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The two child limit on welfare support

As an organisation committed to reproductive choice, we advocate for policies and practices that enable women to make their own decisions around preventing, ending, conceiving, or continuing a pregnancy. We understand that there are often a number of factors which influence women’s family planning decisions. While for some women the decision to end a pregnancy is rooted in the desire to not have a child at that point in time, or indeed at all, other women will end a wanted pregnancy which they would have continued had their life circumstances been different.

The government’s two-child limit policy, which was first introduced in April 2017, severely restrict the amount of financial support for families with three or more children. After the first two children, universal credit and child tax credits can only be claimed in respect of a third or subsequent child born after April 2017 if one of the exceptions applies – if a pregnancy results in a multiple birth and prior to that pregnancy there were fewer than two children in that household, where the pregnancy was the result of non-consensual sex and the claimant can prove that she is not living at the same address as her attacker, or where the child in question was adopted or is being cared for in a non-parental relationship by the claimant.1 This additional support is worth nearly £2,900 per child per year.

Our research has found that the two-child limit is a significant factor in women’s decision making around whether or not to continue a pregnancy. The charity undertook research with 240 women who ended a pregnancy during the pandemic and who already had two or more children. Half (49%) were in receipt of Universal Credit or Tax Credits and would therefore likely be immediately affected by the two-child limit, and the majority were aware of the two-child limit. Among these women, the majority (57%) said that the policy was important in their decision-making around whether or not to continue the pregnancy. 

The policy assumes that decisions about the number of children a person will have can be neatly planned, when this is far from the truth. No contraception is 100% reliable. BPAS has previously commented that the majority of women who avail of abortion services in our clinics are using at least one type of contraception, with a quarter of women using a hormonal contraceptive (pills, patches or rings) or a long-acting reversible contraceptive (IUD, injection, implant or IUS) when they became pregnant. 

Polling commissioned by BPAS and conducted by Censuswide in 2021 shows that, when made aware of this research, 69% of adults think the government should scrap the two-child limit or suspend it during the pandemic – including a majority of Conservative voters.

The poll of more than 2000 UK adults found:

  • Over 3 in 5 (61%) UK adults agree that the two-child limit should be suspended during COVID-19 so that all children are supported through the pandemic.
  • Over 3 in 5 (61%) agree no woman should feel forced into an abortion because of the two-child limit policy.
  • Given that research has shown that a significant proportion of women were impacted by the two-child limit in their decision to get an abortion during the COVID-19 pandemic, 69% think the government should scrap the two child-limit.
  • Over a third (36%) think it should be scrapped altogether and just under a third (32%) think it should be scrapped during COVID-19.
  • Among Conservative voters, 25% said they believe the policy should be scrapped altogether, and 29% support suspending the policy during the pandemic.

Safety net: The government’s position on the two-child policy as incentivising sensible family planning entirely ignores the vital function welfare supports serve for families that experience unexpected financial hardship, for example due to the death or separation of parents, sudden illness, the onset of a disability, or an involuntary reduction in earnings. The policy expects recipients  to be in a position to plan their financial circumstances for the 18 years following the birth of a child. Changes in financial circumstances can render the most carefully planned families susceptible to sudden and devastating poverty. Any family with more than two children that falls on hard times will be refused welfare payments in respect of their third and subsequent children. 

‘Non-consensual conception’: Even in instances where a woman qualifies for an exemption because a child was conceived as a result of rape, she is required to recount the traumatic experience in order to avail of the exemption. It also requires that a woman availing of this exemption is not living at the same address as her attacker, which automatically disqualifies anyone who has not yet, or cannot exit an abusive relationship. One of the primary factors that leads women to remain in abusive relationships are practical barriers- their abusive partner controls the money they have access to so they cannot support their children otherwise, they fear the escalation in violence that often accompanies leaving a violent partner, or they fear having their children taken away. The way this exemption has been set up compounds the vulnerability of women by making demands that are impossible for many women to meet in order to be able to effectively support their children.