Two-child Benefit Cap

– in the Scottish Parliament am 5:36 pm ar 23 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol 5:36, 23 Ebrill 2024

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-12841, in the name of Clare Haughey, on the seventh anniversary of the two-child benefit cap.

The debate will be concluded without any question being put. I would be grateful if members who wish to participate could press their request-to-speak buttons.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament regrets to mark the seventh anniversary of the introduction by the UK Government of the twochild benefit cap, and the associated so-called rape clause; notes with alarm reports that over 87,000 children across Scotland are affected by the cap, including 3,610 in South Lanarkshire; further notes the work of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which reports that the poverty rate for children in families with three or more children was almost twice as high as the poverty rate for children in one- or two-child families in 2021-22, at 43% compared with 23% and 22% respectively, as a result of UK welfare policies such as the two-child benefit limit; highlights what it considers to be the contrast between the inhumane practices of the UK Government’s Department for Work and Pensions and the compassionate approach of the Scottish Government’s Social Security Scotland; understands that the Scottish Government has already spent more than £733 million over the last five financial years to mitigate UK Government welfare policies, despite what it sees as a remarkably challenging financial environment and the fiscal limitations of devolution; notes that the Scottish Child Payment and other devolved policies are forecast to keep up to 100,000 children in Scotland out of relative poverty in this financial year; further notes the view that Scotland should continue to build a social security system that is founded on dignity, fairness and respect, and notes the calls urging the UK Government to reverse the two-child benefit cap and what it regards as the other abhorrent and ineffective welfare reforms that have been implemented over more than a decade of austerity.

Photo of Clare Haughey Clare Haughey Scottish National Party 5:40, 23 Ebrill 2024

I thank all the MSPs who signed my motion, and I am very grateful to all those who are in the chamber for the debate.

This year, 2024, marks the seventh anniversary of the United Kingdom Government’s introduction of the callous two-child benefit cap and the associated rape clause. The policies were the brainchild of the former Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, who announced in 2015 that, as part of a series of harsh welfare cuts, the UK Government would limit child tax credit and universal credit to the first two children in most households. As a result, the majority of families with a third or subsequent child born after April 2017 have been ineligible for additional tax credit or universal credit for that child, and support provided to families who made a new claim for universal credit after that date has also been limited to two children.

The policy affects 1,420 households in South Lanarkshire, which is the local authority that serves my Rutherglen constituency. It means that younger siblings are missing out on the £62 per week that their older siblings receive from the state, which equates to a total loss of £3,200 a year per extra child for families in receipt of universal credit or legacy benefits.

Within the details of the two-child limit policy announcement, the Tories buried their cruel rape clause exemption. The UK Government announced that it would

“develop protections for women who have a third child as the result of rape”.

The word “protections” is hardly the one that I would use, given that the workaround is that women have been required to fill out an eight-page form in order to prove that they have been raped. Under the process, women need to show documents such as a criminal injuries compensation scheme award, or provide available evidence of a conviction for rape. What a heartless and horrific process. Year after year, that cruel policy has forced women to relive the trauma of sexual assault in order to claim the support that they, and their children, need in order to live.

A common argument from the UK Tory Government, in trying to sell its regressive welfare cuts, is that they are supposed to incentivise parents into work. However, a 2023 study from the London School of Economics and Political Science, found

“no evidence that capping child benefits increases employment.”

According to Save the Children, 60 per cent of families affected by the two-child limit

“have at least one adult in paid employment”,

and

“the remaining non-working households”

might

“include a parent with a disability or health issues, or a parent who acts as a full-time carer.”

The policy has plunged a rising number of children into poverty, placing them into a cycle of poverty that not only harms their experiences in childhood but impacts on their long-term opportunities and life chances. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation reports that, at 43 per cent, the poverty rate for children in families with three or more children was almost twice as high as the poverty rate for children in one-child or two-child families in 2021-22—which is 23 per cent and 22 per cent respectively—as a result of UK welfare policies such as the two-child benefit limit.

It is worth looking at the UK’s two-child limit policy in an international context, too. Research from the London School of Economics shows that only three European Union countries—Cyprus, Romania and Spain—restrict their benefits by family size, but they do so at three or four children. Indeed, in many countries, benefits actually increase with family size.

In the UK, the two-child cap affects 1.5 million children, or one in 10, with more than 87,000 children impacted in Scotland, and it has been estimated that

“under a fully rolled out two-child limit ... 590,000 more children would be in relative poverty than if the two-child limit did not exist.”

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Ceidwadwyr

Would the member recognise that the majority of Scottish people, as the latest surveys show, actually welcome the benefit cap and support the UK Government with regard to that particular policy?

Photo of Clare Haughey Clare Haughey Scottish National Party

I absolutely would not recognise that. In fact, the majority of people condemn the callous welfare cuts and the austerity agenda that your party supports and promotes.

