Universal Credit: Remove the Two-child Limit

Opposition Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:45 am on 16 April 2024.

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Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party 10:45, 16 April 2024

I beg to move

That this Assembly acknowledges the findings of the recent Northern Ireland Audit Office report on child poverty that nearly half of all children living in relative poverty come from families with three or more children; recognises the pernicious role that the universal credit two-child limit has played in increasing the number of children in poverty; understands that the majority of those negatively impacted by the two-child limit are working families; notes that removing this limit is within the powers of the Northern Ireland Executive; believes that the consequences of childhood poverty far outweigh the cost of removing the cap; and calls on the Minister for Communities to present a plan before this Assembly to remove the two-child limit before the end of 2024.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. As an amendment has been selected and is published on the Marshalled List, the Business Committee has agreed that 15 minutes will be added to the total time for the debate.

Matthew, please open the debate on the motion.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker. When we entered opposition in February and in the weeks since, we have consistently said that we want to be a constructive Opposition. Recognising the scale and long-term nature of the challenges facing the Executive, we seek to offer constructive accountability and solutions as well as robust challenge when necessary. We also want to use our platform as an Opposition to give a voice to people who have been failed by our politics. As a party with its roots in social justice campaigning, the SDLP is determined to use our Opposition platform to address the moral shame and blight of poverty.

Before I go on, I thank the Cliff Edge Coalition, its members and, indeed, all the campaign groups that have come to Parliament Buildings today to make their voice heard in support of our Opposition day and our motions.

Poverty levels in this society remain far too high, unconscionably so. That is most acutely the case with child poverty. A Northern Ireland Audit Office report recently found that one in five children in our society lives in poverty. Those statistics mask the reality of empty tummies and anxious children and parents. This is not solely a local phenomenon. Across the UK and further afield, the effects of more than a decade of austerity have combined with a post-pandemic spike in inflation to create a perfect storm of rising costs and suppressed incomes for the most vulnerable. However, while successive Tory Governments and their austerity agenda have squeezed welfare spending, without regard for the human consequences of doing so, it is wrong to imply, as some in the Chamber have done, that little can be done to alleviate or mitigate the pernicious effects of those policies.

Indeed, different parties in the Chamber have, at some points, wanted to give the Tories even more power to inflict harmful policies on the North, either by allowing them the power to legislate for welfare reform directly in Northern Ireland, allowing local hands to be washed clean of responsibility, or by boycotting ministerial office, as both main parties have done, so that the only people to take decisions for this region were those same Tory Ministers.

I note with some regret that although the Opposition is the smallest of the five main parties represented in the Chamber, we still have more MLAs in the Chamber now than the two main parties combined, which have nearly 60 MLAs between them. They may not want to give the Opposition day much credence but it would do them some credit if they gave the issue of poverty a little more respect instead of having such a paltry turnout.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party 11:00, 16 April 2024

The Member raises an important point and I thank him for giving way. Maybe it is the case that the main parties' track record of failure on poverty and on resolving some of the problems is an embarrassment for them, and that is why they have not shown up in the Chamber. Does the Member agree?

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

As always, my colleague puts his case forcefully. There is an argument to be made there. However, we have a choice. Although we will make political points, I want to build some consensus on this issue in the Chamber. I also recognise that we are making the Communities Minister sit in the Chamber for an awful lot of today, as we did yesterday. I hope that we can make some progress in the debate. As I said, we have a choice.

Despite the political difficulties involved in getting there, Northern Ireland introduced a package of welfare mitigations that has, most experts acknowledge, mitigated some of the worst of austerity, though sadly not all of it. We have a clear template for how, when we turn up, do our jobs and make serious choices, we can improve the lives of people we serve. Therefore, the first item in our Opposition day package is a call on the Executive to remove the pernicious two-child limit on universal credit. That policy, introduced by the Tories in 2015, is an indefensible and direct punishment of children.

Our former leader John Hume often talked about the accident of birth in relation to identity. Of course, that accident of birth also applies to the family that a child is born into and, indeed, the order of their birth, but the effect of the two-child limit is to remove any additional support from that child if they are the third or subsequent birth, regardless of the objective need of the family. Of course, in Northern Ireland, the impact is disproportionately felt because of our larger family sizes.

It is also important to note that the policy affects working families too. The majority of households affected by the two-child limit are working families. The scale of the real loss to families is huge: a lower-income family in receipt of the child element of universal credit loses £3,200 per year for every third or subsequent child born after April 2017. The numbers of affected children is increasing year-on-year, making the effect of the policy evermore damaging. Of course, as the Resolution Foundation has pointed out, that is precisely the point of the policy.

A wide range of experts who have looked at this issue agree that the removal of the two-child limit from universal credit would be a hugely impactful and direct way of addressing child poverty. The review of welfare mitigations — created by the previous Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey and led by Les Allamby — found that virtually all the local stakeholders and campaigners that it engaged with highlighted the two-child limit as being a particular blight.

Listening to the debate yesterday, and the various arguments that were made for watering down the SDLP's call for specific timelines and a rigorous ring-fenced budget for child poverty, one could have been left with the impression that the making of an anti-poverty strategy was as mysterious as the third secret of Fatima or as impenetrable as the text of 'Finnegans Wake'. It was as if there was nothing we could do. While poverty, including child poverty, is multifaceted and touches on virtually every aspect of public policy, there are clear and deliverable interventions that we have the power to implement, which would make a real difference to people's lives. If we were to undo the effects of the two-child limit via policy, we would make the lives of many children and families better, raise many out of poverty and improve their life chances. That is hardly a bad use of the power that we have. We think that it would be a good day's work.

How much would it cost, and how would or should it be paid for? The Department's welfare mitigations panel consulted two different economic consultancies that costed ending the two-child limit in Northern Ireland at about £40 million a year. That is a significant recurring cost, but it is not insurmountable. Indeed, the Executive have already raised the vast majority of it — they have raised £30 million — via an increase in the regional rate. That funding could be directed towards paying for removing the two-child limit. There are other options that the Executive could look at, such as reforming the long-term generosity of the vacant property relief in the rates system. It is, of course, entirely right that we have a relief for vacant property, but our relief is particularly generous when compared with that across the water or over the border. Those are not definitive decisions, because they are not ours to make, but they are an example of what the Executive could look at to pay for the policy. We also subsidise non-existent long-haul flights from Belfast by paying the Treasury more than £2 million a year in hypothetically forgone air tax, despite there not being any long-haul flights from Northern Ireland.

Taken together, those measures could offer the means to pay for an essential intervention in our welfare system, end the pernicious two-child limit and start lifting children out of poverty. Of course, if Members from Executive parties wish to challenge or disagree with those suggested choices or options, they are more than welcome to tell us which choices they would be willing to make to pay for policies. As yet, we have seen precious little of that detail from the Executive parties amid more than a dozen motions promising action. Indeed, we may be the first party to propose a motion with a detailed explanation of how a measure could be paid for. It is ironic for an Opposition party to do that work.

