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Why Cameron has rejected Nadhim Zahawai's child benefit plan

The Tory MP's plan to limit all child-related benefits to two children would undermine the 'striver'/'scrounger' divide by hitting all families, regardless of their employment status.

David Cameron talks during a PM Direct event at the Tetley Tea factory in Darlington on December 13, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Earlier this week, George Osborne vowed to cut "billions" more from welfare if the Tories win the next election. In an op-ed in today's Mail on Sunday, Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi suggests one way he could do so. The No. 10 policy board member calls for the government to limit all "child-related welfare" to "the first two children". Here's the key passage:

This would include Child Benefit and Child Tax Credit but would exclude disability payments.

It would apply to all households, both in and out of work, and only to new births after the change became law. Capping welfare at two children may seem tough, but setting the cap at three simply wouldn’t deliver the savings we need.

At first sight, this might merely appear to be a restatement of the proposal previously floated by Iain Duncan Smith. The Work and Pensions Secretary said in September 2012: "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 there are several key differences with the Duncan Smith plan, which was vetoed by the Lib Dems before the 2012 Autumn Statement. The first is that Zahawi's cap would apply to all child-related benefits, rather than child benefit alone. The second is that it would apply to all families, rather than just those claiming out-of-work benefits. It's the latter point that explains why No. 10 has been quick to stamp on the idea, with a source commenting: "this is not government policy and is not supported by the prime minister."

Were the Tories to limit child-related benefits for all families, regardless of their employment status, it would undermine the 'striver'/'scrounger' divide they have worked so hard to create. As Grant Shapps said of the Duncan Smith plan earlier this year: "A lot of people worry that the way welfare operated under the last government meant claimants were free from taking the difficult decisions you would take if you are in work – none more starkly obvious than when you have children.

"If you are a working family and you have another child, you know it’s going to mean quite a severe impact on your living costs. Yet in the welfare system, it’s almost turned on its head, so additional children are actually recognised, with no limit. We need to create a choice for people on welfare which mirrors that which millions of people in work who aren’t receiving state support have to make. It’s only fair to the taxpayer."

This, of course, is nonsense. There is no evidence that significant numbers of families have more children merely to claim benefits and nor is it clear why it would be a less "difficult decision" for them to do so (unlike in-work families, they cannot draw on private salaries as well as social security). But Shapps rightly believes there is a ready audience for his rhetoric.

While the Duncan Smith proposal would help to reinforce the artificial divide created between "working" and "workless" families (owing to the insecure labour market, many cycle in and out of work), the Zahawi plan would undermine it. For that reason, while the former idea will almost certainly appear in the next Tory manifesto, the latter will not.

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