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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Wednesday, October 4, 2023


Two-child Benefit Cap

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-10716, in the name of Shirley-Anne Somerville, on reversal of the United Kingdom Government’s two-child benefit cap.

I invite members who wish to participate in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons now or as soon as possible. I note that some members who are due to speak in the debate are not present. We have not had any explanation for that, but I expect one and an apology in due course.


The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

I am pleased to open the debate and to call unequivocally on the UK Government to end the harmful and discriminatory two-child limit and the abhorrent rape clause.

In 2017, the UK Government introduced the two-child limit, which removed a household’s financial support for a third or subsequent child born after 6 April 2017, unless the mother of the child gains exemption through “special circumstances”—that is, if the child is part of a multiple birth or born as a result of rape. This summer, I was absolutely astonished to hear Keir Starmer confirm that a Labour Government would maintain the Conservatives’ two-child limit and say that there is no reason that the rape clause cannot “operate more fairly.” We also heard Anas Sarwar’s thoughts on the Scottish Government’s focus on creating a strong social security system when he suggested:

“We have been very much a social policy parliament rather than an economic policy parliament.”

I think that Roz Foyer spoke for many of us when she described that as

“a dismaying lack of vision from any incoming Labour Government.”

Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

Can the cabinet secretary explain to the chamber why, in April 2019, she said to The Times:

“It’s not our policy to alleviate the two-child cap”?

Indeed, she has not advocated the Government’s mitigating the two-child cap in taking the action that she has called us on.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

There is the irony—I have to mitigate not only what the Tories are doing, but the Labour Party, too. What a sad indictment of where Scottish Labour is now. I will come on to the mitigation method in due course.

It seems that, bereft of any social justice policies, the Labour Party has simply given up on tackling poverty. The Scottish Government has been consistent in its opposition to the two-child limit since its inception in 2017, and it has repeatedly called on the UK Government to abolish it.

The policy purposely targets vulnerable children, and the Department for Work and Pensions’s own analysis estimates that it is currently impacting around 1.5 million children in the UK. The House of Commons library tells us that it has affected 80,000 children in Scotland during the past 12 months alone and states that it has cost Scottish families in the region of £341 million in benefits since its inception. Child Poverty Action Group analysis found that removing the two-child limit would pull 250,000 children across the UK out of poverty and a further 850,000 children would be in less deep poverty.

It is clear that the policy severely impacts children, and it is punishing children because their parents are on low incomes. It cannot be right to limit the financial support that is available to children, simply because they have two or more siblings.

There are calls from other parties for the Scottish Government to mitigate the two-child limit. However, we do not have the powers to remove the policy at source. While universal credit and child tax credits remain reserved to Westminster, this is the situation that we are in. Even if financial mitigation were possible, the two-child limit and associated rape clause would still be applied by the UK Government.

However, the Scottish Government should not have to spend its fixed budget on rectifying the UK Government’s failures. We are already spending £130 million per year to directly mitigate some of the UK Government’s benefit cuts such as the bedroom tax and the benefit cap. Over the past six years, we have invested £733 million in directly mitigating UK Government policies, money that could have been spent on services such as health, education and transport, on further ambitious anti-poverty measures or on paying for 2,000 band 5 nurses each year. That is the price of staying in the union.

The cabinet secretary’s policy calls on the UK Government to find £300 million. Where does she suggest that UK ministers find that money?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I assure Miles Briggs that I am coming to that. I have a suggested solution, and I am sure that we will hear many more during today’s debate.

That money does not include our investment in the game-changing Scottish child payment, which we introduced to support families affected by the utter inadequacy of universal credit. By the end of the financial year, we will have spent more than £700 million on the payment. In fact, Professor Danny Dorling, from the University of Oxford, recently commended the Scottish child payment for having delivered

“the biggest fall in child poverty anywhere in Europe for at least 40 years.”

We made it clear in our programme for government that we are committed to reducing child poverty. It is therefore galling that the impact of our investment is lessened, because of the policies of the UK Government. We estimate that 90,000 fewer children will live in relative and absolute poverty this year because of the Scottish Government’s policies, with poverty levels 9 percentage points lower than they would have been without Scottish Government benefits. The latest poverty statistics, which we published in March, show that Scottish child poverty rates continue to be around 6 percentage points lower than the UK average, with the actions of this Government expected to increase that gap still further. This is, of course, challenge poverty week. How much easier would it be to effectively challenge poverty in Scotland, if it were not for the punitive policy measures imposed by the UK Government such as the two-child limit?

It is clear that this Government has very different priorities from the current UK Government—and, it would seem, from any future UK Government. Our priority is supporting children and families out of poverty. Surely everyone in this chamber can agree that the UK Government’s approach to child poverty is severely lacking and that that is perfectly captured in its failure to remove the two-child limit.

Our efforts are further threatened by the fact that the Labour Party now seems to have signed up to that long list of Tory policies. Last year, at the Scottish Labour Party conference, Anas Sarwar said:

“our children’s generation … won’t praise us for halving child poverty. They will ask what we did to eradicate it.”

Well, I know what this Scottish Government has done. Since 2018, we have spent about £1.4 billion on mitigation and the Scottish child payment alone. What exactly can the Labour Party say that it has done, when it cannot even commit to scrapping the two-child cap?

Let us be very clear: keeping the two-child limit and rape clause is a choice—Labour’s choice, and a Scottish Conservative choice, too. Labour’s spending pledges are a political choice. It claims that the financial mess left by the Tories might impede it from doing the right thing. Let me help both parties, but particularly the Labour Party, out on that. How about not spending an extraordinary estimated £205 billion on Trident renewal? How about Labour putting bairns first, not bombs? That is exactly the type of political choice that would help us eradicate child poverty, if Labour had the confidence and the courage to do it.

Amid the chaos of Keir Starmer’s U-turn, the sheer breathtaking hypocrisy of the Scottish Labour Party has now kicked into action. First, we had the ridiculous claims from the Scottish Labour leader that scrapping the policy would “spook the markets”. Then Jackie Baillie swooped to the rescue, taking to the airwaves to call on this Scottish Government to do exactly what her own party had just said it would not do and to scrap the cap. You could not make it up—a call from Scottish Labour to mitigate what UK Labour has been proposing.

In further evidence of that chaotic and hypocritical position, we have the Labour Party’s amendment today. I have to say that I was a bit dumbfounded when I read it last night. It asks us to

“welcome ... the proposal for a New Deal for Working People”.

For the record, I do welcome it—the problem is that Keir Starmer does not. After an avalanche of U-turns this summer, the Labour leader ripped up the plans. The promises to raise statutory sick pay and extend it to the self-employed have gone; the complete ban on zero-hours contracts has gone, too; and as for the promise to raise the minimum wage, quite frankly it looks a bit dubious when the Labour leader has diluted it from £15 an hour to—well, we will see what happens next week or next month.