Of course, the long-term cost of child poverty, be it through adult welfare, healthcare costs or, tragically, in the criminal justice system, far outweighs the cost of the intervention that we are proposing. Let me be clear on this: we regard a proposal for full mitigation of the two-child limit via a separate payment as being entirely consistent with the ask in the motion. Our preference would be for abolition, but we are not theological, so I hope that we can avoid turning the debate into a theological debate about the technicalities of mitigation versus abolition. If mitigation covered the total cost of the two-child limit, we would be up for that. We would prefer abolition, but, ultimately, what matters is the financial outcome for families, not the precise bureaucratic mechanism.

Let me touch briefly on the DUP amendment, which, I am afraid, we cannot support. Like the Alliance amendment yesterday, it seeks to water down the specificity of the motion and the policy commitment that we are asking for. It simply asks that the Minister "consider the merits" of the recommendations of the Allamby mitigations panel. To be honest, I had hoped and assumed that the Minister would do that as a bare minimum without the need for Assembly instruction. I am afraid that the amendment would render our motion wholly inadequate, so we cannot support it.

I do not go in for grandiose quotes, but there is a Franklin Roosevelt quote that always resonates with me, and it is —.

A Member:

[Inaudible.]

[Laughter.]

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

I do not actually, but this quote resonates with me. Roosevelt said:

"The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."

There is no more important thing to do in politics or in public life than improve the life chances of those who are in need. With the motion, which proposes something that is not only transformative but affordable and practical, we all have that opportunity. Let us take that opportunity. I commend to the Assembly the motion to remove the two-child limit.

Photo of Brian Kingston Brian Kingston DUP

I beg to move

Leave out all after "Executive" and insert: "but would place serious and recurring constraints on public spending; further notes the recommendations of the independent advisory panel report 'Welfare Mitigations Review', including the proposal to offset the two-child limit by introducing a better start larger families payment; and calls on the Minister for Communities to consider the merits of this proposal when meeting his statutory obligation to produce a report on the current, and future, operation of welfare mitigation schemes by the end of this financial year."

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Thank you, Brian. You will have 10 minutes to propose the amendment and five minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes. Brian, please lead the debate on the amendment.

Photo of Brian Kingston Brian Kingston DUP

I start by thanking the Opposition party for the motion, the majority of which we support. However, as Mr O'Toole referenced, we wish to amend part of it, and I will explain the reason for that during my speech.

For context, the UK Government introduced the two-child policy in 2017, and, under the principle of parity, the same measures automatically applied in Northern Ireland. If the Assembly were to unilaterally abolish the two-child limit, it would mean funding those extra benefit payments out of the block grant that we receive, which would place considerable and recurring constraints on Executive spending for vital public services. The Opposition party is actively calling for our Executive to ring-fence funding in a host of other areas. How does it reasonably expect Ministers to fund the removal of the two-child limit on top of the other demands? Will it deprive our schools of that money? Will it put the pay rises for health workers on hold? Will it kick an affordable childcare policy into the long grass?

The Minister for Communities and the Executive have a duty to be fiscally responsible, given the current budgetary pressures and being mindful of the need to provide vital support to vulnerable and low-income households in every corner of our Province. The independent advisory panel report has provided a range of recommendations, including offsetting the two-child limit with a separate better start payment for larger families. It would be a dereliction of duty for the Minister and his officials not to consider the merits of those proposals in detail. That is the basis of our amendment.

We also point out that the Department for Communities is under a statutory obligation to produce a review of current welfare mitigations by the end of the financial year.

Photo of Brian Kingston Brian Kingston DUP

Yes, I will, briefly.

Photo of Sian Mulholland Sian Mulholland Alliance

Does the Member agree that the rates of poverty and child poverty, particularly in his constituency, indicate that this is a crisis and that we cannot wait until the end of the financial year for that report? Does the Member agree that this needs to be brought forward with the utmost urgency, not just at the end of the financial year?

Photo of Brian Kingston Brian Kingston DUP

The aim is not to bring it forward at the end of the financial year, but it must be brought forward by then. Certainly, we all agree that, as the leader of the Opposition said, improving people's quality of life is what motivates all of us in politics, and it is what we all wish to do every day.

The Minister has already informed Members that any report produced will also present future proposals. It is important that we respect that process, provide space for intensive engagement with experts, stakeholders and claimants and resist the temptation to pre-empt the outcome. It is also worth noting that negotiations around a new fiscal framework are ongoing with the Treasury, and it would be counterproductive not to wait and assess the outcome of that process before making future decisions affecting those in receipt of universal credit and other benefits. Longer-term certainty on Budgets will be required to allow a strategic approach to all the Executive's priorities.

This is, essentially, a debate about where best to place our financial resources at a time when our front-line public services are experiencing massive shortfalls. We could not support redirecting tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of pounds from other much-needed front-line services in order to cover additional welfare benefits that are not funded by the Treasury. We make no apologies for seeking fairness for all families and for guarding funding for our vital public services.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

I thank the proposer of the motion for bringing it forward for debate. Clearly, addressing poverty and inequality is one of this institution's principal tasks in this mandate.

The two-child limit was a policy decision taken and implemented by the Tory Government in 2017: first, in child tax credits; and, secondly, following the introduction of universal credit in the North, it was applied to that as well.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

You say that you are so careful and compassionate about child poverty, but to what extent do you accept responsibility, given that your party, the DUP and the Alliance Party handed over welfare powers to the cruel and tyrannical Tories?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Colm, you have an extra minute.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

Thank you. I thank the Member for his intervention.

We believe that this policy discriminates against women and children, is a key driver of child poverty and disproportionately impacts on people here because of our larger family size. The inclusion of what has become known as the "rape clause" highlights just how wrong and unjust this policy is at every level. No child should be denied the financial support required to meet their essential needs.

We have called repeatedly for the British Government to scrap the policy, and we reiterate that call today.

The proposer of the motion, in stating that removing this element of universal credit is within the powers of the Executive, knows and understands that what they are really asking for are mitigation measures. Members will be aware that social security, including universal credit, is devolved within the principle of parity, that any deviation from that parity requires agreement from the British Treasury and that the Executive must meet any associated costs from the block grant.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party 11:15, 16 April 2024

I appreciate the Committee Chair's giving way. I agree with everything that he has said. That is why, in my speech, I acknowledged every point that he has just made and offered a clear costing and a potential means for it to be paid.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

I am sure that the Member has indicated that he has come up with several ideas and that he will engage with the Executive on those ideas.

To be absolutely clear, Sinn Féin opposes the two-child limit and supports the call across the sector to offset it. We have consistently raised the issue and did so again in our submission to the welfare mitigations review led by Les Allamby. I commend Les and his panel for their work. It is no easy task to be asked to recommend what gaps in the social security safety net to narrow while acknowledging and understanding the limitations of the block grant, because the reality is that the Tory Government have eroded the social security system to such an extent that it has become difficult to even refer to it as a "safety net" any more. Furthermore, the impact of the historic underfunding of this institution and the current budgetary pressures make picking up the pieces of the human impact of Tory austerity policies increasingly challenging.

Finally, in considering the motion and the amendment, it is important to be realistic about the time frame and the budget required to ensure any form of mitigation introduced is sustainable in the long term. As work continues towards publishing an anti-poverty strategy, which we discussed yesterday, I implore the Minister for Communities to ensure that offsetting the two-child limit is included in that overarching strategy.

