limit (i.e. claimants with three or more children and at least one child under 3). Separately, a recent Turn2us survey estimated that 134,000 families who said they were planning to apply for universal credit as a result of coronavirus would be subject to the two-child limit if they make a claim.

Official statistics show that in the first two years of the policy, (ie to April 2019):

156,540 households had been affected by the two-child limit equivalent to 18 per cent of all households claiming tax credits or universal credit with three or more children.

6,680 households qualified for one of the exceptions, most commonly for multiple births (5,220). Only 510 households received an exemption for non-consensual conception.

The majority of those affected by the policy were working families (59 per cent), the majority were couples (61 per cent), and the majority had three children (58 per cent).

Media contact: Jane Ahrends at CPAG on 07816 909302