Later this week—[Interruption.] Oh dear, Mr O’Kane—no wonder you are worried. I would be worried too, Mr O’Kane, if I were you.

Later this week, Labour members will be attending their party conference, and a vote will take place on those hollowed-out policy plans. So what exactly is Anas Sarwar’s position? Is he planning to back his party’s amendment today, and then head to Liverpool to approve a complete U-turn on the plans?

We on these benches and in this Scottish Government remain committed to strengthening workers’ rights. It is very clear that more needs to be done—[Interruption.] I appreciate that Scottish Labour members are finding this uncomfortable, but perhaps they should listen and learn from a Government that is taking action to tackle child poverty.

I am interested to know what discussions you have had with the First Minister about the U-turns around school meals. Could you discuss with us how often you have discussed that with the First Minister?

I ask members to speak through the chair. I call the cabinet secretary.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Indeed, if there had been a U-turn I would have discussed it, but there has been none and therefore no need to have that conversation.

It is clear, more than ever, that the only route to a fairer and more equal future—[Interruption.] Here we go. Yes, I am going to give Mr O’Kane another example of how he can take this forward. The only route to a fairer and more equal future is independence. We simply cannot afford to be shackled to a Westminster system that is driving more children into poverty, one of the highest levels of income inequality in Europe and the highest poverty rates in north-west Europe.

The two-child limit is just one policy impacting on the financial support available to struggling families. There are many more that we could hold a debate on in this Parliament, which is exactly why I have written to the UK Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, calling on the UK Government to establish an essentials guarantee to ensure that people receive sufficient support to help them with everyday items such as food, transport and energy.

An early step towards that would be scrapping the two-child limit and linking the level of social security support with the needs of families. That is why this Government is calling on colleagues from across the chamber to support our calls for the UK Government to take the right first step and scrap the two-child limit with immediate effect, ensuring that our most vulnerable families receive the support that they are entitled to.

I move,

That the Parliament calls on the UK Government to scrap the punitive two-child limit, which limits the amount of Universal Credit and Child Tax Credit a family can receive and undermines action to reduce child poverty in Scotland.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I can advise the chamber that there is a bit of time in hand, so there should be time to recompense members who take interventions. That is all the more reason for interventions not to be shouted from a sedentary position.

I call Miles Briggs to speak to and move amendment S6M-10716.2.


Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

I am always pleased to be able to debate welfare in the Parliament, and I welcome the fact that the Government has brought forward the debate. However, perhaps what we have seen is more to do with tomorrow’s by-election than the Government wanting to have a proper debate on the issue.

Will the member take an intervention?

Miles Briggs

No. Can I make some progress? I will be happy to take the member’s intervention later.

It is hard to think of any UK Government in recent history, except perhaps the Governments of the first and second world wars, that has faced such huge economic challenges. The UK Government has faced the fallout and consequences of the global financial crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic and the global energy and cost of living crisis, and that is the backdrop for difficult spending decisions that it has had to take over the past decade and those that we will have to take in the years ahead.

Ministers here have often outlined to Opposition parties the very same calculations that they have to take when deciding how to spend vital public services. The UK Government has a duty to manage the public finances carefully for future generations, and that has meant difficult decisions by UK ministers to control levels of public spending, including the welfare budget.

Kate Forbes

The member has talked a lot about duty, and I thought that I would make my question more topical. His Prime Minister has today talked about the importance of family. Why do the Tories think that a third child is of less value and less entitled to support than a first child?

Miles Briggs

That is not the case. As the member clearly knows, the policy is about fairness for working families as well—all families having to take difficult decisions. There is a political consensus on helping parents into work, which should be a Government priority. That requires a balanced system that provides strong work incentives and supports those who need it but that ensures fairness in our taxation system for all working families in this country.

The cabinet secretary did not mention this today, but it is a fact that the UK Government has provided more than £94 billion in direct support to help families during the cost of living crisis. The overall approach by the UK Government is evidenced by the fact that, between 2016 and 2022, the number of people in couples with children in employment has increased by 372,000 across the UK, which is a 2.7 per cent increase in the employment rate for that group.

It is right that the Government recognises that some claimants are not able to make the same choices about the number of children in their family, which is why reforms have been progressed by UK ministers. They have listened and have brought forward exceptions to protect certain groups, and many of us argued and worked constructively with ministers to make that case and ensure that those changes were made. Child benefit can be paid to all children, and the additional amount in child tax credit or universal credit can be paid for any qualifying disabled child or young person.

It is important to note that the cabinet secretary did not want to highlight the fact that, through working tax credit and universal credit, additional help for eligible childcare costs is available regardless of the total number of children in a household. The reduction in the universal credit taper rate and the £500 increase to work allowance, in addition to the normal benefit uprating and alongside the landmark kickstart and restart schemes, demonstrates a focus on supporting families to move into progressive work.

A critical issue that many families continue to face is that of the availability and accessibility of affordable childcare, which is a significant challenge and is clearly impacting on many parents’ decision to take up paid work and the ability of many to increase their working hours. I know from constituents who have contacted me about the issue that people are finding it more and more difficult to access childcare, with families having less flexibility to take up work and training opportunities.

The failure of SNP and Green ministers to deliver on the Scottish Government’s own policy of 1,140 hours of funded early learning and childcare for three and four-year-olds is not helping to provide that opportunity for people to access the childcare that they need to take up employment or training.

Today, the National Day Nurseries Association warned that

“Childcare businesses in around a third of local authority areas begin the new academic year without knowing how much they are being paid for funded places.”

This afternoon, we could have debated that crisis facing our nursery sector and the fact that just three of Scotland’s 32 local authorities are increasing early learning and childcare entitlement.

As I have said, there is a political consensus that the most suitable way to lift children out of poverty is to support their parents into progressive work, wherever possible. Children living in workless households are approximately five times more likely to be in poverty than those living in households where all adults are working. We should work on the consensus that exists to find solutions.

Carol Mochan

Can the member tell me whether he and his colleagues accept that the Westminster Conservative Government’s approach to benefits means that many families find it difficult to make sense of and take part in the DWP’s processes that are there for them to access benefits and move on to work?

Miles Briggs

I am always in favour of the DWP and Social Security Scotland having discussions about how we simplify access to benefits. That is something that both departments need to address. As the cabinet secretary has said, the issue of uptake is also important.

The UK Government has continued to take action to help families with the cost of living. For example, the national living wage is set to increase to at least £11 an hour from next April. That increase will benefit 2 million of the lowest-paid workers in our country.

Will the member take an intervention?

Miles Briggs

I would like to make some progress; I have only a few minutes left. I will see if I have time to let the member in later on.