Photo of Sian Mulholland Sian Mulholland Alliance

This debate has much synergy with the debate yesterday about child poverty, and I thank the Opposition for bringing it forward. The recent findings of the Northern Ireland Audit Office report on child poverty and the Northern Ireland poverty and income inequality report have shone a light on a sobering reality. The rising number of children and families in Northern Ireland living in poverty is simply unacceptable, and we have agreed that.

The Audit Office report reveals that nearly half of children living in relative poverty come from families with three or more children. Those in larger families were already more vulnerable to deprivation even before this policy. We do not limit access to healthcare, education or public services by order of birth, so there is no justification for limiting access to social security, with £3,455 lost for each child born subsequent to the second, as recent figures have shown. The two-child benefit cap is a policy born out of callous disregard for the well-being of the most vulnerable people in society. It is penalising families for the number of children they have, punishing innocent children for circumstances far beyond their control and forcing women to disclose pregnancy as a result of rape. According to the Northern Ireland Anti-Poverty Network, this represents 45,000 children in Northern Ireland. That is 45,000 children whom the Tory Government deem irrelevant when it comes to meeting their essential needs of food on the plate and a roof over their heads. Let us be clear: it is a policy that flies in the face of compassion, empathy and basic human decency, although those are not words that I would associate with the current Tory Government anyway, to be honest.

It is also clear that the policy exacerbates gender disparities, with women disproportionately affected due to their higher share of childcare responsibilities. Additionally, we cannot overlook the fact that, until recently, reproductive choice in Northern Ireland was greatly impacted, leaving women in extremely difficult circumstances when faced with an unplanned third or subsequent pregnancy. Comprehensive research by the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE) has shown that there is no evidence that it has increased employment, which was the initial justification. It found that those who had larger families tended to have to care for their own children, citing barriers to childcare and logistics as some of the reasons why they are not economically active. Incidentally, this also links to the necessity for a fully resourced childcare strategy for Northern Ireland.

From an international perspective, none of the other developed countries that are members of the OECD limit the number of children eligible for means-tested family benefits; in fact, they increase with family size. We can be absolutely clear that this is not the type of policy that a developed country with the well-being of its citizens at heart should have in place. While we support the motion and I do not think, in good faith, that any of us would argue that penalising children for the size of their family is good policy and my colleagues Naomi Long and Stephen Farry have vociferously campaigned and voted against the policy at Westminster, we would like it to be noted that we are concerned about the cost implications of a blanket call for a removal of the two-child limit before that happens at Westminster and any legislation can be changed at that level. It would break parity with what is in place and therefore siphon already much-stretched finances into creating an IT system to deliver an alternative rather than into the pockets of families, where it is needed most. I heard some costings, but I did not hear from the Opposition what the implications of breaking parity — making that change — would be.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

The welfare mitigations review panel costed it at about £40 million a year. It then rises a bit. The Member for Strangford disagrees, but that is what is in the —.

Photo of Sian Mulholland Sian Mulholland Alliance

It does not include —.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

First, that is what is in the welfare mitigations review panel's report. We have explained how it would be paid for. It is important to say that we have not come forward with uncosted proposals, but I welcome the fact that the Alliance Party will support the motion.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Sian, you have an extra minute.

Photo of Sian Mulholland Sian Mulholland Alliance

While I agree that you made some reference to costings, the point was more about the infrastructure around removal before there is a change in legislation.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I appreciate the Member's giving way. I will have time to speak later, but, on that point, I thought that it would be useful for the House to have the updated cost for the next financial year, which will be £56·4 million, so it has gone up significantly. It is hard for us to estimate the cost, but the IT systems are additional to that. I make no comment but am giving that figure for the benefit of the House.

Photo of Sian Mulholland Sian Mulholland Alliance

Thank you, Minister. I appreciate the clarity on that.

We recognise the need for something urgent to happen. We know that we need to put money into the pockets of families as quickly as we can. As I said to the Member for North Belfast, this is a crisis. I ask the Minister to assess urgently the practical and fiscal implications of all options for IT and infrastructure and the cost of the mitigation.

In the same spirit, we welcome, in a lukewarm way, the amendment. We do not believe that this can wait for reporting on mitigation schemes. We absolutely want to see the adoption, not just the noting, of the independent advisory panel's recommendations in the welfare mitigations review, including, as was mentioned, the offsetting of the two-child limit by introducing the better start larger families payment. That welfare supplementary payment would mitigate in full the penalising of third and subsequent children and put money back in the pocket of those who need it. Ideally, we would like to see that put in place alongside further recommendations from the mitigations review, such as the better start grant that would support families at pinch points in a child's life, and, as per Alliance policy, we would like to see an additional child payment to vulnerable households to allow for the best start to a child's life.

I will repeat what I said yesterday: regardless of the approach that we take, the question should be not how much this will cost to do but how much it will cost not to do.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

Today is my birthday. You will not believe it, but I am in my 30s. I have just turned 30.

[Laughter.]

On my birthday every year, I have a phone call with my mum. I was the first child of five. My mum tells the story of her going into labour 52 years ago, in 1972. The context of that is important, because I lived in a family that would probably have qualified under today's schemes for universal credit. At times, my mum and dad were in low-paid jobs, and, at times, they relied on social security. They did their very best, and they brought up five brilliant children — I credit my brother and sisters today, although I will not give their names — but, listening to my mum this morning, I was conscious that, of all the emotions that she went through when she brought me into the world, not one of them was, "Will I get the support? Will this be OK? Will I have more kids, and, if I have more kids, what will happen?". I am thinking about my three sisters. There was me and then my brother, and three sisters came along afterwards.

We have in place a draconian, bureaucratic system that puts a price on this society's ability to support families who are in greater need. We know that, in Northern Ireland, we have larger families than on the mainland. I hope that we have bigger families, because I love Northern Ireland and the people of Northern Ireland, and, on that matter and in that manner, we should support them.

In regard to the motion and the amendment, we will absolutely support the motion. There is obviously an issue with the time frame and the ambition of doing it; I add that as a caveat. We were minded to support the amendment, but I will be honest: I will have to listen to the debate further because Mr Kingston's word almost put me off supporting it, because it did not sound to me as though there was much consideration of the impact that this is having on families. I will now race through my speech, but I thought that it was important to give the lived context of that. I will have my ears open, particularly for the Minister's comments on the two-child limit. <BR/>It is imperative that we consider the voices and experiences of the thousands of families, like my family, that would be affected by this. Recent data shows that over 45,000 children in Northern Ireland live in families impacted by the limit, and that is a stark reminder of the human toll of the bureaucratic decision that it was. Moreover, public sentiment regarding the policy is indeed clear. A resounding 64% of the population believe it to be "Very unfair" or "Unfair". Such widespread discontent underscores the moral imperative for action. In fact, a significant majority — 60% of the population — are in favour of abolishing the two-child limit altogether, and that is not merely a matter for political debate; it is a reflection of our collective conscience as a society in Northern Ireland.

The statistics laid bare by the Northern Ireland Audit Office report on child poverty further underscore the urgency of our response. Nearly half of the children living in relative poverty come from families with three or more children, a deeply troubling reality that demands our immediate attention.