In contrast, the Scottish National Party Government is doing everything that it can to prevent families in Scotland from falling into poverty. The Scottish Government has spent more than £1 billion on protecting Scottish households from the impacts of 13 years of Tory austerity and policies. That spend, including the Scottish child payment, has helped lift 100,000 children out of poverty in Scotland. Without the full powers of independence, however, our work on tackling child poverty is hampered by the actions of Westminster.

The Child Poverty Action Group argues that

“Abolishing the two-child limit is the most cost-effective way of reducing child poverty—it would lift 250,000 children out of poverty, and a further 850,000 children would be in less deep poverty at a”

relatively modest

“cost of just £1.3 billion.”

Staggeringly, the Prime Minister revealed at the weekend that, purely for ideological reasons, he will keep the two-child benefit cap if the Conservatives win the next election. That has nothing do with cost; rather, making kids poor appears to be Sunak’s political priority, and he evidently does not care about the long-term costs of keeping the cap in place.

Thankfully, this heartless Tory Government looks unlikely to win the next general election, but we cannot pin our hopes on Labour either. If Labour is serious about tackling child poverty and breaking down barriers to opportunity, abolishing the two-child limit should be one of the first things that it does when it gets the keys to number 10. The Resolution Foundation estimates that by the end of the decade, the benefit cap and the two-child limit are due to drive the majority of large families into poverty, yet Labour has, time and again, failed to commit to scrapping the limit if it gets into office.

I have a question for the Labour MSPs sitting in the chamber today—all three of them. Isn’t that marvellous? As the party of the working people, do you really believe that it is acceptable for children across Scotland to suffer, simply because of the number of siblings they have? We know that the Tories thrive on monstering people who are in receipt of benefits, but it is shocking that Labour is taking the same line.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol

Speak through the chair, please, Ms Haughey.

I call Paul O’Kane.

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Llafur

We have debated the benefit cap in the chamber a number of times, and we have been very clear in our opposition to it. However, would the member not agree that the entire universal credit system must be fundamentally looked at and reformed to ensure that all parts of it can better serve those who need it?

Photo of Clare Haughey Clare Haughey Scottish National Party

I agree that the benefits system needs to be looked at. However, I have not seen anything from Labour to say that it is going to scrap the two-child policy. I ask the member to point me to where Keir Starmer has that written down. Then again, would I believe him? He has flip-flopped on so many policies and promises since he got a sniff of getting into number 10 Downing Street.

Notwithstanding the moral arguments for abolishing the cap, it would send a strong signal that we are moving on from austerity and welfare cuts, which have torn the heart out of communities across the UK. I suspect that the reason that Labour does not want to do that is because it has already signed up to the same fiscal rules, and many of the same policies, as the Tories.

I will end on a quote from Becca Lyon, who is the head of child poverty at Save the Children UK. She said:

“This policy is one of the cruellest welfare rules of the past decade. Right now 1.5 million children—one in every ten children growing up in the UK—is affected by it and misses out on £62 a week. This can mean less money for food, children’s clothes, toys and books, and being able to travel to nearby activities and experiences … Scrapping it should be a priority for the current or any future UK government.”

I could not agree more.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Ceidwadwyr 5:49, 23 Ebrill 2024

It is of the utmost importance that we, in the chamber, tell the truth. It is incumbent on us, as lawmakers, to ensure that we are being honest with the electorate, and that we do not simply tell them what we think that they want to hear. We should not be engaging in the primary-school politics of promising the world, when we know that it is undeliverable.

In that light, I will lay out what I think are some of the reasons why the two-child cap is necessary. From the outset, I ask colleagues in the chamber to understand that support for the two-child cap is not a result of a disregard or dislike—or denial—of the most vulnerable in our society. Too often, we hear those charges levelled at well-meaning people who are trying to do what they think is best. That does nothing for the standard of discourse, and it encourages the polarised political landscape that is playing out.

Governments have to do their best to distribute their resources fairly, and that is what the UK Government is doing. The Scottish Government, and the Scottish Greens, seem to be in denial when it comes to the evidence. However, a YouGov poll from last year showed that 53 per cent of people in Scotland wanted the cap to remain in place. The majority of Scottish people, when asked about it, endorsed the responsible path that is being taken, but that is not what we are hearing today from other members.

When it comes to Government, there are tough choices to be made. There is only so much money that can be spent, and Government has to do what it can with the resources that are available. If, as Clare Haughey has suggested, the cap were to be lifted, the UK Government would have to find well over £1 billion to fund that change, and that would have to be raised either through taxes or through cuts to other services.

