Welfare reform: Are big families the problem?

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Parents should bear more responsibility for the number of children they choose to have, and cannot expect the state to fund unlimited offspring, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has said.

Image caption,
Fairness: Who decides how many mouths parents can afford to feed?

But are large families a serious drain on the welfare budget? And to whom are these policies most appealing?

Mr Hunt was speaking after this week's Conservative Party conference, when Chancellor George Osborne announced a cap on the level of benefits a family could claim.

The government intends to limit claims to about £26,000 a year - the average working family income.

Meanwhile, massive welfare reforms were unveiled - including a scrapping of child benefit for higher earners.

At their conference this week - dominated by talk of cuts - the Tories described their measures as "tough but fair".

And "fairness" has been the watchword of recent times. Some newspapers have been carrying regular stories on large families of out-of-work "benefit scroungers".

The story is provided as an illustration for Mr Hunt's comments about the benefits cap.

Pete and Sam Smith, who are unemployed and have 10 children, were reportedly rehoused in Bristol after becoming homeless, and given a "bed-and-breakfast deal" by the council, which includes delivery of breakfast to their house each morning.

The "grasping" 32-year-old has "five children by four different men and has never worked a day in her life", says the Sun.

'Undeserving parents'

For some, stories like this add weight to the argument the current system is unfair on taxpayers.

But critics of the planned welfare limits say, despite widespread coverage given to "scrounger families", the proportion of parents setting out to create large benefits-dependent families is "tiny".

They point to estimates that only an estimated 50,000 households may be affected by the £26,000 benefits cap, planned for 2013.

However the Treasury says the policy will save "hundreds of millions" of pounds. Details will remain thin on the ground until the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) announcement later this month.

"People are not going to live a life of luxury on benefits, believe me," says Labour MP Kate Green, a former head of the Child Poverty Action Group.

"There are all sort of myths and stories out there about families who have got vast extravagant luxuries on benefits.

"It simply isn't true. Families on benefits are really struggling to make ends meet and the fact that there is some sort of incentive within the benefits system [to have more children] is really not the case."

She told the BBC: "Of course there are a small minority of parents who are being able to take benefits from the system and are perhaps not making the effort we would expect to look for work, but we do have stringent conditions for benefits.

"What we are talking about here is some sort of judgement of undeserving parents, as perceived by the government, many of whom are desperate to do their best for their kids."

When asked about reports that the benefits system contained 900 claimants with eight or more children, she said: "That is obviously a concern in terms of how those 900 parents are coping and there may be all sorts of reasons why they have that number of children.

"It doesn't say to me that we have lots and lots of families - in a population of 12 million children - who are in that situation."

When asked how much families on £26,000-plus were receiving in benefits, the Department for Work and Pensions said it was still working on the full details of the cap, in time for the CSR, and planned to publish an "impact assessment" when the legislation was introduced.

Policy 'largely rhetorical'

Jill Kirby, director of right-leaning think tank the Centre for Policy Studies, says Jeremy Hunt makes a "reasonable point" about the unfairness working parents perceive is happening.

She told the BBC some working parents might see a single mother living on benefits who appears not to have the same constraints on her ability to afford another child, as a working couple might have.

"This is only a minority problem but it is definitely a problem, insofar as many people feel they are working, paying taxes to support households where nobody is really making much effort to be in work.

"We don't want to have a culture - which we do have in some pockets of this country - where work is an alien concept to households."

There is speculation that some of the government's emphasis on "workshy" benefit claimants may have a political motive.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, deputy editor Benedict Brogan says one potential payback for such "revolutionary" welfare reforms could be "devastation" for a section of the Labour vote.

He suggests the policies will appeal to the working-class Tories who "rallied to Margaret Thatcher and are now fed up with seeing feckless neighbours spending their lives in front of wide-screen plasma TVs, courtesy of the taxpayer".

"Cutting off their income, coupled with the introduction of work tests for those on the dole will - [George] Osborne calculates - cut off Labour for good from one of its key pools of support."

Seamus Milne, in the Guardian, says the child benefit cuts were aimed to lay the ground for David Cameron's conference message that "broader shoulders should bear a greater load".

But, says Milne, while the coalition seeks to convince the less well-off otherwise "the reality is they will do nothing of the kind". Instead, the poorest will lose out the most from the government cuts and from further job losses, he adds.

Tom MacInnes, research director at the New Policy Institute think tank, says policymakers can find it "helpful" to paint benefits claimants in a certain light, in order to garner support for those policies.

"The 'offence' caused by those people is not in proportion to the saving that would be made [by cutting their benefits]."

"The effect of the policies - including cuts to housing benefit - looks like homelessness for some families. But will the state actually allow those people to become homeless?

"Someone will have to pick up the pieces, probably at local level."

"So you wonder if this is all largely rhetorical.

"Perhaps it's not so much about those people, but about the message it puts across."

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