At the heart of the issue lies the pernicious two-child limit embedded in universal credit. I use the word "pernicious" because, when I think back, it would have affected my family — my mum and dad. It is a policy that exacerbates poverty rather than alleviates it. Families impacted by the limit are denied vital support, pushing them more deeply into financial hardship, and let us not forget that the majority of those affected are hard-working families, striving to provide for their children in an increasingly challenging economic landscape, as Mr O'Toole referenced.

This is not just about numbers on a balance sheet. It is about the real and tangible consequences faced by families across our nation. It is about the child who goes to bed hungry because their family cannot afford a proper meal. It is about the parent who sacrifices their own well-being to ensure that their children have enough to eat. It is about the cycle of poverty that threatens to engulf generation after generation, robbing them of opportunities and hope, and we heard a lot about that yesterday during our debates.

The cost of inaction is simply too great to bear. The Northern Ireland Audit Office estimates the annual cost of child poverty in our region to be between £825 million and £1 billion, a staggering sum that represents not just economic loss but human suffering. However, we are not without solutions. Removing the two-child limit is within our power and within the jurisdiction of the Northern Ireland Executive. It is a moral imperative and a duty that we owe the most vulnerable members of society. The consequences of childhood poverty far outweigh any short-term financial considerations. Investing in our children today is an investment in our future, a future characterised by prosperity, equality and opportunity.

I pay tribute to the more than 100 organisations across Northern Ireland that have united to advocate mitigations in welfare reform, and I will address one final point. Guys, we really need to get the point where, when we talk about Tory austerity and underfunding, we all understand and come back to the fact that, when this place does not sit, it genuinely sickens the life out of me. Honestly, it is just a pure geg sometimes.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

Absolutely. Go ahead.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

Article 27 of the UN Convention —.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Excuse me, it is up, OK? Thank you.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

As happens when you get to this stage of a debate — I know that a few Members have spoken so far —.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

Will the Member give way just to let me finish my speech, if you do not mind? I just wanted to say this: we are a pure geg in here when we blame everybody else but this place does not sit for five years out of eight and we fail the people of Northern Ireland. Thank you very much, Kellie.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Kellie, you have an extra minute.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

Thank you, Principal Deputy Speaker.

When you get to this stage of a debate, quite a lot of people have talked about stats and figures and the different things that you can talk about, so I will move on from that.

Last week, the child element of universal credit increased to £3,455 per child for child 1 and child 2. What does that £3,455 pay for? It pays for their food. It pays for a child's clothes. It pays for part of the roof over their head, because we know that many people live in houses where their housing benefit does not cover the full rental costs. It pays for their extortionate school uniforms. If there is a school trip, it pays for that. It pays for so many things, so why do we say that child 1 and child 2 can have that but child 3, child 4 and child 5, as in Mr Butler's family, or child 6 or more cannot have that?

The Alliance Party absolutely agrees that the two-child limit is despicable and that it should be removed, but, as my colleague said, there are costs to the removal.

I grew up in a family very like Mr Butler's family. I had the added pleasure of a younger brother — I am the oldest — who had quite severe learning disabilities, and a younger sister. She would not have had any money. My brother's costs, because of the amount of disability that he had and the extra support that we, as a family, needed for him, would have meant that we were under pressure. We lived on benefits, and I had two parents who worked. Looking at this, I can say that to take away what support that there was for me and my brother, for any length of time, would have been unimaginable.

Minister, we will support your amendment. We detest the two-child limit, but we are going to support the amendment because I want a better start larger families payment. I am on the Committee for Communities, and I will hold your feet to the fire on this. Can the Minister tell the House how much the IT system is going to cost and how long it will take to put that system in place to make this a reality? If we jump before Westminster removes the two-child limit, what will the implications be for the House? I do not say that lightly, because, if I could get rid of the two-child limit tomorrow, I would gladly do so, but, pragmatically, I do not want to take the money out of the mouths of children who are already in poverty in Northern Ireland, and which has been counted on by so many people.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

I have suggested how we could pay for this. Obviously, we hope that a future UK Government change the policy at Westminster, but I think that it is affordable here. When she talks about taking it out of the mouths of children, what does she mean exactly? How would removing it ourselves, via mitigation or directly, do that?

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

This is Opposition day. There are lots of coulds and shoulds. I am not interested in coulds and shoulds. I want to make sure that people are not without money. Coulds and shoulds do not pay for somebody's school uniform or put food in a child's mouth. I need to absolutely know that, if we take a decision to do this before Westminster does it, we are not going to put people in a worse situation. I explained that when I spoke to the Cliff Edge Coalition, Action for Children and the British Association of Social Workers. I have spoken to everybody about this. Let us do this, but let us do it well; let us not put people in further poverty. That is why the Alliance Party is supporting the amendment. Asking the Communities Minister for:

"a plan before this Assembly to remove the two-child limit before the end of 2024" is not enough for me. I want to see a payment coming forward.

Just as my colleague has concerns that the amendment is a bit wishy-washy, so do I, but, to be honest, it gives a better direction, and it gives something on which I, as a member of the Communities Committee, can work with the Minister to take forward.

A better start larger families payment by way of a Northern Ireland mitigation will mean that people here will not have to suffer from the loss of the £3,455 per child for the third child and subsequent children, but we need to know where that money is going to come from. If you divide £3,455 per child per year, that cost is £66·45 a week. Where are we going to get that money from? That money will need to come through as part of a coherent anti-poverty strategy in which all of the Executive have agreed to use the money to lift people out of poverty. I would back you on that, Minister, but I do not know whether the whole Executive would be willing to give up the money to allow it to happen. However, we need to do something. Having a better start larger families payment as a mitigation is what we need to do.

That is what we said in the House about the bedroom tax. What a disaster that was, but we could not afford to walk away from the bedroom tax, so we mitigated the costs. That is what we need to do with the two-child limit. Until such times as Westminster changes that, we put a mitigation in place so that we protect children and lift them out of poverty. Sadly, I do not believe that a Labour Government are going to do that. I am concerned that £56 million is only the start of the annual costs for this. The IT costs and the length of time that it would take to implement would mean that we would have a generation of children here who would not have that support because Northern Ireland would not be able to afford it. Therefore, I agree with the amendment, but I say this to the Minister: we are looking at you for this, and we are looking for movement forward on it.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

Many aspects of Tory policy of the past 14 years have brought pain to working people, but, today, we are discussing a uniquely cruel and punitive policy. Since the introduction of the two-child limit, the Tories have insisted that it is designed to boost employment, yet it is perverse Tory social engineering that is designed to punish the most vulnerable, push families over the brink and force more and more children into abject poverty.

The facts speak for themselves. As a result of the two-child limit, families with a third child or more children born since 2017 are missing out on up to £3,500 per child. Over one fifth of families in the North have three or more children. If we continue as we are, more than half of the families across the UK with three or more children will be in poverty in five years' time. The two-child limit is the single biggest driver of child poverty across these islands, so much so that the United Nations has said that the UK is in violation of international law over poverty levels and is grossly underfunding universal credit.

