I suppose a lot of people will have welcomed yesterday’s Impact Assessment of the Welfare Reform Bill by Dr Maggie Atkinson, the Children’s Commissioner for England simply because it adds to the case against the Bill; but the report raises some profound issues that shouldn’t be forgotten once the Bill has passed or been rejected.
That’s not to downplay the significance of the challenge to the Bill:
The Benefit Cap
The Assessment concludes that the Cap will increase child poverty and that it will lead to some children losing their homes. It “incentivises” family breakdown (because splitting into two households will increase the family’s net income) and will have a disporportionate impact on children from minority ethnic groups that tend to have larger family units. Disabled families will only be exempted if someone in the family receives Disability Living Allowance; other disabled families will make up about half of all Capped families.
Housing Benefit changes
The reforms that cut the level of HB will increase child poverty,
with associated poor health, educational and other outcomes; children losing their home as a result of it becoming unaffordable; and effects upon children of in-country migration.
UC will be an improvement for some people, but there are also worries. The Children’s Commissioner highlights the fact that it will be paid in a single monthly payment; for couples, this is likely to be to a joint bank account or a nominated member of the couple. If this is not the main carer there is ample research evidence that the money is less likely to be spent on the children.
Universal Credit includes a major reduction in support for disabled children who don’t get the highest rate of DLA care component, justified on the grounds that this reform will “mirror the limited capability for work element for adults.” The Children’s Commissioner points out that 100,000 disabled children will lose £27.09 a week and
It is unclear why provision for disabled children is intended to mirror that for disabled adults since children under 16 are not expected to increase their income by finding work.
The Bill abolishes the Social Fund, which will be replaced by payments on account and a new system to be designed by local authorities, but with no ring-fencing and no duty on Councils to deliver this support. The Commissioner points out that many families will have no alternative but to rely on loan sharks and other “high interest credit providers”. There is a particular problem for children fleeing an abusive home with their parent or carer.
The Bill tries to encourage parents to come to make voluntary arrangements for child maintenance and the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission will only collect maintenance if the non-resident parent agrees or if CMEC is satisfied that they are unlikely to make payments. The Commissioner worries that this will lead to delays and non-payment and this will cause hardship for children.
The longer term
These are telling criticisms. But there’s also a couple of points made in the course of this Assessment that are a challenge to all the political parties. (The points that follow aren’t just directed at the current government, my experience was that the last government resisted them just as strongly.) These key arguments, with long-lasting significance, follow on from the Children’s Commissioner’s duty
to promote the views and interests of all children in England, in particular those whose voices are least likely to be heard, to the people who make decisions about their lives
and from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which provides the framework for her activities.
This means that, for the first time, an official voice is addressing social security policy debates from a human rights perspective. This is an important challenge: the Assessment says that the fact that benefit levels “have for some years been consistently below the poverty line …has a serious impact on the rights of children.” Like most anti-poverty campaigners, I have argued for years that benefit levels are a breach of human rights, but the Children’s Commissioner is a statutory office and Dr Atkinson is much harder to ignore.
Even more significant is the section on benefit sanctions. At the TUC, we have argued that benefit sanctions are necessary when people break the rules, but they have to be designed after taking into account the poverty they will cause or exacerbate, especially for children. Successive Government have refused to do this.
The Children’s Commissioner takes a really radical line when she comes to the sections of the Bill increasing benefit sanctions. She notes that sanctions will cause hardship and
If hardship payments are not made; are made in the form of loans; are insufficient in quantity; or are delayed, this is likely to put children at risk of losing their home through rent arrears, and to otherwise substantially compromise their standard of living and potentially their health.
The case against sanctions is made powerfully:
A child’s independent rights to social security and to an adequate standard of living under the UNCRC should never be affected by the imposition of benefit sanctions upon his or her parent or carer … In our view, it is insufficient that sanctions will only affect the adult component of UC since withdrawal or reduction of this will have a substantial effect upon household income and therefore upon the child’s standard of living.
In addition, adds the Commissioner, benefit sanctions that lead to families losing their homes are probably contrary to article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Further, no decision to impose a benefit sanction upon a claimant with dependent children should be made without consideration of the best interests of the children as a primary consideration in order to comply with Article 3 UNCRC. (Emphasis in original)
The Assessment goes on to argue that, to meet obligations to respect children’s rights to social security and an adequate standard of living under Articles 26 and 27 of the Convention, hardship payments should be made automatically when there are children in a sanctioned family “and should be sufficient to guarantee housing affordability without the diversion of substantial amounts of living cost benefits to rent.”
In most public debates about benefits sanctions are there to be made more stringent. There have been some other interventions – Paul Gregg’s 2008 report on Realising Potential (which the current government still points to as an inspiration) called for the sanctions regime to be based on four principles, one of which would be that they should “be proportionate and not cause excessive hardship.” In 2009, Rights and Responsibilities in the Social Security System, a ‘think piece’ for the Social Security Advisory Committee by Julia Griggs and Fran Bennett, pointed to the evidence showing that sanctions do cause real hardship. But the argument that sanctions that cause children hardship break this country’s UN obligations is a new step. And it will be hard for the government to get out of this obligation by making the same sort of fuss as they have about the Human Rights Act – Dr Atkinson points out that Children’s Minister Sarah Teather has promised that the government will give due regard to United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child when creating new policies and drafting new legislation.
Now it is up to those of us who care about child poverty – and those who care about human rights – to make sure the government engage with the arguments in the report and don’t simply re-state the justifications they’ve already given for their policies.