NI two-child welfare limit ‘heavy burden’ on poorer families

NI two-child welfare limit ‘heavy burden’ on poorer families Director of Precious Life, Bernadette Smyth.
Religious families in the North could be disproportionately affected by the two-child policy, writes Chai Brady

A decision to deny child welfare supports for the third or subsequent children born into families struggling financially may have gone unnoticed in the south of the island, but it is causing “deeper poverty” in the North, according to politicians and campaigners at the coalface.

Under the two-child limit, in the North and Britain, families are not able to claim child benefits for any third or subsequent child born on or after April 6, 2017. It’s believed that there are about 3,000 families being affected by the two-child limit. Job losses due to Covid were also causing a weekly rise as people were forced onto Universal Credit.

The effects are certainly being felt in Northern Ireland as 21.4% of families in the North have three or more children compared to the UK average of 14.7%.  While the two-child limit affects a relatively small number of claimants, it can have a significant effect on poverty.

According to The Institute for Fiscal Studies this is because larger families are already more likely to be in poverty or near poverty, families affected can lose a large amount of income and since the two-child limit by definition affects families with more children, if one household moves into poverty, then it means a substantial extra number of people in poverty.

According to the Cliff Edge Coalition NI, a group of over 100 organisations from across Northern Ireland which came together to highlight concerns about the potential ‘cliff edge’ of the end of the welfare reform mitigations, the two-child policy is causing families with three or more children to be financially disadvantaged by £2,780 per year, per child for their third or additional child.


The Department for Communities (DfC) publishes regular bulletins of poverty statistics in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Poverty Bulletin, published by the DfC on March 25, 2021, covering 2019-2020, stated that 22% of children are living in households in relative poverty, which adds up to an estimated 100,000 children. This represents a decrease of 2% compared to the 2018-2019 figures. It also found that 17% of children were in absolute poverty, representing approximately 75,000 children, a decrease on the 2018/19 estimate of 21%.

An individual is considered to be in absolute poverty if they are living in a household with an equivalised income below 60% of the (inflation adjusted) UK median income in 2010/11. This is a measure of whether those in the lowest income households are seeing their incomes rise in real terms.

Defending the policy, a UK government spokesperson said: “We are committed to supporting families that are most in need and the latest figures show that the percentage of children in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland living in absolute poverty has actually fallen since 2010.

“Four out of five households across the UK have two or fewer children, and this policy ensures fairness by asking families in receipt of benefits to make the same financial choices as people who support themselves solely through work. There are also careful exemptions and safeguards in place to protect people in the most vulnerable circumstances.”


Despite the decrease in poverty rates among children represented by official figures, on the ground families are struggling due to the two-child policy. Speaking to The Irish Catholic, Cllr Emmet Doyle of Aontú, who is in the Derry City and Strabane District Council and represents Ballyarnett, said the policy has “pushed more families deeper into poverty”.

“Some of our wards are the most deprived in the North and even further afield, we now see people having to rely on foodbanks for example to feed their families because that extra financial support, that people are entitled to, is no longer there. So poverty is the primary outcome of this,” Cllr Doyle said.

“I think it’s particularly difficult for families because I’ve come across a number of scenarios where, for example, one of the parents would have had to go back to work full time in order to try and cover the costs.”

He said families are having to make “very difficult choices in terms of how they are able to raise their family… There are a lot of knock-on effects”.

“We have been campaigning people on the ground to try and highlight the fact that this is pushing people into poverty, it doesn’t do what the Tories said it would in terms of being able to get people back into work. Obviously, the economy here, particularly in the north-west, is not as robust as what we would hope so there are not jobs for people to go out to so it does trap people in a cycle of ever diminishing income.”

The children’s commissioners of Northern Ireland – Koulla Yiasouma, Wales – Sally Holland, and Scotland’s Bruce Adamson wrote to the UK government late last month, calling for the two-child limit to be scrapped. The joint letter, sent to pensions secretary Thérèse Coffey, said the policy is a “clear breach of children’s human rights”.

However, while the administrations in the North, Scotland and Wales are concerned, the control of benefits is not devolved, which limits their power to make changes.

Speaking about the impact on children, Cllr Doyle said: “I think it tells children that after you cross a certain threshold you are not valued, you are not cared about. I think it almost solidifies the view particularly in working class communities that there is a ceiling, that if you don’t have a certain income, if you didn’t come from a certain area, that you are worth less and we see that imbedded in communities. It’s because of the out-workings of this draconian policy.