We know that such policies have a devastating impact in Northern Ireland, not only, as has been said, because we have larger families here but because our rates of poverty would shame any other country. They should shame the Executive and they should shame the Assembly. One quarter of children here live in poverty. In my council area of Newry, Mourne and Down, we have the second highest rate of poverty in the North, with children making up 21% of the population. The area also has, at 26%, the joint highest child poverty rate in the North. The social inequalities that we see across the North and then reflected in other ways — for example, in health inequalities — become multigenerational. It becomes a cycle, with generation after generation trapped in poverty. As legislators, how do we help people to break that cycle of poverty?

Poverty is not a personal choice; it is a political choice. It is one that successive Tory Governments — at times, supported by parties here — have made. We certainly will not forget those parties who handed welfare powers back to the Tories 10 years ago. We will listen to hear whether they are crying today about the impacts of doing so. Children and families in Northern Ireland deserve much better than that. Children have the right in law to an adequate standard of living, including the right to social security. The two-child limit, or sibling penalty, runs totally contrary to that right, but it is not enough to just blame the Tories. My party's motion asks the Minister for Communities to present a plan before the Assembly to remove the limit; not to remove it overnight, but to set the direction for, once and for all, ending the poverty trap that has caused so much misery for so many people.

Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Member makes a fantastic point about misery. Does he agree that, for mothers who have conceived through rape, it is extremely re-traumatising to have to prove that their child was conceived through rape, and that that is just another reason why we must end the two-child limit and its horrific impact on mothers across the North?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Colin, you have an extra minute.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you.

Absolutely. Sometimes, the consequences of a policy are completely forgotten. For the consequences in this case to include the re-traumatisation of victims of rape and other crimes is absolutely horrendous.

While he is at it, will the Minister also use the other levers that he has at his disposal to eradicate poverty, including working with his Executive colleagues to introduce proper childcare support? That was meant to be a day-1 matter for the Executive — the four-party Executive. What concrete action have we seen them take so far? A motion? A debate? Maybe a photo shoot? Without change to bring down childcare costs, more and more families will be pushed into poverty. No one should shirk their responsibility to act or blame the Tories without stepping up to do what they can do in this place. It is our duty to mitigate the worst impulses of the Tory Government for whatever time they have left.

In summary, the two-child limit is having a devastating impact on families right across Northern Ireland. It is within our gift to remove it, so I ask the Minister for Communities to get on with his job.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I hope that the DUP, Sinn Féin and Alliance Party MLAs who are sitting here are wholeheartedly ashamed of the role that they played in implementing this detested two-child limit. I would be ashamed to be a member of a party that voted through those rotten Tory welfare reforms, which have condemned so many children to a life of stark deprivation.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

I will just remind the Minister —.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

Member; I am sorry, Gerry. I am giving you promotions. In the House of Commons on 31 January 2012, when the vote was taken, Naomi Long, who was an MP at that stage, voted against welfare reform.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Gerry, you have an extra minute.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I remind the Member that, in 2014 or 2015, I think, in this Building — I was not here, and I do not think that she was either — her party, alongside the DUP and Sinn Féin, voted for welfare reform. You voted for it. I gave way to you, so I would appreciate it if you did not intervene again and shout at me when I am trying to speak.

This appalling attempt at social engineering has plunged too many families into poverty and should be repealed as a matter of course. Just yesterday, we debated child poverty. The statistics give only a partial picture of the hardship that has been wrought by the two-child limit, but it is important that we have them. Nearly half of all children who are living in relative poverty come from families with three or more children, and while nearly one in 10 children in the North live in households that are affected by the two-child limit — that is some 45,000 — it is important to mention the fact that over 4,000 of those children live in my constituency of West Belfast. That means that 16% of children are affected by the two-child limit in West Belfast, where at least 28·5% of children live in poverty.

You can see the damage that has been caused by this disastrous anti-working-class policy. It must be said that that is the harsh reality that has been imposed on our communities by Alliance, Sinn Féin, the DUP and, obviously, the Tories.

The research —.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving way for the second time. Will he agree that the attendance in the House today by MLAs from the DUP, Sinn Féin and Alliance is disappointing given the nature of this important debate? Will he also agree that it is equally disappointing that Alliance, as it did in 2015, is once again acting as a mudguard for the two parties that are failing people?

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I thank the Member for his point. It is a valid one, because there is a bit of collective amnesia, and some spinning of history is being attempted in the debate. People should know better than that.

The research that was presented to us —.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I really need to make headway. If I have time, I will.

The research that was presented to the Assembly shows that the Executive have the power to scrap the two-child limit. More importantly, it shows that the parties that told us that there was no alternative to its implementation told a blatant spoof. Welfare reform and the two-child limit was a choice that the Assembly never had to make, but it chose to make it.

People Before Profit vociferously opposed a raft of Tory-designed welfare reforms, because we maintained that poverty in general, and child poverty specifically, does not have to exist in a society with colossal wealth. While letting the wealthy off the hook for billions in unpaid tax, the Tories, with the help of Stormont, brought forward policies to penalise the poor, the sick and the vulnerable. Indeed, according to one report:

"only the wealthy few, with the financial resilience to withstand all of life’s misfortunes without recourse to the benefits system, could ever responsibly decide to have more than two children."

What a rotten society we live in.

We know what it was about, and we will not forget the role that was played by Sinn Féin, the DUP and Alliance, which implemented welfare reforms, including the two-child limit, in a bid to devolve and cut corporation tax.

Communities across the North are clearly still feeling the harsh impact of those awful political decisions. I agree that we need to scrap the two-child limit. In our view, the entire welfare system is not fit for purpose. It has created a society where to be sick, unemployed or born working class has the potential to condemn you to a life of poverty.

People Before Profit wants the Executive to scrap the two-child limit — of course I do — but what I really want to hear today is a pledge from parties here and from the Minister that they will never again vote for or allow the British Government to roll out welfare reforms with similar intent. We have heard a lot from the Executive about tackling poverty. Welfare is a devolved matter, so I see no good reason why we cannot have a fairer system that allows children and all people to live with a bit of dignity.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin 11:45, 16 April 2024

I call the Minister for Communities, Mr Gordon Lyons, to respond to the debate. Minister, you have 15 minutes.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I thank everyone who has contributed to the debate, and I sincerely thank the Members from the SDLP for their Opposition motions. It is useful for us to have such conversations around what are really important issues, and I am pleased to take part in the debate.

I thought it strange that SDLP Members Mr O'Toole and Mr McCrossan indicated that attendance at debates shows the level of interest that parties have in the matter. The Member pointed towards the attendance of other parties in this place. I do not think that he can draw anything from the attendance of Members today, but, if he is to do that and if he continues down that line, that must mean that the SDLP has no interest in housing, because there was an Adjournment debate on housing last week in the Chamber, and not a single Member of the SDLP turned up. They may want to reconsider their thoughts on that issue.

There is no question that, over the past several years, we have seen significant challenges for people in Northern Ireland and, indeed, the rest of the UK, particularly for our most vulnerable. We have had the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and we have seen food and energy prices increased to the highest levels in four decades. We know that those cost-of-living increases hit low-income households hardest. As Minister, I am committed to continuing the important work of my Department in providing support to those who are most in need.