Photo of Clare Haughey Clare Haughey Scottish National Party

Given the impact of the benefit cap on children, including on their development and their future prospects, does the member not think that that amount of money would be an investment? He should look at some of the waste over which Westminster has presided; we have had high speed 2, the personal protective equipment scandal and all sorts of other things. If Westminster wanted to support those children, it could find the money.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol

Interventions could be a bit briefer. I will give you the time back, Mr Balfour.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Ceidwadwyr

I am not ignoring the member by not addressing her intervention immediately—I will come to it at the end of my speech, if that is okay.

There are those who would want to fund the abolition of the cap through deficit spending. However, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the world has seen the effect of high levels of borrowing on the economy. I am afraid that it is not enough simply to call for the removal of the cap; those who oppose it need to come up with a viable solution to replace it.

It is worth noting—and I come back to the intervention that we have just heard from Clare Haughey—that if the SNP really believes that there is an alternative, or that the policy should be changed, it could fund that tomorrow if it wanted to do so—[ Interruption .] Nothing is stopping the Scottish Government from scrapping—and nothing is preventing the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice from standing up tonight and saying that it will scrap—the limit in Scotland—[ Interruption .]

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol

Mr Balfour, resume your seat, please.

Listen—we have listened to members with respect since the start of the debate. We are now hearing too many interventions from a sedentary position. Mr Balfour has taken interventions; I am assuming that other members will do likewise, and members should, therefore, desist from making sedentary interventions.

Mr Balfour, you can begin to bring your remarks to a close.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Ceidwadwyr

The Scottish Government would have to find funds from another portfolio. If it is going to do so, I would be interested to know which portfolio Clare Haughey would want to see cut. All that I am asking the Scottish Government to do is what Clare Haughey is asking the UK Government to do: find the money from another budget and put it in. I would much rather that the Scottish Government were honest, and that it either brings forward that money or stops telling people that it is against something that it could change tonight.

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Llafur 5:55, 23 Ebrill 2024

I am pleased to contribute to this evening’s debate. Clare Haughey’s motion provides Parliament with an opportunity to look back at social security across the UK, including here in Scotland, over the seven-year period. We know that those seven years have been part of a longer period—14 years—of a Conservative Government at UK level that has failed to support people who need the social security system most, failed to tackle poverty and wreaked economic chaos on families and the household incomes of people across this country.

We have had a decade or more of so-called reform through universal credit, but it is clear that it is not working. We have 400,000 more children in poverty now than there were in 2010, when the previous Labour Government left office. As we have heard, most people who are in poverty today are in work, and two thirds of children who are in poverty live in a household with someone who goes out to work. It is clear that, in regard to both the social security safety net and work in this country, the system is not working.

Reform has been debated here tonight, including reform of the two-child limit, which is a pernicious policy. I have outlined my opposition to it in the many debates that we have had—I think that this is the fourth debate in the chamber on the issue, including one that was in Government time.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Ceidwadwyr

Will Mr O’Kane tell me where the UK Government would find the extra £1 billion to pay for scrapping the two-child limit? What other budget would his UK colleagues cut?

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Llafur

Mr Balfour has heard me say before that the entire system is not working. That is why we must take a whole-system approach and look at all the facets and measures of universal credit. We will not take advice from a Tory Government that has, as I have outlined, pushed more and more people into poverty and has not focused on ensuring that the safety net is there for people who need it.

We need to fundamentally reform all aspects of universal credit and have an overarching UK Government anti-poverty strategy, which has been seriously lacking from the Conservative Party over both the seven years and the 14 years that the Conservatives have been in government. Given what I said about in-work poverty, it is clear that we need to reform work across the UK to ensure that we lift people’s wages, put money in people’s pockets and put an end to insecure work.

What a contrast the past 14 years have been for the 1 million children, including 200,000 children in Scotland alone, and the 1 million pensioners who were lifted out of poverty by the previous Labour Government. That will be our focus if we form the next UK Government, through a new deal for working people and fundamental reforms of the social contract.

The motion reflects on what has happened in the past seven years under this Parliament, including the advent of Social Security Scotland. The cabinet secretary and I have often tried to find consensus in many such areas—I know that she is keen to do so. For example, Labour members have supported the Scottish child payment, and I think that support for it will continue as we move forward.

However, the Government and the SNP must reflect on what is not working so well in the system. We talk about a system that is rooted in fairness, dignity and respect, and we hear assertions that those concepts are inherent in the system. However, there are serious challenges with waiting times for benefits such as the Scottish child disability payment—just in the past week, we heard that, sadly and tragically, nine children died while waiting for payment of that benefit. I therefore do not think that it is fair to say that the system in Scotland is perfect or is always rooted in dignity, fairness and respect. There is much more to do to move that forward.

It is clear that there is a huge amount of work to do to rectify the legacy that the Conservatives will leave behind when—I hope—they leave office not too far in the future. There are huge challenges with the social contract, which will have to be rebuilt from the ground up. Crucially, for people who experience in-work poverty, we need to have a new deal for working people that supports them, puts money in their pockets and ensures that they are in safe and secure work and that they can bring in the money that they need to support their family.