“There’s effectively an economic sanction for having more than two children, if nothing else it’s entirely immoral but certainly from my perspective it is criminal, it is telling people their options in life are limited based on how people in London perceive working class communities. Poverty is man-made and this is just another block in that wall for people.”

He added: “Welfare reform has to be reformed, benefits and the welfare state are there to help people, they are not there to drive people into poverty and that in itself creates so many other societal problems. Welfare reform has to be reformed.”

Conscientious objection

There are also concerns families who oppose abortion on religious grounds will be faced with heightened challenges compared to others due to the policy – which may infringe on their religious rights under the European Convention on Human Rights.

A joint report by the Church of England, the Child Poverty Action Group, Women’s Aid, Turn2us and the Refugee Council found that not only are larger families more prevalent in faith communities, but that the decisions that those families make about having children are also likely to be motivated by their religious convictions and practices.

They stated: “The two-child limit is having a significant negative impact on faith communities where larger families are more prevalent. Amongst the general population, 31% of children live in households with more than two children. Within some faith communities, the proportion is significantly higher… Within these communities, raising children is closely bound to their faith and culture. When introducing the two-child limit, the government envisaged that it would influence the choices that families make about the number of children they have, and lead to more ‘responsible’ decision making. However, where reproductive choices and family planning are motivated by deep faith and devout practice, financial considerations about child-related benefits are likely to play a limited role.”

This was echoed by lobbying group the Women’s Resource and Development Agency, who said in a report the policy “will disproportionately affect families from specific cultural and religious backgrounds where there is a trend for bigger families or a moral opposition/conscientious objection to contraception, emergency contraception and abortion, such as Orthodox Jews, Catholics or Muslims. This may also breach Articles 9 & 14 of ECHR (freedom of religion and anti-discrimination)”.

Special circumstances

There are some special circumstances in which people can still receive child benefit for a third or subsequent child or young person born on or after 6 April 2017. These include adopted children, with some exemptions, and when a woman has multiple births such as twins, triplets etc. However, if a family already has two children and the mother has twins or more, only one of the twins, two of the triplets etc. can receive child benefit.

Special circumstances also apply for children living with family, friends or in non-parental caring arrangements. It also applies when children are likely to have been conceived as a result of rape.


The director of pro-life group Precious Life, Bernadette Smyth, said the two-child policy is something they “are very concerned about because we are seeing an increase in women from Northern Ireland in particular, seeking abortion because of the two-child caps that the government introduced a few years ago”.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service said in December 2020 that more than 50% of women it surveyed who had an abortion during the pandemic and who were aware of the two-child limit and likely to be affected by it, said the policy was “important in their decision-making around whether or not to continue the pregnancy”.

A combination of job insecurity and economic issues caused by Covid-19 removed their choice regarding whether they could continue with a pregnancy, according to some women who spoke to BPAS.

Mrs Smyth said: “I’m dealing with a woman in Northern Ireland who is pregnant with her fourth baby. She’s very concerned, because she continued with the third pregnancy, and is feeling the effects of that.

“This is something, if you want to look at it to the extreme, that is happening in China. Women may be forced to have abortions, even though they’re not physically forced, but they could be forced by circumstances to abort a very wanted baby, because they don’t have the financial means and support.”

For this reason, Precious Life are “heavily involved” with Stanton Healthcare in Belfast “to help to provide support to alleviate some of the problems, but it’s a long-term social problem, it’s not something that the pro-life movement will be able to fix, because giving birth, who’s going to finance that child?

“It’s putting pressure on women already. And now with abortion so freely available, women would be opting for the quick fix in this situation. At the minute politics is up in the air in Northern Ireland but come September, and obviously we have a new election next year 2022, it’s something that not just the pro-life movement should be concerned about.”

Mrs Smyth added that all women’s rights organisation should be getting behind a push to have the two-child policy scrapped. “It should be a unified approach to ensuring that women are given support, and in this case, choices to be able to continue with the pregnancy, without the fear of a financial burden or being unable to support their child in the future. So that’s definitely a big concern that we have,” she said.

The pandemic has put many things on the “back burner”, Mrs Smyth said, with opportunities to lobby and hold meetings greatly decreased.

“We would definitely be wanting to work alongside other like-minded pro-woman organisations that genuinely care for the future of women. But we want to ensure that those women are supported in the meantime, but it definitely is causing pressure for women to choose to consider aborting their child because they haven’t got the financial means in some cases to continue the pregnancy. So we can see the effect already.

“We definitely will be addressing it in the new term of government and it will be a big issue for the future, when we re-elect a new government next May 2022. That will be a priority, it will be something we want to address on the doorsteps.”