I acknowledge the findings of the Audit Office's report on child poverty, and I acknowledge the scale of the problems that we face, with 18% of children living in relative poverty. As is highlighted in the report, growing up in poverty has lifelong implications, with children from poorer households being twice as likely to leave school with no GCSEs and those who attain five GCSEs being 24% less likely to get the top grades. That in turn leads to reduced earning potential and employment prospects in adulthood, and that is simply unacceptable. We must work together to give our children a better start and better opportunities not only to simply survive but to thrive and, importantly, to set them on a path to meet their full potential. We know that poverty is rarely caused by a single factor; indeed, the Audit Office report highlights the fact that low incomes, worklessness and the rising cost of living are all among the factors that significantly impact on child poverty.

The factors to alleviate child poverty in our society are also multifaceted, and our approach must be collective and committed. I am certainly committed to doing what I can to drive down the levels of child poverty in Northern Ireland and to working with Executive colleagues to ensure that children who have been affected by poverty are afforded the opportunity to live happy, healthy and productive lives.

The report, based on 2019 to 2020 data, reflects that almost half of children in relative poverty in Northern Ireland live in families with three or more children. The two-child limit will inevitably impact on claimants who have chosen to have larger families. My Department currently administers welfare mitigation schemes to alleviate the impact of specific changes to the social security system in Northern Ireland, such as the benefit cap and the bedroom tax, and the total budgetary requirement for the current mitigations package is £45 million for 2024-25. In October 2022, the independent advisory panel published the report of its welfare mitigations review, and it recommended creating new mitigation schemes, including the better start larger families payment, to offset the two-child limit.

I do not want the House to be in any doubt about my position on the two-child limit. I agree with what nearly every Member has said about that. From the research that has been done since then, the Government's ambitions have not even been met here. The policy has not led to the changes that they hoped for. There are issues with it. I am convinced of the problems that it causes. The issues around rape, for example, are particularly galling; it is horrendous to have to ask any parent to go through that. I do not support or defend the two-child limit in any way, and I do not think that it is of benefit to people in Northern Ireland.

I have to look at the cost of mitigating the two-child policy, however. As I set out earlier, the latest available estimate of the cost of mitigating it, if we were to take it on, is £56·4 million for this year. Kellie Armstrong asked about the total costs: unfortunately, I cannot give them. We have that figure of £56·4 million, which is the mitigation cost, but additional IT systems would need to be in place, and there would be ongoing staff costs. Mr McCrossan, in particular, has frequently raised the issue of staffing in my Department. I simply do not have those additional costs for the Member, but Kellie Armstrong will remember the debates that we had in the House during the previous mandate on the difficulties around IT systems in relation to parental bereavement leave and pay. It is not easy for us to do that in terms of the finance or the infrastructure required.

I think that the SDLP means the motion to mean something other than what it means. My understanding and a plain text reading of the motion is that the SDLP wants me to present a plan before the Assembly to remove the two-child limit before the end of 2024. I think that the leader of the Opposition wants me to present a plan before the end of this year, but, if the plain text reading is right, he actually wants me to remove the two-child limit before the end of 2024. That is simply not possible in terms of finance and, particularly, the IT infrastructure that would be necessary. I am committed to doing what I can to address the issue. Concerns have been expressed via the amendment that my colleagues tabled, but I can assure the Member that I am working at pace to bring the report forward as quickly as possible. Although the amendment asks me to bring it forward before the end of the financial year, I believe that I will be in a position to bring it before the end of the calendar year, if not sooner. I understand how important it is. My officials are currently —.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I will, yes.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Minister mentioned our text. It asks him to bring a plan to remove the two-child limit before the end of 2024. The Minister's party colleague said that that was unaffordable. The Minister says that he will look at the panel review and bring forward a report by the end of 2024 but seems to be saying that he rules out action to remove the two-child limit. Is there not a contradiction, if the Minister is saying that he cannot afford it and that it will not happen? Why is he bringing forward a report in the first place, if he has prejudged its outcome, and why is our motion objectionable in that regard?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

My understanding is that the Member is asking me to remove the two-child limit this year. If the motion does not mean that but means what, I think, he actually means, which is to bring forward a plan to remove it, I cannot commit definitely to do so, because of the costs that I have outlined. I appreciate that the Member is trying to be a bit more mature than most opposition parties may be. He has tried to give evidence of where the funding would come from. He used the example of the non-domestic vacant rating, which, I think, he has spoken about before. We know how much that has brought in in the past: it alone would not cover the cost, and nor would the regional rate increase, which, I think, the Member's party was against. Certainly, his party leader complained about it on Twitter yesterday, and Mr McGrath has been particularly concerned about the rate rises in his area.

We cannot have it both ways. We cannot be opposed to regional rates or come to the House with four or five different ways in which that money could be spent and then ask for it to be spent on something else as well. I am trying to be up front and honest with Members by saying that yes, of course, I want to be in a position to remove the limit, but that I do not believe that we will be in a position to take it on ourselves, put in the legislative changes and pay for them. I want to look at that report in the round, however. I want to look at all the interventions and at how we can use the resources that we have to make sure that we tackle the issues that cause the greatest distress and hardship and contribute to poverty. Of course child poverty is a problem. I am wholly committed to playing my part in alleviating that, but I cannot support the motion as framed to remove the two-child policy by the end of this year.

Tackling poverty is, of course, a responsibility for the entire Executive. I know that I am going back over some of the points that were made in the debate yesterday, but it is worth repeating that we are working at pace on the development and implementation of an anti-poverty strategy. We are looking at how we, as an Executive, can best move that forward. I want to work with Executive colleagues to agree an anti-poverty strategy that is sustainable and deliverable, and the issues raised will form part of that.

I will comment on some of the speeches that we have heard today. I completely agree with what the Chairman of the Committee for Communities said about the impact of the policy. He was realistic about finding a way for us to offset sustainably the impact of the two-child limit. I also welcome the comments from Sian Mulholland in that regard. She took a sensible approach by recognising that it is not just about the cost of the mitigations but about the cost of the IT systems and the infrastructure. That is why it is important that we consider all the recommendations in the round. If we are to put additional resources into tackling poverty, I want to make sure that we spend them on people and not on IT systems, where possible. To be fair to the Opposition, however, I think that they realise that there does not need to be complete abolition and that, rather, mitigation is possible. I accept that.

I wish Robbie Butler a very happy birthday. I am glad that his mother still calls him on his birthday. I hope that he calls his mother as well and not just on his birthday. I recognise the points that he made about the impact that the policy has on larger families in particular. Other Members made similar points. We do not want to find ourselves in the position in which children are penalised simply because their parents have more children. Kellie Armstrong referred to that issue as well.

Mr McGrath mentioned the importance of childcare: that is a priority for the Executive. That we are not making announcements about it in the Chamber does not mean that the work is not ongoing. Paul Givan has taken on the issue from day 1. It has been a constant theme around the Executive table, and I look forward to progress being made.

