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The child benefits cap is anti-family

"Okay, one of you will have to go." Credit: Getty

July 18, 2023 - 10:00am

The present cap on benefits after two children is a popular policy. Even among Labour voters more people support such measures than oppose them. Meanwhile, among the wider public, 60% think the present settlement should be retained.

This perhaps explains the reticence of Sir Keir Starmer to change the status quo, something he made clear while speaking to the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg on Sunday. Yet when Starmer sought his party’s leadership in 2020, he pledged to end the cap. Later that same year, Deputy Leader Angela Rayner labelled it “obscene and inhumane”, while as recently as last month Jonathan Ashworth, the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, described the policy as “heinous”. Other earlier critics from the shadow cabinet include Wes Streeting, Ian Murray and Jonathan Reynolds, none of whom has now complained about their party’s latest position — nor offered their resignation. 

While the polling explains Starmer’s ambivalence, the costs of scrapping the cap are comparatively small. A quarter of a million children would be removed from relative poverty at a cost of £1.3 billion. For context, Britain gave Ukraine £2.3 billion in weapons last year.

Yet rather than encouraging families, Britain often feels like a society geared towards stopping them, and the data confirms just how hard things are for would-be parents. According to the OECD, the UK has the most expensive childcare of any developed country, with families spending almost a third of their wages on it. 

Then there’s the extortionate cost of housing, which has risen twice as fast as wages since 1997. Consequently, those in their late 30s and early 40s are now three times more likely to rent than two decades ago; the lucky few who do get on the property ladder are set to experience a sustained period of high interest rates. 

They should count themselves lucky, though. The prospect of a no-fault eviction, which the Government intends to scrap this year, leaves renting parents in a permanent state of anxiety. Receiving two months’ notice to move with several children is bad enough: imagine having to then re-register with GPs, dentists and, in some cases, schools. 

Given the various disincentives to have children — from childcare to housing and the cost of food — why shouldn’t the Government step up where it can? That is presumably what powered Jeremy Hunt’s surprise announcement in March of a major expansion to free childcare. Similarly, Labour says it wants to build a country where “families come first” and where “Britain is the best place in the world to grow up”. Quite how that fits with discriminating against larger families in the benefits system is unclear. 

A common response is that more generous benefits only encourage “scroungers”. This is despite the fact that labour participation rates are high and most people claiming benefits are in a household that works. Some of those shouting loudest today — and in the process stigmatising larger families — will no doubt be the ones arguing to subsidise kids a decade from now. For the political Right this is an especially pressing issue. After all, a Britain with significantly lower migration would very soon start to shrink.

Should we care? Would a falling population really be so bad? Alongside Britain’s already low birth rate of 1.7 children, we have an ageing population. The number of over-65s will increase by 40% between 2016 and 2036, while those over 80 will double. Already, the country’s leading cause of death is dementia. The economic and social costs of all this will be huge.

As the population grows older and the nation requires a massive expansion in elderly care, the labour force will comparatively shrink — with the ratio of working age people to each pensioner falling from four to three. The result? Permanently lower growth, higher inflation and higher borrowing. Meanwhile, the taxpayer will struggle to meet the obligations of pensions as well as elderly care. 

If Britons want a greying nation to function in old age, they will have to accept at least some immigration. Even more than that, they’ll need to embrace greater state support for families. Discriminating against larger ones in the benefits system should be the first thing to go. Someone should tell Keir Starmer.


Aaron Bastani is the co-founder of Novara Media, and the author of Fully Automated Luxury Communism. 

AaronBastani

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polidori redux
polidori redux
11 months ago

Well Aaron, perhaps if we halted the importation of cheap labour, wages would rise, of necessity, housing would get cheaper, of necessity and working class people could afford to raise their own children, just as my parents did. Awkward for those whose prosperity depends on a never-ending supply of cheap labour but you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, can you?

j watson
j watson
11 months ago
Reply to  polidori redux

The reality you fail to engage with is the population demographics were distinctly different. I would guess we are both Boomers. The ‘boom’ abated I’m afraid and the situation fundamentally different now.
That doesn’t mean uncontrolled ‘endless’ immigration. Heavens knows the whole subject been woefully managed and handled. But some things have a gravitational ‘pull’ that’ll prove irresistible medium term.