Photo of Collette Stevenson Collette Stevenson Scottish National Party 6:00, 23 Ebrill 2024

I am grateful to Clare Haughey for securing the debate. It is seven years since the introduction of the cruel two-child limit—a policy that was driven by Westminster’s austerity agenda and was designed to put children into poverty. The policy’s most toxic part is the rape clause, whereby women with more than two children must prove to the UK Government that they got pregnant after being raped if they are to be entitled to the payment. In Scotland last year, more than 2,500 women had to relive the trauma of sexual assault or coercive control just to put food on the table.

It will not surprise many people that the Tories champion such a policy. However, a vote for Labour is also a vote for the two-child limit, because Scottish Labour politicians are happy to support whatever their Westminster leader, Sir Keir Starmer, says. It seems that MSPs have been whipped into line—it says a lot that not one Labour MSP supported today’s motion for debate.

As Clare Haughey said, more than 87,000 children in Scotland are affected by the two-child limit.

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Llafur

I hear what the member says about the support or otherwise for the motion, but will she recognise the concern about Social Security Scotland, the challenges around waiting times and the issues around fairness, dignity and respect—the motion refers to that—as I outlined in my contribution?

Photo of Collette Stevenson Collette Stevenson Scottish National Party

The member said that it is a pernicious policy. Can you not stand up and say that you would scrap it, if you were in number 10?

Photo of Collette Stevenson Collette Stevenson Scottish National Party

As Clare Haughey said, more than 87,000 children in Scotland are affected by the two-child limit. Recent data from the End Child Poverty coalition shows that that includes about 1,500 children in the Westminster constituency of East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow.

Scrapping the two-child limit could lift 20,000 children in Scotland out of poverty. If the policy were scrapped, the benefit to each of the children who are living in poverty would be just over £3,000 per year.

In comparison, Westminster politicians are entitled to claim extra expenses that are worth up to £6,120 per child per year for three children. Research suggests that dozens of Labour and Tory MPs benefit from that. Politics is about choices, and the choices of Labour and Tory politicians are beyond hypocrisy—they are shameful.

Let us consider the choices that the SNP Government has made. Only about 15 per cent of social security responsibility is devolved to Scotland, and many vital payments are still controlled by Westminster. With those limited powers over social security, the Scottish Government is delivering 14 benefits, seven of which are unique to Scotland. That includes the game-changing Scottish child payment, which is worth £26.70 per eligible child per week. That offers real help to thousands of families who are struggling during the cost of living crisis, and it lifts kids out of poverty without any discriminatory two-child cap or toxic rape clause. Inclusion Scotland has declared that the Scottish child payment has created

“the largest fall in child poverty anywhere in Europe for at least 40 years”.

Overall, modelling suggests that Scottish Government policies will keep 100,000 children out of poverty this year. It is worth repeating that our Government has achieved that with one hand tied behind its back. Let us imagine what we could do with the full powers of independence.

Policies such as the two-child limit clearly show how out of touch Westminster is. A vote for Labour or the Tories at the next UK election is a vote to keep the rape clause but to have no cap on bankers’ bonuses.

Photo of Collette Stevenson Collette Stevenson Scottish National Party

While Westminster demonises the most vulnerable in our society, the SNP Government will do everything that it can to tackle poverty.

Photo of Carol Mochan Carol Mochan Llafur 6:05, 23 Ebrill 2024

I agree that we must reverse the two-child benefit cap; indeed, I am on record as supporting that position. The policy has, quite clearly, led to misery and distress for many families, and it strikes me as exactly the kind of cruel policy designed to grab tabloid headlines that has become the Conservative Government’s trademark. My view is now on the record again.

Our welfare system should not be designed to discourage families and victimise children before they even have a foothold in life. The entire purpose of the welfare state was to create a safety net from the cradle to the grave, but that concept has been continuously degraded year after year, while the wealthiest in our society have amassed yet more wealth.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Ceidwadwyr

If, as Mr O’Kane has said, you are going to review the whole universal credit system, how long will that take? Where will you find the £1 billion to pay for getting rid of the two-child cap? Can you help me out, please?

Photo of Carol Mochan Carol Mochan Llafur

I am extremely happy to help out Jeremy Balfour. This will be an investment in our young people, which, in turn, will be an investment in our society, and there is clear evidence that what we gain from doing that will be far more than the cost will ever be.

The wealthiest in our society seem to gain the most, currently. A country that operates in that way only further ingrains inequality, and the consequences of that—Jeremy Balfour might want to listen to this—will be felt for generations to come and cost the country for generations. I do not want that to happen, and I believe that most members in the chamber do not want that, either.

Surely the fact that we are still talking about austerity in 2024—a full 14 years after that short-sighted economic strategy began—says a lot about the clear fact that it simply does not work. As I have said, I am sure that the vast majority of us in the Parliament—certainly Labour members—agree that we do not want policies that reflect inequality in our society.

