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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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