Last edited 11 months ago by j watson
polidori redux
polidori redux
11 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Who knows. Perhaps if people could avail themselves of adequately paid jobs and affordable housing then they might even start to have children – They used to.
“That doesn’t mean uncontrolled ‘endless’ immigration.”
That is exactly what it means – UK PLC is hooked on cheap imported labour. The “demographic deficit” is a red herring.

j watson
j watson
11 months ago
Reply to  polidori redux

We can control it better. We can even if we wanted run a naturalisation process to imbibe certain values. So I’ve no doubt we’ve made a mess, but I’m not sure what you are proposing.
As regards let’s create the life circumstances so people have bigger families – fine and all for it. How long a gestation (e.g 20, 30yrs perhaps) and what’s interim plan?

j watson
j watson
11 months ago
Reply to  polidori redux

We can control it better. We can even if we wanted run a naturalisation process to imbibe certain values. So I’ve no doubt we’ve made a mess, but I’m not sure what you are proposing.
As regards let’s create the life circumstances so people have bigger families – fine and all for it. How long a gestation (e.g 20, 30yrs perhaps) and what’s interim plan?

polidori redux
polidori redux
11 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Who knows. Perhaps if people could avail themselves of adequately paid jobs and affordable housing then they might even start to have children – They used to.
“That doesn’t mean uncontrolled ‘endless’ immigration.”
That is exactly what it means – UK PLC is hooked on cheap imported labour. The “demographic deficit” is a red herring.

j watson
j watson
11 months ago
Reply to  polidori redux

The reality you fail to engage with is the population demographics were distinctly different. I would guess we are both Boomers. The ‘boom’ abated I’m afraid and the situation fundamentally different now.
That doesn’t mean uncontrolled ‘endless’ immigration. Heavens knows the whole subject been woefully managed and handled. But some things have a gravitational ‘pull’ that’ll prove irresistible medium term.

Last edited 11 months ago by j watson
polidori redux
polidori redux
11 months ago

Well Aaron, perhaps if we halted the importation of cheap labour, wages would rise, of necessity, housing would get cheaper, of necessity and working class people could afford to raise their own children, just as my parents did. Awkward for those whose prosperity depends on a never-ending supply of cheap labour but you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, can you?

Carol Forshaw
Carol Forshaw
11 months ago

As I understand the policy, it is to dissuade families living solely on benefits from having more children than two while expecting the state to increase benefits to fund them. It does not affect families who already had more than two children when the policy came into effect. It means that just like parents who work, parents on benefits should consider whether they can afford to have more children. I am struggling to see what is unreasonable about that.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
11 months ago
Reply to  Carol Forshaw

Yup, sounds about right. And extremely elitist.

Last edited 11 months ago by Bret Larson
Peter B
Peter B
11 months ago
Reply to  Bret Larson

Nonsense.
There’s a reason this policy has popular public support. And how would that be the case if it were “elitist” ?

Peter B
Peter B
11 months ago
Reply to  Bret Larson

Nonsense.
There’s a reason this policy has popular public support. And how would that be the case if it were “elitist” ?

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
11 months ago
Reply to  Carol Forshaw

Yup, sounds about right. And extremely elitist.

Last edited 11 months ago by Bret Larson
Carol Forshaw
Carol Forshaw
11 months ago

As I understand the policy, it is to dissuade families living solely on benefits from having more children than two while expecting the state to increase benefits to fund them. It does not affect families who already had more than two children when the policy came into effect. It means that just like parents who work, parents on benefits should consider whether they can afford to have more children. I am struggling to see what is unreasonable about that.

Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
11 months ago

Responsible families, who produce children who will be responsible, contributing adults, shouldn’t need benefits and don’t need more than two children. A child who has a chance of success at school has its own room for homework, and most houses have three bedrooms.
A distinction should be made between benefits for those who have paid tax and NI for years, and become temporarily unemployed or unable to work through illness, and those who have never worked or paid a penny. The first group should receive higher benefits, with perhaps no child cap. The second should be forced into work and, instead of paying them for any children, the money should be spent on professional childcare with no screens, healthy food, early years education and outdoor exercise and play. Obese, idle parents are of no benefit to children. They are better away from them.

j watson
j watson
11 months ago

You describe a set of views that part-explain Starmer’s reticence so can’t be entirely dismissed, but at the same time are based on gross fictionalisations of the circumstances behind the vast majority of families this issue may relate to. I would contend you may have been imbibing too much ‘poverty-porn’ which is a modern day genre designed to reduce collective responsibility and apportion blame.
The majority of parents now limited to two as regards benefit are working and juggling childcare too. Hardly idle. You miss a key development – we are paying billions on ‘in work benefits’ because wages are so out of kilter with cost of living, esp housing. Another cohort relates to relationship breakdown and whilst one may make judgments on that why punish the children for their parents? (And more often the mother who is left with primary child raising responsibility).
Do you have any evidence the ‘punishment’ regime you promulgate going to help a future generation of kids feel society valued and supported them when they needed that and thus they have collective responsibility to society in turn when they become adults?

Last edited 11 months ago by j watson
Ian McKinney
Ian McKinney
11 months ago
Reply to  j watson

This is all well and good but you are regularly promoting the benefits of EU membership on these pages, the outcome of which was a long term wage depression and falsely lower inflation for many years. We wouldn’t have had the issues we’ve had with the state topping up wages if business hadn’t had the option to import cheap labour.

Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
11 months ago
Reply to  j watson

I live in a very poor area. Many people I know are on benefits and have not worked for 30 years or more. They have children who have also never worked and even those children have children. There is an overwhelming sense of ‘What’s the point?”
But this is not really laziness; it’s a sort of separate existence outside of the ‘normal’ way of thinking. Quite a few younger men do work but are still on benefits – because this is what people do and you are stupid if you don’t. A lot of plumbers and fitters and painters have two businesses, one which they declare and one which they don’t.
I can see how comfortable, middle-class people sitting in the richer areas of the UK see this behaviour as disgusting and criminal. When I first came here I would have thought the same. But some areas just drag people down to a base level.
Comparing to my school maths, the contributors to UnHerd will see themselves as HCF – highest common factors – but around me I see only LCDs – lowest common denominators.

Ian McKinney
Ian McKinney
11 months ago
Reply to  j watson

This is all well and good but you are regularly promoting the benefits of EU membership on these pages, the outcome of which was a long term wage depression and falsely lower inflation for many years. We wouldn’t have had the issues we’ve had with the state topping up wages if business hadn’t had the option to import cheap labour.

Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
11 months ago
Reply to  j watson

I live in a very poor area. Many people I know are on benefits and have not worked for 30 years or more. They have children who have also never worked and even those children have children. There is an overwhelming sense of ‘What’s the point?”
But this is not really laziness; it’s a sort of separate existence outside of the ‘normal’ way of thinking. Quite a few younger men do work but are still on benefits – because this is what people do and you are stupid if you don’t. A lot of plumbers and fitters and painters have two businesses, one which they declare and one which they don’t.
I can see how comfortable, middle-class people sitting in the richer areas of the UK see this behaviour as disgusting and criminal. When I first came here I would have thought the same. But some areas just drag people down to a base level.
Comparing to my school maths, the contributors to UnHerd will see themselves as HCF – highest common factors – but around me I see only LCDs – lowest common denominators.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
11 months ago

I fully support people having “too many” kids. Its a good problem to have.

j watson
j watson
11 months ago

You describe a set of views that part-explain Starmer’s reticence so can’t be entirely dismissed, but at the same time are based on gross fictionalisations of the circumstances behind the vast majority of families this issue may relate to. I would contend you may have been imbibing too much ‘poverty-porn’ which is a modern day genre designed to reduce collective responsibility and apportion blame.
The majority of parents now limited to two as regards benefit are working and juggling childcare too. Hardly idle. You miss a key development – we are paying billions on ‘in work benefits’ because wages are so out of kilter with cost of living, esp housing. Another cohort relates to relationship breakdown and whilst one may make judgments on that why punish the children for their parents? (And more often the mother who is left with primary child raising responsibility).
Do you have any evidence the ‘punishment’ regime you promulgate going to help a future generation of kids feel society valued and supported them when they needed that and thus they have collective responsibility to society in turn when they become adults?