The motion mentions devolution, as my colleague Paul O’Kane has said. More devolution is, of course, welcome, but we must use the powers that we have in a timely manner, and it is the responsibility of Opposition parties to hold the Government to account on its record.

We recently learned, following freedom of information requests from my colleague Paul O’Kane, that 116 people in Scotland died while waiting for their adult disability payment to be approved. Some of the same problems are associated with the callous disinterest of the Department for Work and Pensions system. We should all stand up and say that that is absolutely unacceptable. I am sure that Government members will agree that the whole point of retrieving such powers was to counteract that flawed approach, so we must all be vigilant in ensuring that we raise any issues that come to us.

We must do better with all our legislative powers and strive to maintain respect for social security. Without that, it does not take much for opportunistic politicians across the different Parliaments to come in and degrade the entire system. That has been happening throughout my entire adult life, and we should not imagine that we are any less prone to it in Scotland.

I will play my role in pushing any new Labour Government to invest in our social security system. My front-bench colleague mentioned many ways in which we will do that through a whole-system approach and by using the new deal for workers to maximise what we can do for working people in Scotland and across the rest of the UK.

Labour has a very strong record of lifting people, including children, out of poverty, and I have every confidence that it will do so again. I have always played my part in shaping the Labour movement, and I will continue to do so.

I say again that we must all work together where we can to ensure that we fight inequality. When we see austerity—

Photo of Carol Mochan Carol Mochan Llafur

—we must ensure that we work together to change it.

Photo of Jackie Dunbar Jackie Dunbar Scottish National Party 6:10, 23 Ebrill 2024

I congratulate my friend and colleague Clare Haughey on securing this important debate.

As the motion regretfully notes, this month marks the seventh anniversary of the introduction of the two-child cap. That cruel policy means that families miss out on around £3,200 a year due to the loss of universal credit or child tax credit. That is £3,200 for every child that they have after their first two.

That policy could not be further from my values or from those of many folk across Scotland. I believe that children should be given the best possible start in life. In Scotland, and with an SNP Scottish Government, we are investing in that best possible start, in our future and in our young people through a wide range of measures. We are doing that with the baby box, by delivering 1,140 hours a year of free childcare and through the game-changing Scottish child payment.

We can compare and contrast that with the UK Government’s two-child cap, a policy that directly targets children, based simply on how many siblings they have. That policy includes the rape clause, which forces women to prove that they were raped and is one of the cruellest policies to have been introduced by the Tories during their time in Government. An email that I received this morning from the Scottish Association of Social Work said that its members

“witness day-in and day-out the hardship and poverty caused by this inhumane piece of legislation. It hits the most vulnerable children and families the hardest and fails to recognise the fact that all children, whatever their placement is in their sibling group, are citizens with human rights to the basics of decent living. It impacts most on women (still usually the primary or only carer) both financially but also because the impossible and pernicious decision to label a child the result of rape falls to them.”

As far as I am concerned, the child cap should have no place in a modern democracy and I look forward to its being scrapped at the earliest possible opportunity.

Just last June, the then shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, described the two-child cap as “heinous” as he unveiled Labour’s plans to scrap it. A little over a month later, UK Labour decided that it would keep the cap after all and, two months after that, scrapped Jonathan Ashworth instead, in a reshuffle.

This is not about a lack of money, but a lack of principles. Just a couple of weeks ago, in an exclusive piece for the Daily Mail , Sir Keir Starmer pledged to increase the defence budget by billions of pounds. There always seems to be money for bombs—whatever shade of UK Government we have, they will always prioritise bombs over bairns. That is the answer to Jeremy Balfour’s question about where we could get the money from.

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Llafur

In the interests of ensuring the accuracy of the record, the UK Labour Party was talking about a plan to uprate defence spending, not to introduce a 2.5 per cent increase in defence spending right away. In the interests of accuracy, it would be useful to reflect on that.

Photo of Jackie Dunbar Jackie Dunbar Scottish National Party

That money could still be spent on ensuring that our children are fed every single night.

It is a tragedy that the two-child cap has remained in place for seven years. There are about 24,000 such tragedies across Scotland, because that is the number of households—including 730 across Aberdeen—that are currently affected by the policy. According to an End Child Poverty report last year, 2,600 children in the Aberdeen City Council area live in households that are affected by the two-child cap, while, across Scotland, the policy affects more than 87,000 children. The UK Government is failing more than 87,000 children in every corner of Scotland and it will continue to fail them for as long as this barbaric policy remains in place.

Photo of Maggie Chapman Maggie Chapman Green 6:15, 23 Ebrill 2024

It is the seventh birthday of the two-child cap. Should we have a party, with balloons, games and wee slices of sponge cake wrapped in a paper napkin? Maybe not. For the 400,000 UK families who are being bludgeoned by the two-child cap, including nearly 500 in Dundee West alone, there is not much money for parties. Indeed, there is not much money for anything.

