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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Sooner or later, a British university is going to go bankrupt

Theresa May's anti-immigration policies will have a big impact - and no-one is talking about it. 

The most effective way to regenerate somewhere? Build a university there. Of all the bits of the public sector, they have the most beneficial local effects – they create, near-instantly, a constellation of jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Don’t forget that the housing crisis in England’s great cities is the jobs crisis everywhere else: universities not only attract students but create graduate employment, both through directly working for the university or servicing its students and staff.

In the United Kingdom, when you look at the renaissance of England’s cities from the 1990s to the present day, universities are often unnoticed and uncelebrated but they are always at the heart of the picture.

And crucial to their funding: the high fees of overseas students. Thanks to the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge in television and film, the wide spread of English around the world, and the soft power of the BBC, particularly the World Service,  an education at a British university is highly prized around of the world. Add to that the fact that higher education is something that Britain does well and the conditions for financially secure development of regional centres of growth and jobs – supposedly the tentpole of Theresa May’s agenda – are all in place.

But at the Home Office, May did more to stop the flow of foreign students into higher education in Britain than any other minister since the Second World War. Under May, that department did its utmost to reduce the number of overseas students, despite opposition both from BIS, then responsible for higher education, and the Treasury, then supremely powerful under the leadership of George Osborne.

That’s the hidden story in today’s Office of National Statistics figures showing a drop in the number of international students. Even small falls in the number of international students has big repercussions for student funding. Take the University of Hull – one in six students are international students. But remove their contribution in fees and the University’s finances would instantly go from surplus into deficit. At Imperial, international students make up a third of the student population – but contribute 56 per cent of student fee income.

Bluntly – if May continues to reduce student numbers, the end result is going to be a university going bust, with massive knock-on effects, not only for research enterprise but for the local economies of the surrounding area.

And that’s the trajectory under David Cameron, when the Home Office’s instincts faced strong countervailing pressure from a powerful Treasury and a department for Business, Innovation and Skills that for most of his premiership hosted a vocal Liberal Democrat who needed to be mollified. There’s every reason to believe that the Cameron-era trajectory will accelerate, rather than decline, now that May is at the Treasury, the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy doesn’t even have responsibility for higher education anymore. (That’s back at the Department for Education, where the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, is a May loyalist.)

We talk about the pressures in the NHS or in care, and those, too, are warning lights in the British state. But watch out too, for a university that needs to be bailed out before long. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.