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A Conservative policy that limits child benefit payments to the first two children in a family has disproportionately affected those living in the north of England and the Midlands.
Government data obtained under freedom of information by a coalition of children’s charities found that 14 per cent of children in the West Midlands and 13 per cent in the North West were made worse off by the limit, compared with just 8 per cent in the more affluent South East.
The charities said the benefit payments policy was deepening inequality and child poverty despite the government’s promises since 2019 to narrow regional economic inequality in the UK by “levelling up” poorer regions with London and the South East.
Lynn Perry, chief executive of children’s charity Barnardo’s, said the two-child limit was one of the “biggest drivers” of child poverty. “It’s simply not right that children growing up with two or more siblings are so much more likely to be living in poverty,” she said.
The policy to restrict child benefit payments was introduced in April 2017 to force families living on benefits to face the “same financial choices” as working families.
Joseph Howes, the chair of the End Child Poverty Coalition which comprises more than 100 organisations, charities, trade unions and faith groups, said the policy unfairly penalised children who were not responsible for their own births.
“Imagine saying to a child who turned up at school — sorry you can’t gain access, we won’t fund your education — only your two older siblings qualify. Or turning a child away from hospital when they need treatment, as they are the third child in a family,” he said.
The policy leaves families £3,235 a year worse off for each additional child above the limit, with 1.5mn children now living in households affected by the policy, according to analysis by the End Child Poverty Coalition.
The charities say the policy has failed to increase fairness for working families since more than half — or 58 per cent — of those affected have parents who are already in work.
Data from the Department for Work and Pensions shows that almost three-quarters of children in poverty live in a household with at least one working adult, compared with half two decades ago.
The two-children policy has also had very little impact on birth rates among families claiming child benefit, according to analysis by the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics, which found the two-children policy had cut the likelihood of additional births by just 5 per cent.
More than a third of children in the Midlands and the north of England live in poverty — defined as having less than 60 per cent of the median household income after housing costs — compared with a quarter in the south-east, according to Department of Work and Pensions data for 2021-22.
Of the 20 local authorities with the highest proportion of children affected by the two-child limit, 18 were in the north and the Midlands.
The children’s charities estimate that ending the restriction would lift 250,000 children out of poverty at a cost of £1.3bn, but both Conservatives and the opposition Labour party remain committed to the policy.
Rosie Gilchrist, a mother of three children aged 13, 10 and six from Hexham in Northumberland said the policy “cost” the family £65 a week, but the financial pain was spread across the entire family, reducing educational opportunities for her children.
“I can’t afford breakfast or after-school clubs, which are £5 a session and sometimes we can’t afford the WiFi. I don’t understand how it helps anyone taking away opportunities from children,” she said.
The Department for Work and Pensions said it was spending £900mn to remove barriers to work for low-income families, but had to be fair to those who didn’t see their incomes rise when they had more children.
“The two-child policy asks families on benefits to make the same financial decisions as families supporting themselves solely through work. Safeguards are in place to protect people in the most vulnerable circumstances,” a spokesperson added.
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