A report published just last week by Nesta, the innovation agency, found that parents who are affected by the cap are struggling to afford necessities for their children. Many are being forced into desperate debt, and many are skipping meals and selling their belongings. Taking their children to other children’s parties—never mind having their own—is one of the luxuries that they cannot afford, along with books, educational toys and school trips. Parents described the stress, guilt and demoralisation that they feel. They are often trapped in low-paid and insecure jobs—we must remember that 59 per cent of affected households are in work—because they cannot afford the childcare that would help them earn more.

We have known that for a long time, of course. The Tory UK Government knew from the beginning that that would be the outcome. It went ahead anyway, veiling its war on the poor with pious talk of unavoidable austerity. That was never true—not then, not now.

Six months ago, we debated the issue here, not long after Keir Starmer had declared:

“We’re not changing that policy.”

Paul O’Kane has reassured us this afternoon that that is not Scottish Labour’s position, which is good to hear. However, it was chilling to hear Sir Keir, in conversation with Tony Blair, doubling down on his intransigence by comparing the lifting of the two-child cap to Liz Truss’s calamitous speculation. If he does not understand how distasteful and how downright demeaning that is, I do not know what can reach him.

I do not know what can reach the Tories either. New evidence from the End Child Poverty coalition shows that a quarter of households that are caught by the limit are single-parent families with a child under three. Those are parents that even the UK Government’s universal credit rules recognise should not be obliged to find employment. Further, a fifth of the households affected have at least one disabled child.

I have to ask the Conservative representatives: is that really what they want? Do they really think that parents of disabled children, babies and toddlers are to blame for experiencing hard times, perhaps as a result of bereavement, separation or redundancy or due to the excruciating effects of inflation, mortgage or rent increases and the cost of the heating and the food that keep those children alive?

If they do think that those parents should be punished, do they really believe that punishment should be borne by the children? After all, that is what the policy means: collective punishment. We are seeing the punishment of babies, toddlers and disabled children for sins that are not even those of their parents but of successive Tory Governments. Those Governments have no shame, no compunction and no conscience about using the poverty, ill health and misery that they have created to scapegoat those who bear the heaviest burdens.

I am tired. Like many of us, including Clare Haughey, whom I thank for securing this evening’s debate, I am sick and tired of standing here, begging those who can influence this obscene policy to do so. However, I am not as sick and tired as the mothers who go without meals so that their children can eat. I am not as tired as the parents who work multiple jobs, come home to care for their families and still cannot afford to buy them a picture book. They are not giving up, so neither will we.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol

I am aware of the number of members who still want to participate in the debate, so I am minded to take a motion without notice under rule 8.14.3 to extend the debate by up to 30 minutes. I invite Clare Haughey to move the motion.

Motion moved,

That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.—[Clare Haughey]

Motion agreed to.

Photo of Marie McNair Marie McNair Scottish National Party 6:19, 23 Ebrill 2024

I thank Clare Haughey for bringing this incredibly important debate to the chamber.

It is appalling that Westminster has given us seven years of the disgusting two-child policy. The policy, with its abhorrent rape clause, is one of the cruellest welfare policies to emerge from Westminster. It is designed to set families up to fail and to deny children the most basic levels of subsistence. In April 2023, the two-child limit affected 55 per cent of the 772,000 families with three or more children who were claiming universal credit or child tax credit. That is a staggering figure.

In addition to its being an inhumane and cruel policy, it simply has not worked. Its introduction would—it was trailed—provide incentives for people to find more work and would influence their decisions about having children, but it has failed miserably. A three-year study by the London School of Economics and Political Science found that the policy had had no impact at all on employment rates or on work hours.

Interviews that were carried out as part of that study show—perhaps unsurprisingly—that families’ labour market participation is constrained for a number of reasons. One significant reason is to do with access to childcare.

The policy has also had a minimal impact on birth rates. For many families who were interviewed, times had been good when they had an additional child, so the level of benefits was not part of the equation. There are so many people who forget that we are all just one life event away from relying on benefits.

The only thing that the policy has achieved is that it has drastically increased child poverty rates. Nearly half of UK children with two or more siblings now live in poverty, and it is projected that that number will rise sharply in the coming years. Analysis by the Resolution Foundation estimates that, in 2024-25, the lowest-income households will be an average of £1,000 a year worse off as a result of the limit. That is equivalent to 4 per cent of their overall income.

In the past seven years, the only significant shift that we have seen in relation to the policy has been in the Labour Party’s position on it. The party that said in 2019 that it would scrap the policy would now keep the cap and the rape clause. That is just one of several U-turns but, in my opinion, it is the most dangerous one. Should the Labour Party win the next general election, it would keep children in poverty.