Recent SNP-Green cuts to, for example, employability schemes are continuing to make things problematic for many families who are seeking that support.

The UK Government has consistently said that the best way to support people’s living standards is through good work, better skills and higher wages, and getting people into sustainable employment needs to be a key priority for both Governments working together.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I have very much enjoyed the member’s speech on childcare and employability, but I wonder whether we could get back to the point of the motion. Can he tell the chamber whether he thinks that, in our society, a woman having to admit a rape is a fair thing or not?

Miles Briggs

As I have said, these are difficult decisions, and Governments have had to take them. The cabinet secretary has also got to think about that. However, the failure of this Government is what this Parliament is responsible for. As we have already heard, this Government has failed in relation to the roll-out of free school meals, the ability of local authorities to adequately fund childcare provision and the scandal of the record number of children living in temporary accommodation in Scotland today. That is this Government’s record, and the cabinet secretary needs to start debating it more often, rather than simply accusing others.

SNP and Green ministers demand to know from Opposition parties where money for additional spending commitments will come from. Today, the cabinet secretary seems to think that the defence budget is the one that she would target. However, where is the £300 million coming from? The cabinet secretary just saying that it would come from scrapping Trident is student politics; it is not how we deliver for the people of this country.

The Scottish Government has received the largest budget settlement in the history of devolution. It has the powers to create new benefits—

Will the member take an intervention?

Miles Briggs

No. I am coming to a conclusion.

The Scottish Government has the ability to top up reserved benefits if it wishes, and we, as a Parliament, have the opportunity to decide where we want to change welfare policies. Powers over welfare, and over taxation to pay for those decisions, were demanded and transferred precisely so that our Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government could make different choices if the Scottish Government of the day so wanted.

That is why recent polling conducted by YouGov, which was published in July, found that 60 per cent of respondents agreed that the two-child limit on the number of children for whom parents can claim should be kept. In fact, 53 per cent of respondents in Scotland agreed as well.

As I said at the start of my speech, Governments in Edinburgh, Cardiff and London face difficult spending decisions. As future decisions are taken, we should all work to make sure that our welfare system is fair both to those who need the support and to taxpayers, and, ultimately, that it is sustainable.

I move amendment S6M-10716.2, to leave out from “calls” to end and insert:

“notes that the UK Government has a duty to manage public finances carefully for future generations; considers that the UK Government has sought to curb increasing welfare spending by reducing benefits to those on higher incomes acknowledges exemptions to the two-child policy in respect of Universal Credit and Child Tax Credit, such as for families with children with disabilities; welcomes the UK Government’s £94 billion in support to help families navigate the global cost of living crisis, and commits to focusing on debating issues that are within devolved responsibilities, such as the roll-out of benefits through Social Security Scotland, the closing of the poverty-related attainment gap, the roll-out of free school meals, the inability of local authorities to adequately fund childcare provisions and the disturbing number of children in temporary accommodation.”


Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

We meet this afternoon in the middle of challenge poverty week, and, as I have said before in the chamber, there are few issues as important as tackling poverty. It should be the focus of far more of our time in this place, particularly in terms of how we use the powers of this Parliament to take action.

The Government has chosen to bring a very limited debate today on a very pernicious part of the universal credit system, which it is entitled to do. However, given that it is challenge poverty week, and given the scope of that week, the Government could have used its time to have a much wider debate about all the roots and facets of poverty and about how we use our collective energies far more in tackling it. The Government has chosen not to do that, so perhaps it is more interested in the political context in which we meet today than in—

Will the member take an intervention?

Paul O’Kane

I will in a moment.

Perhaps we are meeting in that context rather than for the wide-ranging, constructive debate that we could be having about challenging poverty in communities across Scotland and the Government’s own record in that regard.

Kate Forbes

The member rightly talks about poverty being quite a wide issue. Peter Kelly, of the Poverty Alliance, has described the benefit cap as

“the worst of the”


“welfare ‘reforms’”.

How does it feel for Labour to be supporting the worst of the Tories’ welfare reforms?

Paul O’Kane

I am coming on to speak about why universal credit does not work and why it needs to be fundamentally reformed. We need to see wide-ranging change, because it is not helping people; it is failing people. The member is right in her assertion that those policies are failing people, because the life chances of all our people are crucial to how we thrive as a society and as a world. It is clear that we need a change of approach at UK and Scottish levels to lift more people out of poverty.

Scottish Labour campaigned against the introduction of the two-child limit, and we continue to oppose it, along with the cruel direction of 13 years of this Tory Government. The Tory Government has demonstrated its unfitness to govern through the financial chaos that it unleashed on the country last year, driving more and more people into poverty. Given the further chaos, including the adulation of Liz Truss and her acolytes this week in Manchester, it is clear that the Tory Government has learned nothing and takes no responsibility for its actions.

The next Labour Government will fundamentally reform universal credit, ensuring that it provides a proper safety net for those who need it.

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

I am interested in the Labour amendment, which talks about the

“New Deal for Working People”,

There are a lot of reasonable things that I absolutely agree with in relation to that. However, Mr O’Kane talks about a review of universal credit, and, in the chamber previously, Mr O’Kane and Mr Marra have said that the two-child limit has to stay until that review is complete. Can I have clarity today on whether Labour’s position is that it will abolish the two-child limit immediately, or will we have to kick the matter into the long grass and wait for a universal credit review? That is the clarity that I need this afternoon.

Paul O’Kane

I thank Mr Doris for his supportive comments on the new deal for working people. I hope that he might convince members on the front bench to back our amendment and those proposals. I do not recall using that language; I will need to check the Official Report. I am not sure that that is what Mr Marra and I said. We have said that we are committed to a fundamental reform of universal credit—of all parts of the system—to ensure that it works for people and to remove those punitive methods from it. A Tory Government—

Will the member take an intervention?

Paul O’Kane

If the cabinet secretary will allow me to make some progress, I will give way to her in a moment.

As I have said, the next Labour Government is fundamentally committed to reforming universal credit, because the current system is not working and we need wide-ranging reform. It is not just about changing some social security policies; it is about changing the whole system. Fundamental change is what Labour does when it is in power. I will give way to the cabinet secretary.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I am grateful to the member for the chance to give him another opportunity to answer Mr Doris’s question, because he did not. We do not need a review to know whether the two-child cap is a bad thing—I think that we all agree that it is a bad thing. Will the UK Labour Party implement a policy that scraps it? The member does not need to wait for a review, nor does his party, to know that it is a bad thing.

Paul O’Kane

I have said that the policy is a pernicious policy. I am committed to—and the Labour Party is committed to—examining every part of the universal credit system to make sure that it works. If the cabinet secretary wants to roll her eyes and not listen to the fact that we need to reform universal credit fundamentally—which will take time—that is up to her.

