The coalition looks to widen its attack on child benefit

The benefit could be limited to two children for all families.

Having accused those parents aggrieved at losing their child benefit of "fiscal nimbyism", the government looks set to go even further in its assault on welfare. Treasury minister David Gauke (the man responsible for that "nimbyism" jibe) yesterday revealed on Radio 4's Moneybox that the coalition was considering limiting child benefit to a maximum of two children for all families. Iain Duncan Smith has previously suggested that the government could restrict benefits for out-of-work families, but Gauke hinted that the measure could also apply to those in-work. He said: "We are looking at it in terms of the welfare bill across the board as to how that might work." A Treasury source went on to tell the Daily Mail:

All options are being looked at in this area. It’s not something we can do retrospectively. The main focus is on the incentives that apply to workless households as opposed to working households. You could just do that with child tax credits. But we are looking in detail at child benefit as well. We are looking at various options.

The government emphasised that no details had been settled and that the measure "would only apply to new children", but it would still be wise to tread carefully. Limiting child benefit to two children, regardless of parental employment status, would be seen as a betrayal of its promise to "make work pay". It would also be yet another example of the government penalising families. Since coming to power, the coalition has abolished baby bonds, removed the ring-fence on Sure Start (leading to hundreds of centres closing), frozen child benefit for three years, scrapped the Health in Pregnancy Grant and withdrawn child tax credits from higher earners. Pensioners, by contrast, have retained universal benefits, including free bus passes, free television licen­ces and the Winter Fuel Allowance. While cutting welfare for families isn't a good argument for cutting welfare for the elderly (we need not choose between competing sets of welfare cuts, in other words), it will be even harder for the government to maintain this double standard if it widens its assault on child benefit.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith speaks at last month's Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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