Targeting benefit cuts at the poorest children is a clear breach of their human rights

by Koulla Yiasouma, NI Commissioner for Children and Young People

Most people will have heard of the introduction of the Two Child Limit to new Universal Credit(UC) or Child Tax Credit applicants. Our benefits system is clearly discriminating against third, fourth, fifth children by making them ineligible for social security.

Let’s look at what this actually means for a family. Child Tax Credit is currently set at £2,780 per child. This change now means that new claimants will not get this for any children after the first two. For a family of three this means £53 less per week, a considerable amount for families already struggling to make ends meet below the poverty line. For larger families, the situation is even more dire.

Department for Communities figures provided to my office indicate that, over the coming year, £22 million will be lost to families through this cut – and that it will be applied to around 7,900 families. As there will be a minimum three children in each family, this means at least 23,700 children will be affected.

It is important to recognise however, that the Two Child Limit was only one of a number changes introduced through the Welfare Reform and Work Act, many of which apply to families with children. Another example is the removal of the family element in tax credits and UC for new claimants. In the year ahead this will affect 11,000 families, with each family losing £550.

Other cuts, targeted at working age adults, will also affect families with children, including:

  • The freeze on working age benefit levels (resulting in a reduction in payments of £65 million over the coming year);
  • The reduction in work allowances in UC by £730, estimated to affect 57,000 families in NI with 109,000 children; and
  • Removal of the additional work-related payment for new benefit claimants of £29.05.

While these cuts affect all in a family, my concern is that children are often hidden in these considerations. Benefit recipients are considered, not the children in the household, even when the benefits being cut are intended for children.

In reality, children are the group who are most likely to be in poverty in Northern Ireland. According to government statistics, in 2015-16 just under a quarter of children (23%) were in relative poverty after housing costs, or around 103,400 children [DfC (June 2016), Poverty Bulletin 2014-15]. Currently the poverty rate for working age adults is 17%, six percentage points less than the child poverty rates.

 

How is it then that the government has targeted so many of its ‘welfare reform’ cuts at families with children, the group most likely to be in poverty?

This is not only a significant breach of the right of the child to a reasonable standard of living, but also a breach of the government’s equality duty. Moreover, while the previous Executive put in place a budget to mitigate against earlier welfare reform cuts, there are no mitigations in place, or being considered, for these more recent cuts affecting children.

Child poverty is one of my priorities and of course the lack of an Assembly and Executive has frustrated work to address this egregious breach of children’s rights.

My office has been calling on DfC to:

  • Ensure that that the impact on dependent children must be taken into account before any decision is made to apply a sanction is taken;
  • Put in place payments to mitigate against these cuts to families with children; and
  • Undertake child impact assessment on all welfare processes.

I will continue to engage with Department for Communities, and also with the Westminster government along with the other three UK Children’s Commissioners, so that the reality of the lives of families living in poverty is uppermost in their decision making.