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Cap child benefit? There are better ways to cut the welfare bill

16 December 2013

2:38 PM

16 December 2013

2:38 PM

David Davis is plainly right that the Tories are just testing the water to see how talk about capping child benefit to two children for people on the dole goes down with the punters. And the predictable result is that the water isn’t really all that cold.  The suggestion has gone down nicely with quite a few, especially those – no offence folks! – who sound off on the internet. Any restrictions on welfare are popular; we know that. And it’s all too easy to think of examples of egregious fecundity on the part of people who we would probably prefer not to be parents at all: the child-killer Mick Philpott say, father of 17. As Iain Duncan Smith observes, most working families have to think hard about having children; ‘yet within the welfare system, it’s almost turned on its head, so additional children are actually recognised, with no limit.’ Yes, I can see lots of people will relate to that.

The talked-about cap would not, of course, prevent Mr Philpott and similar from begetting as many children as he likes. It would simply restrict child benefit for any future children to a maximum of two; it’s not yet clear whether the cap would apply to child tax credits. It wouldn’t apply to families getting benefit right now either. It’s not China. Still, I think the Tories should think harder and longer about this one.

For one thing, what a cap looks like is a steer from the state, not just about the desirability of paying for your own children, but about the ideal family size. We’re prepared to pay for two, it says, but not more. It looks like two is the approved size, as seen from Tory HQ, most of whose inmates can obviously afford more. And that’s the other obvious message: big families are the privilege of the well-to-do. Granted, for those actually in work this is already the case: there is no more effective contraceptive than the price of housing. (I do not, myself, know how we’re going to manage when it becomes positively improper for my two children – one boy, one girl – to share a room, because, God knows, I can’t afford to move. Perhaps we can shift to the sofa.) And that, Tories may say, is the whole point: if those in work have to think about the consequences of their childbearing for their circumstances, well, why shouldn’t the jobless? Here’s why: it looks like being anti-children. It looks like the party wants to penalise people for having excess children by only recognising two. If I were a third child, I should feel a little unloved.

I quite take the point that welfare spending has risen, is rising and must be diminished. But I’d caution the Tories against focussing their cost cutting on child benefit. By all means carry on putting a cap on the overall benefit that each household can attract, including housing benefit. That cap may mean that big families in particular have their welfare cut, but the cut isn’t specific; it doesn’t look like the Tories are out to get the children. It does, however, address the basic problem, which is that you can at present be better off on benefits than in a low paid job.

But there’s a further issue here, about whether we see children as an asset or a burden. I am a little tired of commentators lecturing the Japanese government about the desirability of immigration as a solution to the problem of an ageing, shrinking population – to sub-contract to others the pleasant business of having babies. The Japanese, you see, have been almost excessively provident in only having children they can afford. Here, immigration has indeed provided both a larger workforce and more children – immigrant communities tend to have bigger families – but for most families, the drift of government policy has been to encourage women to return to work as soon as possible after having children and to deter them in the first place from having them through the exorbitant cost of housing. Perhaps we should be worrying less about how many children the jobless have, and rather more about how hard it is for working families to afford them.

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