I am proud that the previous UK Labour Government lifted 2 million children and pensioners out of poverty. That includes 200,000 children in Scotland alone. How did we do that? We did that through a new social contract that included the national minimum wage, child benefit and tax credits. It is clear that we need that level of change now to tackle poverty across Scotland and the UK, because things have got so much worse since then.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s annual state of the nation report highlighted just two days ago that the number of Scots still living in poverty is more than 1 million, that the level of deep poverty is on the rise—it is just shy of half a million people—and that 24 per cent of children are living in poverty after housing costs.

Under the Tories and the SNP, inequality and poverty have soared. There are 40,000 more children in poverty in Scotland compared with a decade ago, and we are not seeing action on the scale that is required. Our amendment outlines the new deal for working people and the importance of ensuring that it is there to lift people out of poverty.

An estimated two thirds of children in poverty live in working households; 60 per cent of families impacted by the two-child cap are in work; 10 per cent of all employees in Scotland are stuck on low pay; and 72 per cent of that group are women. That is why the new deal for working people would be transformative, and it was endorsed by the Trades Union Congress.

We heard derision from the cabinet secretary regarding a document and a policy that are backed by the TUC. What will the new deal do? It will ban zero-hours contracts, outlaw fire-and-rehire practices and raise the minimum wage to a living wage in order to tackle insecure work and ensure that work pays as a key route to ending poverty. Indeed, the TUC called it

“the biggest upgrade of workers’ rights in a generation.”

I hope that the Government will be able to support a document and a policy that are supported by the TUC and back our amendment.

We will back Scottish Labour’s amendment tonight. Would Keir Starmer back it, though? That is where Paul O’Kane has a difficulty. The difficulty is not with the SNP; it is with his UK Labour leadership.

Paul O’Kane

I am not entirely sure what the cabinet secretary is driving at. Angela Rayner and Keir Starmer, in conjunction with the TUC, have endorsed the document. He will back to the letter the policy that the document outlines, which we will deliver when in government. I have no idea what the cabinet secretary is driving at in her contribution today.

Let us be clear that this is a transformative opportunity to raise people out of poverty wages and into secure work. We know that the SNP has not got the best track record when it comes to things such as paying the living wage in Government contracts or using zero-hours contracts to recruit campaigners. Just a few weeks ago, the SNP abandoned the parental transition fund of up to £15 million a year to tackle the financial barriers that are faced by parents who want to enter the labour market.

In the debate today, we will, no doubt, hear again calls along the lines of, “If only we had more powers, things would be better,” and, “If only independence was here, things would be better.” Perhaps the SNP should first explain why it is not using the powers that it has. It is not just me saying that. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlighted this week that the SNP Government simply complaining about the powers that it does not have is

“to deny its direct responsibilities for things like employability, economic development, skills, and so on.”

If the SNP does not want to listen to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, maybe it should listen to its own Poverty and Inequality Commission. In May 2023, in relation to the child poverty delivery plan, it said that it is

“concerned that there does not seem to be the necessary clarity or sense of urgency about delivery of these actions.”

It is time for fundamental reform of universal credit. It is time for a new deal for working people, to drive up wages and standards and to lift people out of poverty. It is time to move on from two failing Governments and deliver real change for people across Scotland and the United Kingdom.

I move amendment S6M-10716.1, to insert at end:

“; notes that an estimated two thirds of children in poverty live in working households, 10 per cent of all employees in Scotland are stuck in low pay, and that 72 per cent of that group are women, and welcomes, therefore, the proposal for a New Deal for Working People, which has been endorsed by the TUC and includes plans to ban zero-hours contracts, outlaw fire and rehire practices, and raise the minimum wage in order to tackle insecure work and to make sure that work pays as a key route to ending poverty.”


Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

Before I start, I express my sincere apologies for my late arrival; I was unavoidably detained.

The author Anthony Horowitz once wrote:

“Childhood, after all, is the first precious coin that poverty steals from a child.”

In Scotland today, that statement is only too accurate. At its heart, today’s debate is about poverty and, more specifically, child poverty.

More than 1 million people, and one in four children, live in poverty in Scotland today. That is around 250,000 children. In 2023, in one of the wealthiest nations on earth, that figure is unacceptable—it is outrageous. It is all the more shameful when we note that 68 per cent of children who are living in poverty are from working households, and 29 per cent of children live with a disabled family member.

It has been five years since the Child Poverty Act 2010 set a target of fewer than 18 per cent of children living in relative poverty by 2024. However, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reminds us that that reduction target is

“unlikely to be met without significant additional Scottish Government action”.

We are on the eve of that deadline, and we are nowhere.

Numerous studies have found that children who grow up in poverty experience many disadvantages. It can have a negative impact on their health and significant social consequences, and the effects are felt both during childhood and into adulthood. I saw that impact with my own eyes during the decade that I spent working with disadvantaged young people, and I see it today in my constituency.

Poverty is affecting children’s health and education, and even their cognitive development. It is an adverse childhood experience. Every child in Scotland should have the right to safety, warmth, a roof over their head and food in their belly. It is the duty of those in this chamber, and this Government, to do absolutely everything in their power to alleviate this crisis—it is a crisis—and to move forward to a Scotland that is free of child poverty as soon as is humanly possible.

I make it clear from the outset that Liberal Democrats oppose the two-child benefit cap. We have always opposed the two-child benefit cap. We opposed it when it was introduced by the Conservative Government in 2017, and we absolutely oppose it now. It is unfair and unjust, and it is an illiberal policy. The Child Poverty Action Group has called it

“one of the biggest drivers of rising child poverty”.

CPAG says:

“Removing the”

policy across the UK

“would pull 250,000 children out of poverty overnight”,

and take

“850,000 children”

out of

“deep poverty.”

Deep poverty—we are talking about 21st-century Britain here.

However, we must also hold the SNP-Green Government to account for its own failures on social security in Scotland.

Bob Doris

Does Mr Cole-Hamilton agree that axing the two-child cap and the rape clause does not have to wait for a review of universal credit and that it should happen as speedily as possible?

I have checked the Official Report, and Mr O’Kane’s position is indeed that there should be a review of universal credit first; that is certainly my interpretation of what he said. What is the Liberal Democrats’ view?

Alex Cole-Hamilton

I would support the abolition of the rape clause today. It is a moral imperative that we rid ourselves of that abhorrent policy, so I absolutely agree with the sentiment that Bob Doris expresses.

Right now, those who apply for the adult disability payment in Scotland are, in many cases, facing longer waits than they did under the DWP system. When someone who lives in Scotland and is in receipt of the personal independence payment reports a change in circumstances, they are currently forced to wait three months to be moved over, and only then does Social Security Scotland start work on that change. If, during that time, as is often the case, the person’s condition worsens and they are entitled to a higher rate, they are missing out for that period.