As a result of the UK Government’s reckless policy, the Scottish Government spends a large proportion of its budget on protecting the Scottish people. I am proud that we have a Scottish Government and a Scottish social security system that are committed to dignity, fairness and respect, and which will provide for and protect Scottish children—for example, through the game-changing Scottish child payment.

However, we can do only so much. Fundamentally, the UK Government’s benefit cap punishes children and has emotional and material impacts on them. The policy is ruining children’s lives today and their futures tomorrow, so let us end it now by reversing the cap. The suffering has gone on for too long.

In response to Sunak’s recent reaffirmation of the policy, the CPAG’s chief executive said:

“With child poverty at a record high, the prime minister has now clearly decided that making kids poor is his political priority.”

She is spot on, but rather than bringing change that would reverse the trend, the Labour Party has promised to implement the cap and its rape clause “more fairly”. How can it be made more fair? I really do not understand that—I cannot get my head round it, at all.

The problem is not just the Tories; it is also the Labour Party. We know from the Labour Party’s policy that there is no change coming for children in poverty. Real change will be secured only when we have full control over welfare powers and Scotland is independent.

Photo of Monica Lennon Monica Lennon Llafur 6:23, 23 Ebrill 2024

As we have heard, there has been a lot of agreement tonight. There is a lot of unity about and a lot of resentment felt for the policy, so it is right that we have had an opportunity to debate it. Clare Haughey was concerned about the lack of numbers in the chamber, but it is good that we have had an extended debate, because people are so passionate and the majority of us in the chamber believe that the policy is wrong.

We must channel that anger and be careful that we do not become complacent. No Government or political party is doing enough, and the two-child benefit cap is far from being the only injustice that we need to tackle. I hope that debates such as this evening’s will help us to think about other areas in which we need to go further and faster.

Scottish Labour has been clear, not just tonight but in recent times, that the two-child benefit cap and the rape clause need to go. We have been opposed to the policy from the very beginning.

Photo of Monica Lennon Monica Lennon Llafur

I will in just a second. Other members have made the point very well that we need extensive review and reform not only of universal credit but of the whole social security system. When Angela Rayner was campaigning in Glasgow and Rutherglen last summer, she was very clear that the clause is abhorrent and that the Labour Party is committed to an ambitious child poverty strategy.

Photo of Clare Haughey Clare Haughey Scottish National Party

We have heard some clarity about Scottish Labour’s position from the MSP point of view. However, Labour UK MPs will make the choices in how they vote, should Labour form the next United Kingdom Government. Which lead will Scottish Labour MPs take? Will they take the one that Anas Sarwar sets, or the one that Keir Starmer seems to be setting?

Photo of Monica Lennon Monica Lennon Llafur

It is great to talk about what all those Labour MPs will do. When we have a manifesto—no party has put out a manifesto yet—our Labour candidates will be campaigning to end child poverty. That is absolutely a given. I hope that we can all agree that we need political change and a change in Government at Westminster. That change is a choice between the Tories and Labour.

I do not expect Clare Haughey and her colleagues to say nice things about Labour in the chamber; however, if we are interested in what Labour is saying, as well as Angela Rayner, I will mention Gordon Brown. In an interview, he talked about the fact that it is a terrible policy and that it needs to be looked at as part of the reform. Just last week, Cherie Blair, the human rights lawyer who is part of a campaign, also made some good points. If we want to quote the Blairs, maybe it is Cherie Blair whom we should look at.

We need to think about the wider system change that is required, including what we, in this chamber, need to do. Let us pay attention to the End Child Poverty coalition, which includes more than 80 groups in Scotland. The most recent scorecard is a bit of a wake-up call. That is very much about what more we can do on the Scottish child payment.

We also have to be mindful that we heard from the Scottish Government, in Parliament last week, that the climate targets for 2030 are being scrapped. I hope that we do not get to a situation where the child poverty targets for 2030 become unachievable and also have to be scrapped. I hope that, when we hear from the cabinet secretary, she will give us some reassurance on that.

I believe that the majority of members come here to tackle the issues and to end child poverty, but we cannot be complacent. During the time that members have left in the Parliament, we must focus on those issues. Let us try to work together on that.

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party 6:28, 23 Ebrill 2024

I thank Clare Haughey for securing this debate. The Scottish Government has been consistent in its opposition to the two-child limit and associated rape clause since it was introduced. We called on the UK Government, in advance of the spring statement, to abolish that policy. The First Minister has also written to Sir Keir Starmer to ask, in the event of a Labour Government, whether there is a commitment to scrap that policy at source. It is deeply disappointing that no response to either letter has been forthcoming.

The policy puts vulnerable children at risk of hardship and removes the link between what a child and their family need and the amount of financial support that they receive. The policy purposely targets vulnerable children, and the DWP’s own analysis estimates that it is currently impacting around 1.5 million children in the UK.

