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.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.