Something that should happen at the touch of a button is taking months and denying disabled people the support that they need when they need it most. That lays bare the incompetence of the Scottish Government in removing the dedicated social security minister to properly oversee that transition at its most critical juncture.

This Government promised fairness, respect and dignity, and we all voted for that in the new social security arrangement. Instead, people are being left to face uncertainty for months while a decision is being made, and sometimes they wait in poverty.

We have fought for more powers for this Parliament, but it is taking far too long for the Scottish Government to get itself ready, leaving people with the DWP for more than a decade. That is not good enough for families, including some of the most vulnerable families, across Scotland.

This week, it was revealed that the Government has quietly scrapped a key plank of its anti-poverty strategy. Only last year, ministers pledged to create a new parental transition fund to tackle the financial barriers that are faced by parents trying to get into work. Shirley-Anne Somerville has now said that it

“would not be possible to deliver”

and that it has

“run its course as a concept”—[Official Report, Social Justice and Social Security Committee, 14 September 2023; c 13-14.]

That scheme was welcomed.

Will the member give way?

I will.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I am grateful to the member for the opportunity to point out that the reason why the scheme cannot work is because of our current powers. If we put something like that in place, reserved benefits would be impacted and people would not find themselves any better off. The practicalities of devolved and reserved powers have required us to look again at different approaches. We need to discuss the issue, but let us please discuss the genuine reasons why we have had to move on, which are to do with the implications for reserved benefits.

Alex Cole-Hamilton

The cabinet secretary will recognise the deep disappointment that the move has created. The scheme was welcomed and recommended by charities and those with lived experience of poverty. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, in full knowledge of the facts, has called that U-turn “deeply concerning”.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

On that point, it was parents who expressed the desire and need for the fund. It seems beyond belief that the Scottish Government would commit to something that it subsequently turns out not to have the power to deal with. That seems to be the Scottish Government promising something before it understands what it is being asked.

Alex Cole-Hamilton

Given the length of time that we have had to understand the ecosystem of the benefits over which we have control in this country, it is astonishing that the Scottish Government would give parents false hope in that way. It is clear that the Government talks a good game on supporting those who are least well-off but, when push comes to shove, it falls well below par and often fails to deliver. Scottish Liberal Democrats want to get the Scottish social security system working faster and with the dignity that was promised. I repeat that all of us in the Parliament voted for that dignity.

We want to make childcare much more flexible and accessible to families in work, as well as to those who want to return to the labour market but are a considerable distance from it and cannot access opportunities such as evening training for want of basic childcare. We want to introduce a nursery premium for children in deprived areas and a national legal entitlement to youth work for every child in Scotland.

Liberal Democrats believe in a Scotland that supports the most vulnerable people in our society. We want every child to be able to learn, grow and play, secure in the knowledge that there will always be food on the table and a warm and safe space to call their home. That should be the case for every child in this country, and all of us in the Parliament must endeavour to make it so.

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

We move to the open debate. Members will be pleased to hear that we still have some time in hand, despite the impressive number of interventions that we have already witnessed this afternoon.


Kevin Stewart (Aberdeen Central) (SNP)

Let us look at the impact that the two-child benefit cap had in Scotland in 2022-23. In that year, 80,936 children lived in households where benefits were reduced because of the two-child benefit cap. The cap was directly applied to 32,616 children, and it deprived households of £95.7 million in social security. The cap put 20,000 children in poverty after housing costs. Those are not Scottish Government figures; they come directly from the House of Commons library. However, they are not just figures; they are children and families—people—who were impoverished by the two-child cap.

After 13 years of brutal Tory austerity, a hard Brexit that Scotland never voted for and the horrors of the economically illiterate Truss budget, people and communities are facing real hardship. Now we know that the Labour Party is interested only in entrenching cruel Tory policies and not in abolishing them, and it is very clear at this point that Labour policy is no different from that of the Tories.

Michael Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

I am sorry that Mr Stewart seems to have missed the other speeches in the debate. Labour is committed to a fundamental review of universal credit. That could not be more starkly different from the position of the Tories, which is to maintain the benefit caps and the current position. We are committed to a fundamental review to change the way that the system delivers for the poorest people in this country.

Kevin Stewart

That is not what Keir Starmer has said about the two-child cap. He has said that Labour will look at what the finances are like after the Tories leave power—that is, if Labour manages to take power. We want an immediate end to the barbaric policy, and I do not think that it is beyond the wit of the Labour Party to say, in the here and now, that it wants rid of the policy now. Labour members say that the policy is unfair, so let us get rid of it now.

Let us be clear: such policies are the price of Westminster control. The SNP Scottish Government is absolutely clear that we oppose the policy in every form, and we will continue to demand its abolition. I hope that all like-minded members from across the chamber will back the Scottish Government’s motion.

I also hope that members will take cognisance of the experts on the issue. Earlier, Ms Forbes quoted Peter Kelly of the Poverty Alliance. Let me add to the quote that she read out. He also said that the

“Two child limit and the benefit cap represent the worst of the welfare ‘reforms’ of the last 13 years. Any politician that claims to care about poverty, about increasing food bank use, about the well-being of kids needs to commit to scrap this terrible policy”.

Action for Children has said:

“Any government serious about tackling child poverty will eventually have to confront the cruel reality of the #TwoChildLimit—a policy designed to actively stop poor children receiving assistance to meet their minimum needs”.

The Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland made it clear that the two-child limit, which is

“one of the most brutal ... policies of our times”

affects more than 80,000 children in Scotland alone, pushing up to 15,000 of them into poverty. Across the UK, one in 10 children are affected. The group said:

“All political leaders must commit to scrapping it”.

What have the politicians said? Anas Sarwar previously said of the Tories:

“This is the party that introduced the rape clause, which is a horrific piece of legislation, within their welfare reforms.”

Where is that strength of feeling now? Why do we have to wait for some review? How long will that review take? Why will Anas Sarwar and Scottish Labour not commit to the policy’s abolition right now?

The Scottish Government has taken action on tackling poverty. An estimated 90,000 children have been lifted out of poverty because of SNP policies. Last year, more than £3 billion was invested in a range of programmes that are targeted at low-income households, with £1.25 billion directly benefiting children through interventions such as the historic child payment.

Will Kevin Stewart give way?

Kevin Stewart

I am afraid that I have no time, Mr Whitfield.