Last edited 11 months ago by j watson
Bret Larson
Bret Larson
11 months ago

I fully support people having “too many” kids. Its a good problem to have.

Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
11 months ago

Responsible families, who produce children who will be responsible, contributing adults, shouldn’t need benefits and don’t need more than two children. A child who has a chance of success at school has its own room for homework, and most houses have three bedrooms.
A distinction should be made between benefits for those who have paid tax and NI for years, and become temporarily unemployed or unable to work through illness, and those who have never worked or paid a penny. The first group should receive higher benefits, with perhaps no child cap. The second should be forced into work and, instead of paying them for any children, the money should be spent on professional childcare with no screens, healthy food, early years education and outdoor exercise and play. Obese, idle parents are of no benefit to children. They are better away from them.

rob drummond
rob drummond
11 months ago

Its the labour movement that wants to fleece tax payers for more and more Money for “the (alleged) poor” all the time. Even more than the disastrous Tories already.

What is “poor”? – go to India – Africa and many other places that will show you “the poor”. In UK “the poor” by and large have free housing – free schooling – benefits – Sky TV – Broadband – ciggies (or vapes) and the rest of it.

People such as yourself always take a one off expense (£2.3bn for Ukraine) and compare it to a recurring expense as though there is somehow à comparison. Can you not think the next thought with the “only” £1.3bn (and rising) and add that up over 10/20/50 years?

Add to all that tax payers having to fund extra school places (ÂŁ5/10k a term?) extra NHS demand / extra infrastructure

What planet are you actually on when you write an article such as this and yet you dont seem to be able to do the maths?

Lindsay S
Lindsay S
11 months ago
Reply to  rob drummond

Not to mention that the money spent on Ukraine did not go to Ukraine. It went to the weapons manufacturers who are hopefully British , employing British people and therefore paying British wages.

Lindsay S
Lindsay S
11 months ago
Reply to  rob drummond

Not to mention that the money spent on Ukraine did not go to Ukraine. It went to the weapons manufacturers who are hopefully British , employing British people and therefore paying British wages.

rob drummond
rob drummond
11 months ago

Its the labour movement that wants to fleece tax payers for more and more Money for “the (alleged) poor” all the time. Even more than the disastrous Tories already.

What is “poor”? – go to India – Africa and many other places that will show you “the poor”. In UK “the poor” by and large have free housing – free schooling – benefits – Sky TV – Broadband – ciggies (or vapes) and the rest of it.

People such as yourself always take a one off expense (£2.3bn for Ukraine) and compare it to a recurring expense as though there is somehow à comparison. Can you not think the next thought with the “only” £1.3bn (and rising) and add that up over 10/20/50 years?

Add to all that tax payers having to fund extra school places (ÂŁ5/10k a term?) extra NHS demand / extra infrastructure

What planet are you actually on when you write an article such as this and yet you dont seem to be able to do the maths?

Gordon Arta
Gordon Arta
11 months ago

‘Quite how that fits with discriminating against larger families in the benefits system is unclear.’ Well if you freed yourself from your Catholic influence you’d be able to realise that concentrating the available resources for childcare, family benefits and so on, improving the lives of 2 children means a much better outcome for each of them than 3, 4, 5 or more.  

Gordon Arta
Gordon Arta
11 months ago

‘Quite how that fits with discriminating against larger families in the benefits system is unclear.’ Well if you freed yourself from your Catholic influence you’d be able to realise that concentrating the available resources for childcare, family benefits and so on, improving the lives of 2 children means a much better outcome for each of them than 3, 4, 5 or more.  

Samuel Gee
Samuel Gee
11 months ago

One of the analyses of the gentrification of the Labour Party away from its roots in organized labour has been the increased focus on welfare rather than work. Labour is now, but generally wasn’t, about welfare. It was about work and responsibility. Even the founding of the mythologized “welfare state” the Beveridge report makes this clear. Aaron is wrong about Labour’s traditional core principles.