Mr McGrath also made the point that tackling poverty is not simply about any one issue. Yes, the two-child limit is important, but this is about getting people into work; getting people better-paid jobs; making sure that people have appropriate childcare so that they can work; making sure that we address health inequalities; and making sure that people have warm homes in which to live. All of that contributes to the outcomes that we want to see, and that is what I am committed to doing. He told me to get on with the job: I assure him that that is exactly what I am doing, as I want to see the wider issue of child poverty sorted out. We need to address it. Doing that will take many different forms, and I look forward to making sure that we deliver.

In closing, I —.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

Yes, quickly.

Photo of Nuala McAllister Nuala McAllister Alliance

You mentioned all the different ways in which we can address poverty. I highlight something that was not mentioned in the debate today: while the Tory Government have ripped away the safety net from many families across Northern Ireland, many organisations in the charity and voluntary sectors have stepped up and provided the much-needed support that the Government should have provided. It is important to put it on record that we are grateful to the organisations that are knitted into our community for providing support where the Government have fallen down.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

If we did not have the voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland, we would find ourselves in a horrendous situation. It holds so much together, and it has really borne the brunt of some of the spending constraints that have been in place in recent years, so I completely acknowledge and accept what the Member said. That ongoing support is vital, and if that support were to be taken away, it would put incredible strain on our public services. I join her in paying tribute to the sector.

I hope that Members can see what we are trying to do through the amendment. It is realistic, and I give the personal commitment that I will do everything that I can to address child poverty.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin 12:00, 16 April 2024

Thank you, Minister. I call Brian Kingston to make a winding-up speech on the amendment. Brian, you have five minutes.

Photo of Brian Kingston Brian Kingston DUP

Thank you, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker. I thank all Members for their comments. We thank the SDLP, the Opposition party, for bringing the motion. Although we have proposed an amendment, I would point out to them that the majority of the wording of their motion will be kept. Our amendment is towards the end of the motion, and on the best way to address these issues. We agree with the SDLP that we acknowledge the findings of the Audit Office report on child poverty, that nearly half of children living in relative poverty come from families with three or more children. We recognise the pernicious role that the universal credit two-child limit has played in increasing the number of children in poverty, and we understand that the majority of those negatively impacted by the two-child limit are working families.

Through our amendment, instead of requiring the Minister to introduce the mitigation by the end of this financial year from the block grant from which we have to run public services in Northern Ireland, we are charting a way forward with a view to the better start larger families payment, and the recommendations regarding that.

We thank the other Members for their comments. Colm Gildernew spoke about other mitigation measures. He pointed out that the Executive have to meet the associated costs from the block grant, and that we needed to be realistic about costs and timescale. Sian Mulholland, likewise, was concerned about the cost implications of breaking parity with benefit funding from the Treasury. She said that she would give lukewarm recognition to the amendment, which we will accept in the circumstances.

[Laughter.]

Of course, we are dealing with an imperfect situation, and a rule that we all agree is punitive and is punishing larger families.

Robbie Butler said that the cost of inaction was too great to bear. Kellie Armstrong wanted to see the better start larger families payment actively brought forward, and said that she would be looking for evidence of that. She said that we needed certainty of the consequence of funding in the absence of Treasury funding and that the amendment at least gave better direction, and that Alliance would support it.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

I will be brief. Will the Member acknowledge that your amendment — the Alliance Party should be clear about this — does not call on the Minister to introduce a better start larger families payment? It asks that the Assembly:

"notes the recommendations of the independent advisory panel report" including this proposal, and:

"calls on the Minister for Communities to consider the merits of this proposal".

Anyone in the Chamber who is saying or implying that the amendment creates a better start larger families payment or in any way obliges the Minister to introduce it is, I am afraid, codding people on. It is very lukewarm, to use a phrase.

Photo of Brian Kingston Brian Kingston DUP

The problem is that the original proposal is looking for —

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Brian, you have an extra minute.

Photo of Brian Kingston Brian Kingston DUP

— an in-year commitment during the financial year, a £56·4 million cost, plus IT and staff costs. These things have to be done in a way that is sustainable and within the finances that we have available. To find possibly £100 million in-year would be hugely damaging to other public services, and your party — all parties — are highlighting needs in the public sector. This is not ignoring the issue. It is trying to have a considered and planned way forward.

Colin McGrath said that the two-child limit was a uniquely cruel and punitive policy, and also mentioned that up to a quarter of children here are living in poverty. Gerry Carroll said that the entire benefits system is not fit for purpose and that, in his view, the Assembly should not implement any changes to the benefit system that are agreed at Westminster.

The Minister, in response, highlighted that the economic shocks of recent years have been experienced most by lower-income families. He is committed to doing what he can, through his Department, to drive down poverty levels so that children can live happy, healthy and productive lives. He pointed out that there are mitigations in place that cost £45 million per year. He highlighted the costs of ending the two-child limit at £56·4 million per annum, in addition to IT and staff costs. He said that he expects that the report that he requested will be brought back by the end of the calendar year, if not sooner. He also reiterated that he is wholly committed to reducing poverty and child poverty, as indeed is my entire party.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I call Mark Durkan to make a winding-up speech on the motion. Mark, you have 10 minutes.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

[Translation: Thank you, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker.]

Our unique position, growing housing crisis, low-wage economy, prevalence of larger families and high levels of people living with a disability mean that the impact of welfare reform has been more pronounced here. The need for mitigations was recognition that this policy was, and is, wrong. Social justice is a core founding principle of the SDLP, and I argue that the two-child cap, the biggest driver of poverty in the UK, is one of the biggest social justice challenges of our time. To stand idly by would contradict the essence of not just my party but that of the Assembly and Executive. This policy contradicts the principles of equality and fairness and cannot merely be mitigated — it must be abolished.

Since the introduction of welfare reform, compounded by the lack of a functioning Executive, we have seen an increase in child poverty rates, rising homelessness and a huge rise in the use of food banks. As of last April, 422,000 children were impacted by this cruel cap, a number that will rise massively given the recent migration of tax credit claims to universal credit. We are yet to feel the full punch of a policy that disproportionately impacts on single-parent households, chiefly single mothers. The UC migration will ensure that families with three or more children will be financially disadvantaged by £3,400 per year per child for their third child and every additional child, entrenching poverty as a daily reality for hundreds of thousands of children. Impact will differ from home to home: some will get it bad, and some will get it worse.

The impact is also being felt sharply by and across our local economy. Many in the Chamber were led to believe that the two-child cap, the benefit cap and the five-week wait under UC would be resolved under secondary welfare legislation. In 2021, Minister Deirdre Hargey assured me that they remained a priority consideration and would be progressed as a matter of urgency. The Sinn Féin/DUP-led Executive, however, failed people as they engaged in sham fights over mitigations. Now, Minister Lyons states that he has no plans to mitigate the two-child policy.

A Member:

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Sorry, I do not really have time. I will come to you if I have time later on.

It is important to understand the events that got us here. The two-child limit was floated by then Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, among additional austerity-based welfare reform measures, as part of his post-election emergency Budget in July 2015. Osborne was, even then, deemed one of the most disastrous post-war Chancellors Britain had ever seen — too posh and too out of touch even for the Tories. His reforms were intended to encourage people into work and to cut the welfare bill. It is all very reminiscent of Victorian Poor Law, and I do not make the comparison flippantly. Those laws compelled the idle to work and perpetuated harmful, divisive stereotypes about the poor — the benefit scroungers — rather than setting sights on the big fish that continue to evade tax by the billion.