By prioritising tackling poverty, the Scottish Government is addressing not only the cost of living crisis but, of course, the cost of the union crisis. Imagine what could have been achieved if Scotland had not had to pay for and mitigate Westminster mistakes. Chris Birt of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation recently told the Social Justice and Social Security Committee:

“Our social security system in the UK is currently fundamentally inadequate: people are hungry in this country because of it. The UK Government bears enormous responsibility for that. The Scottish Parliament has stepped into some of that space with things such as the Scottish child payment, and that is a good thing.”—[Official Report, Social Justice and Social Security Committee, 21 September 2023; c 24.]

We know that a Labour Government will be no different from a Tory one on this issue, as has been proven today. Starmer has told us so, and Anas Sarwar has no option but to agree. Well, I do not. It is time for us to put a halt to the cost of the union policies that impact so harshly on our children. It is time for us to control all social security powers here. It is time for independence.


Roz McCall (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I start by noting the amendment to the motion in the name of my colleague Miles Briggs. It calls on the Scottish Parliament to focus on devolved issues, such as the roll-out of benefits through Social Security Scotland and other policies that will ultimately benefit Scottish children. That is what I will focus my comments on, which will come as no surprise.

The people of Scotland are looking to the Parliament to use its time to debate issues that affect them right now, such as delivering on the Promise, raising attainment in our schools, following through on delivering free school meals for primary pupils, funding free breakfasts and fixing the failing provision of 1,140 hours of free childcare. How about providing local authorities with the funding that was promised for digital devices? Only one in 10 schoolchildren has received their free device, and 90 per cent of Scottish children do not have the laptop or tablet that was pledged to them pre-election. Some more cynical than I am might think that that was blatant politicking.

Will the member take an intervention?

Roz McCall

I am not taking any interventions. I am going to get my points across.

Based on a conversation that I overheard earlier, statistically—just to advise—the national average of children per household in the UK is 1.7, which equates to two children. I will just leave that there.

The SNP and the Greens, as the parties in government in Scotland, can use the extensive devolved powers to make changes that they believe are pertinent to Scotland. In other words, they can make choices. The Government has chosen to spend over £733 million in part to top up the Scottish child payment, on top of the UK Government’s additional support and exemptions for the most vulnerable in society. Do not look now, but that could be devolution at work.

We all know that government is about making choices that we think will make positive differences to people’s lives. Not many of those choices are easy; they are mostly difficult choices that highlight a direction of travel. It is easy to promise everything but, when it comes to delivery, we find that it is not possible or the budget will not allow it. We should be grown up about that fact and stand by our decisions about how we choose to spend taxpayers’ money.

I note the cabinet secretary’s comments on the focus on children and choices, and I will continue on that theme.

The SNP Government could have provided our children with the best and most rewarding route out of poverty, which is a first-class education system. However, we know that it has all but abandoned its promise to eliminate the poverty-related attainment gap. The former First Minister said that we should judge her on education. The previous Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, Shirley-Anne Somerville, ditched that commitment. In January this year, she said:

“in an education system, I think that it would be exceptionally difficult, if not impossible, to get to the point of zero.”—[Official Report, Education, Children and Young People Committee, 18 January 2023; c 24.]

However, that does not mean that we should stop trying.

Any national 5 student of modern studies will tell us that the way out of poverty is through education, education, education. In 2016, the SNP widely publicised its dedication to a shared commitment right across education to close the attainment gap between children from the most deprived and least deprived backgrounds. It said that that was a top priority. Seven years later, the situation has not improved. That is just not good enough, and we could be debating that today.

How about the SNP Government delivering on its promise of free breakfasts and lunches for all primary 1 to 7 pupils? In 2020, the then Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, said that, if the party retained power after the Holyrood elections in May, it would fund free breakfasts and lunches for all children in primaries 1 to 7 and that that would be implemented from August 2022, making Scotland the first nation in the UK to offer universal free primary school meals. How laudable. By August 2022, the promise had been broken.

In the programme for government, the First Minister announced that the Government would deliver free school meals to all pupils in primaries 1 to 5 and would work with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities in the coming year to prepare for the expansion of free school meals to primaries 6 and 7 during 2026. We should add that to the fact that Scotland has the lowest level of school breakfast provision of all four UK nations, with 41 per cent of schools in Scotland offering no breakfast provision. That is just not good enough, and we could be debating that today.

How about the Scottish Government making the investment required to ensure that the delivery of the Promise was on track and deliverable within the promised timescales? The Promise oversight board does not believe that delivering the original aims of plan 2021-24 is realistic within the timeframe. It has stated:

“Scotland does not yet have a single route-map to 2030 in place.”

The former First Minister agreed with me on that point in the chamber.

The youngest, the most vulnerable and the most promising of our society in Scotland are being promised much, but the SNP has chosen to disregard those pledges, with no one taking any responsibility for those choices. Instead, it is resorting to using children in poverty for obvious political gain. That is just not good enough.

Will the member take an intervention?

Roz McCall

I am not taking interventions; I am nearly finished.

Without sounding too clichéd, Scotland’s children are the future of Scotland. We have a duty to provide them with the greatest opportunities, and that is not being done. For nothing more than political tomfoolery today, we do them a disservice, and we should be ashamed.

Kevin Stewart

On a point of order, Deputy Presiding Officer. I seek your guidance. The motion is on the two-child benefit cap. It is very specific. I recognise that the Opposition parties do not really want to talk about that and are deviating. I am happy to debate any issue, but I seek your guidance, Deputy Presiding Officer, on the motion and the fact that there is so much deviation in this debate in the chamber.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I thank Mr Stewart for his contribution.

Mr Stewart needs to consider not only the motion but the amendments that were accepted by the Presiding Officer. I think that he will find the answers that he seeks there.


Kate Forbes (Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch) (SNP)

I am the oldest of four children. Being one of four was great growing up but, interestingly enough, none of us was treated as more or less important or more or less entitled to support by virtue of our position in being born. That would, of course, be utterly bizarre and, indeed, immoral. Those are exactly the two words that I would use to characterise the two-child benefit cap. In fact, I would add in a few more: inexplicable, disgraceful and abhorrent.

Perhaps we are overfamiliar with references to the two-child benefit cap, so it has lost some of its initial shock factor. For clarity, the cap means that families are prevented from accessing essential welfare support for their third or subsequent children. In their time of need, a child is, in essence, abandoned by the state for one reason alone: the order of their birth.

Families often seek help because of unforeseen circumstances: bereavements, relationships breaking down, ill health, disability or caring responsibilities. None of those things is a child’s fault, whether they are the oldest or the youngest. All those scenarios create unimaginable burdens that are far too heavy for any child to bear. However, rather than finding support and help, they are penalised, excluded and ignored. Their families are deprived of essential additional support.

We often associate Government diktats about family sizes with other—let us say more authoritarian—Governments. However, the two-child benefit cap is rooted in the same ideology.