Samuel Gee
Samuel Gee
11 months ago

One of the analyses of the gentrification of the Labour Party away from its roots in organized labour has been the increased focus on welfare rather than work. Labour is now, but generally wasn’t, about welfare. It was about work and responsibility. Even the founding of the mythologized “welfare state” the Beveridge report makes this clear. Aaron is wrong about Labour’s traditional core principles.

Stephen Follows
Stephen Follows
11 months ago

It’s anti-over-population, which is quite different.

Stephen Follows
Stephen Follows
11 months ago

It’s anti-over-population, which is quite different.

Valerie Taplin
Valerie Taplin
11 months ago

The cap is fair, and serves as a sensible reminder to live within one’s means. Contraception and the “morning after pill” removes the tragedy of unwanted births. Fewer children is also better for the planet – see Population Matters.

Valerie Taplin
Valerie Taplin
11 months ago

The cap is fair, and serves as a sensible reminder to live within one’s means. Contraception and the “morning after pill” removes the tragedy of unwanted births. Fewer children is also better for the planet – see Population Matters.

Ian Jeffcott
Ian Jeffcott
11 months ago

People are welcome to have as many children as they want as long as they don’t expect others to pay for them through the welfare system.

Ian Jeffcott
Ian Jeffcott
11 months ago

People are welcome to have as many children as they want as long as they don’t expect others to pay for them through the welfare system.

Philip Stott
Philip Stott
11 months ago

Karen Matthews – that is all.

Philip Stott
Philip Stott
11 months ago

Karen Matthews – that is all.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
11 months ago

There will be seamless transition when Labour beats the Tories in the next election. You won’t even know there has been a change in govt.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
11 months ago

There will be seamless transition when Labour beats the Tories in the next election. You won’t even know there has been a change in govt.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
11 months ago

Benefits aside, the wider point here is that – as per the course – politicians simply ditch the “promises” they’ve made to achieve their position (in Starmer’s case, the party leadership) as easily as brushing the dandruff off their shoulders.
Someone needs to be keeping tabs on this to remind the electorate when the next election comes round.

Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I don’t think that reminding the electorate will make any difference. You may see this for yourself and your friends – as relatively well-educated, middle class people – but about 50% will not vote in an election. Of those who do vote, another 50% will always vote in the same way. This will not be even over the country. Where I live there have been huge Labour majorities consistently over the last 40 years – in fact, since the miners’ strike.
So we all agree now (I think) that Labour will win the next election. The swing voters will say, “The last lot were useless – time to give the other lot a chance.” Nothing to do with detailed policies. If you notice, the policies of the two main parties are converging rapidly.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
11 months ago

You’re probably right about the outcome, but it’s still incumbent upon us all to take stock of what has been put forward as an agenda and what has subsequently been ditched. I see that as our democratic duty, others may not, but wilful ignorance isn’t something to be entertained even though we know it occurs. That’s why i subscribe to Unherd; probably why most do.

Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Yes, ditto.

Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Yes, ditto.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
11 months ago

You’re probably right about the outcome, but it’s still incumbent upon us all to take stock of what has been put forward as an agenda and what has subsequently been ditched. I see that as our democratic duty, others may not, but wilful ignorance isn’t something to be entertained even though we know it occurs. That’s why i subscribe to Unherd; probably why most do.

Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I don’t think that reminding the electorate will make any difference. You may see this for yourself and your friends – as relatively well-educated, middle class people – but about 50% will not vote in an election. Of those who do vote, another 50% will always vote in the same way. This will not be even over the country. Where I live there have been huge Labour majorities consistently over the last 40 years – in fact, since the miners’ strike.
So we all agree now (I think) that Labour will win the next election. The swing voters will say, “The last lot were useless – time to give the other lot a chance.” Nothing to do with detailed policies. If you notice, the policies of the two main parties are converging rapidly.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
11 months ago

Benefits aside, the wider point here is that – as per the course – politicians simply ditch the “promises” they’ve made to achieve their position (in Starmer’s case, the party leadership) as easily as brushing the dandruff off their shoulders.
Someone needs to be keeping tabs on this to remind the electorate when the next election comes round.