Tory MPs respond to Philpott case by calling for new curbs on child benefit

Those calling for child benefit to be limited to the first two offspring need to explain why children should be punished for being born into large families.

Update: George Osborne has just made the link even more explicitly than his Conservative colleagues. Following Philpott's sentencing, he said: "It's right we ask questions as a government, a society and as taxpayers, why we are subsidising lifestyles like these. It does need to be handled."

It isn't just the Daily Mail that is seeking to make political capital out of the Derby fire deaths. Conservative MPs have responded to the Philpott case by reviving calls for child benefit to be limited to two children per family. David Davis tells today's Times that it is not "a good idea to make policy on the back of one story" but adds that "there is a strong argument to restrict child benefit whether it is to two, three, or four children."

Bernard Jenkin adds his support ("I would support limiting child benefit for new claimants to a maximum of two children"), while Mark Reckless says: 

The welfare bill is far too high and it needs to come down. One measure might be to restrict child benefit by comparing the average number of children in working families to those in out-of-work families. 

In a leader, the Times also argues that "It is time to look again at Iain Duncan Smith's suggestion that child benefit be capped or limited to the first two children."

The proposal was first floated by Duncan Smith last October as a means of deterring out-of-work families from having large numbers of children (although Treasury minister David Gauke later suggested it could also apply to in-work claimants). The Work and Pensions Secretary said then:

My view is that if you did this you would start it for those who begin to have more than say two children. Essentially it's about the amount of money that you pay to support how many children, and what is clear to the general public, that they make decisions based on what they can afford for the number of children they have. That is the nature of what we all do.

But the scale of the problem has been much exaggerated. At present, just four per cent of families with a parent on Jobseeker's Allowance have more than two children. And, of course, the identity of those families is in constant flux: only 1.5 per cent of those on benefits have never worked. Those who advocate the policy also need to explain why children should be punished simply for having been born into large families. Restricting child benefit to the first two offspring would inevitably lead to a surge in child poverty. Fortunately, Anne Begg, the Labour chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, is on hand to offer some sanity.

She tells the Times: "I don't think that you can make up policy on individual cases and in almost call cases child benefit goes on paying for children's expenses". 

"Just because that man [Philpott] has managed to bring about the destruction of his children does not mean that everyone getting child benefit should be penalised as a result."

The proposal was put forward by Duncan Smith for inclusion in last year's Autumn Statement but, thankfully, was vetoed by the Lib Dems. However, as I noted yesterday (Welfare cuts: how they could have been even worse), it is likely to appear in the 2015 Conservative manifesto along with a host of other draconian measures. 

Former Conservative leadership candidate David Davis said: "there is a strong argument to restrict child benefit whether it is to two, three, or four children". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.