In Scotland, we must unite in tackling child poverty. There have been lots of good debates in the Parliament about the work that we need to see to tackle child poverty. It is a disgrace and, in fact, it shames us all that, in a land of plenty, children are homeless, hungry and cold. That is why the SNP has done a huge amount of work to tackle child poverty, including introducing the game-changing Scottish child payment. That matters enormously. As Kevin Stewart said, we can talk about figures, such as 90,000 children not living in poverty who would otherwise live in poverty. For every child who needs that, the difference is profound.

In Scotland, under the SNP, we build child welfare policies on fairness and dignity.

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

On the point that Ms Forbes has just made, can she clarify why, when she was the finance cabinet secretary—and, before her, Mr Swinney—free school meals were still not rolled out in Scotland, although they both promised to do so?

Kate Forbes

The point is that they are being rolled out, but here is another point: the Scottish Government is spending three quarters of a billion pounds on combating UK Government policies—just to stand still. Imagine if all of that money was adding value and we did not need to ensure that the worst atrocities of UK welfare reforms were plunging children into poverty as we speak. We continue to spend much of our time fighting, and funding the mitigation of, policy decisions that a Conservative Government imposed on us.

The Tories’ two-child benefit cap and their wider welfare policy have driven up to 30,000 children into poverty in Scotland. That is an atrocious legacy after more than a decade of Tory austerity. Across the UK, the two-child limit now affects one in 10 children. The Child Poverty Action Group called that “a tragic milestone”. We will not see that in the Tory manifesto for the next election.

Scrapping the policy could lift up to 15,000 children out of poverty at the stroke of a pen. Who among us would opt to keep those children in poverty when they could be helped and supported with a simple change of policy? The Conservatives are opting to do so, and perhaps members would expect that. However, who would have thought that Labour would choose to continue the two-child cap for as long as it takes it to do a review of what we already know is wrong?

Michael Marra

I hear the calls for urgency from across the chamber, but does Ms Forbes realise that we are perhaps 14 months away from a general election and that her Government could mitigate that immoral situation now, in her own words?

Kate Forbes

Michael Marra raises a vitally important point. That is why three quarters of a billion pounds is currently being spent on mitigations. However, Michael Marra fails to recognise the £3 billion that is being spent right now on supporting families and households across Scotland who face challenges around the cost of living and poverty. The Scottish child payment is directly ensuring that 90,000 children are not in poverty.

Labour is supposedly progressive and fair, but it is content to, at the very least, delay a change of policy. Let us say that it will be 14 months until the next election. Michael Marra is suggesting that we wait up to another year or two or three years on top of that while Labour does a review. That is not a great offer to the Scottish people.

The bottom line is that, for families in need, it does not matter whether there is a Tory Government or a Labour Government—the benefit cap will still apply. That is why it will only ever be the SNP and the Scottish Parliament that will stand up for every Scot—young and old.


Carol Mochan (South Scotland) (Lab)

I am clear that the two-child limit is a cruel, damaging and appalling Tory policy and I fully oppose it. I agree that it is a punitive measure that targets working families, kills hope and aspiration, and has no place in the modern, progressive society that we want to create. As I have made clear before, I deplore the Tory Government’s attack on working class people. The Tories are the friends of the rich and they show no interest in redistributing wealth to those people who are most in need.

Sadly, the Tories’ amendment further highlights their ignorance of the damage that they have caused to people’s lives and the economy. Given the Tory Government’s incompetence, any incoming Labour Government will have to analyse the financial position left by the Tories, which will undoubtedly be extremely challenging. However, I and many other members on the Labour benches will chap on the doors and call for that policy, along with many other cruel welfare policies, to be removed.

Kevin Stewart

I get the fact that Labour will have to look at the finances. However, the shadow defence secretary has committed to the spending of billions upon billions of pounds on Trident. Why can Labour not do the same thing in relation to the two-child benefit cap?

Carol Mochan

Let me be honest: I do not want to play this game. I want us to have a proper discussion about how we change the lives of people who are living in poverty. In this debate, Labour has made it clear that it will do all that it can to review the dreadful, cruel welfare policies of the UK Government and bring in proper welfare for people. Despite what the cabinet secretary and back benchers have said, the SNP is unable to accept that Labour has a strong track record of lifting people—including many children—out of poverty. I have every confidence that Labour will do that again.

What discussions has Labour had with Rape Crisis Scotland about how we can make the rape clause fairer?

Carol Mochan

My first point is that we are debating the fact that the rape clause is absolutely not fair—that is a given. I, personally, am not aware of the level at which the party has had such discussions, but I have made my position absolutely clear. The rape clause should go. When a Labour Government comes to power—a Labour Government is coming—we will make changes that make people’s lives easier.

I turn to the SNP Government and its motion. As other members have been, I am keen to outline some of the context for today’s debate. Just this week, we learned from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that one in 10 Scots live in very deep poverty and that they make up almost half of those who live in poverty. The same report, which is rightly critical of the UK Government, maintains that the Scottish Government “could go much further”, and I agree. The focus of today’s debate should be on asking what this Parliament can do right here, right now, but the Government has chosen not to take that approach.

Labour members do not think that the current UK Government is setting a bar against which anyone should seek to compare themselves. Do SNP back benchers think that? I hope that they do not. We should be far exceeding the performance of a Conservative Government that has imposed austerity on our communities, wrecked the economy and hindered growth. The prominence of poverty—especially child poverty—in Scotland is devastating. I hear SNP members talking about that, yet it remains extremely prominent on the SNP Government’s watch. I have often asked myself why the back benchers do not challenge their leadership to go further. My ask is that they do so. A good Government comes from the pressure of those behind it. Is the Scottish Government merely doing a bit better than the Tories? Is that enough for SNP back benchers?

John Swinney (Perthshire North) (SNP)

On the subject of pressure from back benchers, the SNP’s front-bench team needs no encouragement to do things such as increasing the Scottish child payment to £25 per week per child—it has been prepared to take that initiative. Carol Mochan must accept that, while this Government has acted, she is part of a Labour Party that is not acting to alleviate the suffering that is faced by children and young people in our society today.

Carol Mochan

I make it absolutely clear that I do not want to play this game. I have given credit to the party in government in Scotland many times.

I will prove my point by quoting from a recent report:

“The scale of the financial difficulties families are facing greatly outstrips the financial assistance offered by the Scottish Government.”

That report, which was published by Save the Children this year, goes on to say:

“there is more the Scottish Government must do to protect young children from the impacts of poverty.”

It is the responsibility of all of us, including back benchers, to push the Government to do all that it can. Scottish Labour’s amendment—

Will the member give way?

Will the member give way?

Carol Mochan

I will make progress, if Mr Swinney and Ms Somerville do not mind, as I have only six minutes.

I am glad that the SNP will support our amendment.