In Scotland, nearly 80,000 children are affected by the two-child limit. When we say that they are affected, in reality that means that families are not able to afford the basic essentials in life. It is clear that the policy is punishing children because their parents are on low incomes. It cannot be right to limit the financial support that is available to children simply because they have two or more siblings. It is deliberate, callous and heartless, and it should have no place in a civilised social security system.

The Scottish Government has spent around £1.2 billion mitigating the impact of 14 years of UK Government policies such as the bedroom tax and the benefit cap. That includes almost £134 million being spent this year through our discretionary housing payments and the Scottish welfare fund, which is money that could have been spent on services such as health, education, transport or, indeed, on further ambitious anti-poverty measures.

Those figures do not include the investment that we are making in the Scottish child payment, in respect of which, unlike the UK Government’s benefits, there are no limits on the number of children in each family who can be supported. This year, we will invest nearly £500 million in the Scottish child payment, which will help to improve the lives of 329,000 children across Scotland. Modelling that was published in February estimates that the Government’s policies, including the Scottish child payment, will keep 100,000 children out of relative poverty in the year ahead.

As stated by the CPAG, Holyrood policies are working, but the UK Government must also invest in social security to reverse the long-term damage to living standards, starting by scrapping the two-child limit and the benefit cap and restoring the value of child benefit.

Photo of Monica Lennon Monica Lennon Llafur

I agree with a lot of what the cabinet secretary has just said. Does she recognise that charities in Scotland are warning that the legally binding child poverty targets are at risk and are calling on the First Minister to make good on the commitment that he made when he ran for SNP leadership to increase the Scottish child payment to £30 a week straight away and to get on to a path of £40 a week by the end of this parliamentary session?

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

I am grateful for the opportunity to reassure Monica Lennon that the Scottish Government is determined to fulfil our obligations on the child poverty targets. That is made more difficult when UK Government policies push people into poverty at the same time as we are trying to lift them out. Of course, the Scottish child payment has once again been lifted in the budget by inflation to ensure that we are adding to the investment that we are making in low-income families.

The Scottish Government has very different priorities from not only the current UK Government but the Labour Party, which continues to refuse to commit to scrapping the two-child cap. Despite a complete lack of moral leadership at Westminster, the Scottish Government’s priority is to support children and their families out of poverty and to invest in our people and futures. To be clear: the Scottish Government will never have a cap of any kind in a devolved social security system.

As for Labour colleagues who are in the room tonight, I think that they all know that they do not need a review to know that the policy is a callous one. Yes, there is undoubtedly more that needs to be done about universal credit as a whole, but we do not need to wait for a review of the entire system in order to deal with the most toxic elements of that system. We should start on day 1. The Labour Party will have that opportunity, and I ask Labour members not to walk on by at that point. I recently said—I absolutely stand by these remarks—that the Scottish Government would be willing to work with an incoming Labour Government to tackle poverty. We are ready to do that on day 1. However, it appears that Labour will not be ready to do so, because, unfortunately, we are at the point at which Labour is quite happy for there to be no cap on bankers’ bonuses but to say that there will be a cap on benefits for low-income children.

Labour colleagues may obtain power in the next election, but what principles will they have they lost along the way? I know that, after the next election, the SNP MPs will vote at every opportunity against the two-child cap and the rape clause. It is sad to know that Labour MPs will not.

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Llafur

I find this interesting. We have had a number of party-political broadcasts on behalf of the Scottish National Party this evening, rather than a constructive debate. However, the choice in the election will be on whether to go for Labour’s new deal for working people. I have pushed the cabinet secretary on this before, but is she suggesting that the principles that are held in the Labour Party, such as lifting people out of poverty by increasing the living wage, by ending fire and rehire and by ending zero-hours contracts, are not ones that she would stand behind?

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

I was genuinely trying to be helpful to Labour colleagues by saying that they have an opportunity to work together with us, and I absolutely stand ready to do that on day 1—and, actually, even before any Labour Government comes in.

I say to Paul O’Kane that, every time we have a debate on social security, we hear about Labour’s employment policies. We can have a debate about those another day, but what I never hear about in those debates is Labour’s policy on social security, because it does not have one—it is just going to replicate the Tories’ policy. With genuine sincerity, I say to Paul O’Kane that the greatest danger lies in the fact that Labour’s social security policy is a review.

I am conscious that I am now over my time. In conclusion, I say that the two-child limit is just one policy impacting the financial support that is available to struggling families and that there are, of course, other pernicious aspects of universal credit. However, I call on everyone who genuinely wants to improve the lives of some of the most vulnerable children in our society—I include Labour colleagues in that—to come together to call on the UK Government, of any colour, to make the right first step, scrap the two-child limit, scrap the rape clause and ensure that we are there for the most vulnerable families at the time when they need us most.

Meeting closed at 18:35.