Some of this narrative was sadly parroted by the DUP at times and in places. I have to say that I am glad that they seem to have wised up, at least in that regard. Essentially, the Dickensian policies, founded by the Tory Government and rubber-stamped by the DUP, Sinn Féin and Alliance, have created a system whereby households in full-time work do not earn enough to support themselves.

I should point out for context that that was the Tory agenda that was in play at the very time when the Assembly voted to vest power in Westminster to inflict welfare reform on the North. The vote in 2015 by the DUP, Sinn Féin and Alliance was not just to acquiesce to the Welfare Reform Act 2012 but to fully endorse the entire suite of reforms — sorry, cuts — that were being driven by a Tory Government. They gave the big, bad Tory wolves the keys to the henhouse. The SDLP was the only party, both at Westminster and in the Assembly, that consistently voted against those reforms. Even Iain Duncan Smith resigned in 2016, claiming that universal credit was not achieving its intended aim of supporting working families and was not safeguarding people with disabilities.

I make no bones about it: the two-child cap is discriminatory by design. It disproportionately impacts on families from specific cultural and religious backgrounds, including Catholics and migrants. According to the Child Poverty Action Group, there are twice as many large poorer families here as there are in Scotland and the south-west of the UK. Colm Gildernew made those exact points and stated that his party continues to call for the UK to scrap the policy. Sinn Féin would have been better voting against it than standing with placards on the lawns of Westminster.

Despite those circumstances, Mr Lyons recently confirmed that no equality assessment has been carried out on the impact of the two-child cap on the North or on women specifically. It is unforgivable that such a profound policy change was accepted while Departments were blindfolded to the reality of its consequences in this region. As if the nature of the two-child policy was not odious enough, the rape clause, which was raised by, among others, Ms Mulholland and Mr McGrath, is an egregious example of insensitivity and injustice in policymaking. It forces women to disclose deeply traumatic experiences of sexual assault in order to access welfare support for a third child who has been conceived as a result of rape. That re-traumatises and dehumanises survivors. It also poses a greater ethical dilemma for social workers in the North than that faced by their GB counterparts, because, under section 5 of the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967, a social worker could face prosecution for not reporting a rape disclosed to them during a universal credit application. The policy therefore fails to safeguard not only women but the social work sector.

It is a policy that drives poverty and places the UK in violation of international law under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. If such reforms broke Britain, I fear that they will eviscerate the North. How can we, in good conscience, accept that as an example of effective policy? We have been elected to make this place work. That means making tough decisions, but not at the expense or to the detriment of the people whom we represent. We are under no illusion that funding the removal of the two-child policy will be easy. We estimate that it will cost in the region of £135 million in the first three years. That could be, as my colleagues have said, funded by using the rates increase and further reform of the rates system. In reference to a point that the Minister made, the more you increase rates — we are not looking to increase rates across the board — the more empty premises we will see.

We are open to exploring options alongside Departments and Executive parties. We tabled this motion to get the Executive to act, not to embarrass them for not acting, although it would be impossible to embarrass some of the parties here. I am disappointed but not surprised that the parties that enabled that punitive policy have circled the wagons. Alliance is voting for an amendment that Ms Armstrong described as being "wishy-washy" rather than taking a principled stand or even giving us a plan for how to put money back into people's purses now — wishy-washy indeed.

To not support our motion because of cost, when there have been no such concerns as Executive parties have passed motion after apple-pie motion that would see spending like we have not seen since 'Brewster's Millions', suggests that some have misunderstood the meaning of Opposition day. Sinn Féin Members seem to have gone into hiding, although I am glad that they seem to be in breach of their two-MLA limit.

Child poverty costs society an estimated £1 billion per year, but abolishing the two-child limit has been lauded as the most cost-effective way of reducing those costs and would immediately lift a quarter of a million children out of poverty. Inaction on the matter will cost us dearly. On balance, we cannot accept that scrapping this callous rule would place serious and recurring constraints on public spending. We will not, as you will not be surprised to hear, support the amendment, which calls on the Minister to have a wee think about the merits of maybe doing something this time next year.

I thank and put on record our party's thanks to all those who work so hard in the sector. Their commitment has been unwavering, and their work has at times been harrowing. We thank them.

Question put, That the amendment be made. The Assembly divided:

<SPAN STYLE="font-style:italic;"> Ayes 69; Noes 10

AYES

Dr Archibald, Ms Armstrong, Mr Baker, Mr Beattie, Mr Blair, Mr Bradley, Ms Bradshaw, Mr Brett, Miss Brogan, Mr Brooks, Ms Brownlee, Mr Brown, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Ms Bunting, Mr Butler, Mrs Cameron, Mr Chambers, Mr Clarke, Mr Delargy, Mr Dickson, Mrs Dillon, Mrs Dodds, Mr Donnelly, Mr Dunne, Ms Eastwood, Ms Egan, Mr Elliott, Ms Ennis, Mrs Erskine, Ms Ferguson, Ms Flynn, Ms Forsythe, Mr Frew, Mr Gildernew, Mr Givan, Miss Hargey, Mr Harvey, Mr Honeyford, Mr Irwin, Mr Kearney, Mr Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mr Kingston, Mrs Little-Pengelly, Mr Lyons, Mr McAleer, Miss McAllister, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Miss McIlveen, Mr McReynolds, Mrs Mason, Mr Mathison, Mr Middleton, Mr Muir, Ms Mulholland, Ms Á Murphy, Mr C Murphy, Mr Nesbitt, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Miss Reilly, Mr Robinson, Mr Sheehan, Ms Sheerin, Mr Stewart, Mr Tennyson

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Brooks, Mr Kingston

NOES

Mr Carroll, Mr Durkan, Mr Easton, Ms Hunter, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Ms McLaughlin, Mr McNulty, Mr O'Toole

Tellers for the Noes: Mr McCrossan, Mr McGrath

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to. Resolved:

That this Assembly acknowledges the findings of the recent Northern Ireland Audit Office report on child poverty that nearly half of all children living in relative poverty come from families with three or more children; recognises the pernicious role that the universal credit two-child limit has played in increasing the number of children in poverty; understands that the majority of those negatively impacted by the two-child limit are working families; notes that removing this limit is within the powers of the Northern Ireland Executive but would place serious and recurring constraints on public spending; further notes the recommendations of the independent advisory panel report 'Welfare Mitigations Review', including the proposal to offset the two-child limit by introducing a better start larger families payment; and calls on the Minister for Communities to consider the merits of this proposal when meeting his statutory obligation to produce a report on the current, and future, operation of welfare mitigation schemes by the end of this financial year.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin 12:15, 16 April 2024

Members, take your ease, please, until we change the top Table. Thank you.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Blair] in the Chair)

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

Members, order —.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

Mr Deputy Speaker, may I take this opportunity to apologise to the Chamber, yourself and, indeed, the Minister for my phone inadvertently going off in the previous debate?

Some Members:

Shame.

[Laughter.]

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

Thank you for that. I am sure that Members appreciate your clarification.