In this challenge poverty week, I want to make one last point. Children in East Ayrshire and South Ayrshire, in my region, are growing up in a Scotland where one in four children are in poverty because of inaction and poor decision making from the Governments north and south of the border.

Will the member take an intervention?

Carol Mochan

I will not.

I say to members that it is our responsibility to take action. Experts are saying that we are not going far enough. Communities are saying that we are not going far enough. It is time for the SNP and the Tories to listen and to act. Otherwise, they should immediately make way and give other parties the chance to deliver—rather than just saying that they will deliver—on policies that will change poverty in this country.


Marie McNair (Clydebank and Milngavie) (SNP)

I rise to speak in support of the Scottish Government’s motion, which is in the name of Shirley-Anne Somerville. The two-child policy, with its abhorrent rape clause, is one of the most disgusting welfare policies to emerge from Westminster. It is designed to set families up to fail and to deny children the most basic levels of subsistence and support to help them to thrive.

The perverse rationing of subsistence for children has no part in a decent society, yet the two main political parties that want to govern at Westminster are planning to keep that approach as part of their welfare state. The policy not only lacks compassion, but fails miserably at achieving the aims that the UK Government set out. It was asserted that its implementation would provide incentives for people to find more work and would influence decisions about having children. However, a three-year research project that was funded by the Nuffield Foundation looked at the two-child limit and the benefit cap and it found no evidence that either policy has met its behavioural aims. It found that, in some cases, they have had the opposite effect.

In fact, the research has gathered swathes of evidence demonstrating that the benefit cap and the two-child limit are causing extreme hardship to affected families. It is a cruel policy that has been widely condemned by anti-poverty campaigners. John Dickie of the Child Poverty Action Group describes it as a

“cruel tax on siblings”.

He is clear on its punishing impacts, saying:

“we wouldn’t deny a third child NHS care or an education—how is it right to deny children much-needed support because of the brothers or sisters they have?”

The two-child limit is one of the most brutal policies of our times. All that it does is to push more than 1 million children into poverty or deeper poverty. It is time for all Westminster party leaders to commit to removing the two-child limit before more children are harmed. The End Child Poverty coalition has described the two-child policy as one of the biggest drivers of child poverty. If that is not enough for people to want to scrap it, what about the rape clause, which is one of the most dreadful pieces of social policy ever imagined? Labour used to call it “immoral and outrageous”. Astonishingly, it now talks about making it fairer.

Engender has said that forced disclosure of sexual violence to gain access to social security

“will re-traumatise individual women who have survived rape by forcing them to disclose sexual violence at a time and in a context not of their own choosing, on pain of deeper impoverishment”

and that

“Forced disclosure of sexual violence can exacerbate post-traumatic stress disorder and increase a sense of shame and isolation.”

However, instead of having a commitment to scrap the policy at Westminster, we are told that it is here to stay regardless of which party forms the next UK Government.

If the two-child policy was not bad enough, there are families in the UK that are hit by the double whammy of that policy and the benefit cap.

In Scotland, fortunately, we are doing everything that we can to mitigate the benefit cap and other cruel UK policies. We are making available nearly £84 million in discretionary housing payments, with £69.7 million to mitigate the bedroom tax, £6.2 million for the benefit cap and another £7.9 million to mitigate other UK welfare cuts. We have also increased the Scottish child payment to £25 a week and expanded eligibility, with investment of £405 million, helping more than 300,000 children across the country. It is not that long ago that other political parties were asking to set just a fiver.

We are seeing a race to the bottom between the Tories and Labour on UK welfare policy. Their tough rhetoric increases stigma, and their social policy agenda gives little hope to the families in greatest need.

Paul O’Kane

The member speaks about “little hope”, but does she accept that, as I outlined in my contribution, universal credit is fundamentally broken and needs to be reformed in all its facets? Does she accept that Labour’s new deal for working people will be a huge game changer in getting people into well-paid work and lifting people out of poverty?

Marie McNair

The proof will be in the pudding.

The Institute for Public Policy Research points out that UK policy sees social security in narrow terms and uses

“harmful rhetoric and ill-informed stereotypes.”

It also says that

“conditions have enabled the UK to maintain one of the least generous rates of income replacement across the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.”

The two-child policy contrasts heavily with the dignity, fairness and respect approach that is driving us forward in Scotland. To name just a few important differences in approach, I note that there is no two-child policy for the Scottish child payment; there is no abhorrent rape clause; there are no private sector medical assessments, which cause much pain and humiliation; and there is no sanctions regime, which has caused the cruel deaths of many.

It is clear that there is no desire from any of the political parties that aspire to govern at Westminster to bring about change that will provide a safety net for when life chances require it, or to show compassion and a belief that no child should be left in poverty. It is clear that change will come only when Scotland is independent.

Maggie Chapman joins us remotely.


Maggie Chapman (North East Scotland) (Green)

Six years ago, the distinguished academic Professor Jonathan Bradshaw wrote:

“The two-child policy is the worst ever social security policy because it results in unprecedented cuts to the living standards of the poorest children in Britain. If the government needed to reduce the deficit, almost any other expenditure cut or tax increase would be less damaging. The aspiration of the policy to influence fertility is discriminatory and hopeless. The exceptions will be unpleasant to operate. It is morally odious, vindictively conceived and it will not last.”

He was right about everything—except, so far, his final point. Shamefully, it has lasted.

Another Jonathan, the Labour MP Jonathan Ashworth, who was then shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, gave an interview to the Daily Mirror earlier this year. He agreed with a former Tory welfare minister in describing the two-child limit as a “vicious policy” and said that

“The idea that this policy helps move people into work is completely offensive nonsense.”

A few weeks later, Keir Starmer was equally clear. Why would he not be? It is an issue of such moral clarity, as agreed by civil society, charities, academics, unions, faith groups, conscience-stricken Tories and voices from across the spectrum of Sir Keir’s party. So, what did he say? He said:

“We are not changing that policy.”

This is where the empty politics of focus groups has brought us. This is what our children face—a fate that is recognised as being morally repugnant yet is being normalised by both players in a cynical game of first past the post.

Let us remind ourselves of why both Jonathans were right. Austerity was, of course, based on a lie propped up by analytical incompetence, and it fed on bigotries of the cruellest and most inflammatory kind. The attempts to turn George Osborne into a sort of national treasure reveal some terrifyingly short memories. Like many other vials of austerity’s poison, the policy has failed in what it set out to do. It has not reduced public spending in anything but the most trivial and short-term sense, because, as we know, the real costs of the child poverty that it has created are wide and deep, and affect not only the children but their families and communities, and society beyond them.

The costs are borne in relationships and wellbeing, in health and education and in employment and economic stability. If the architects of austerity thought about child poverty for no other reason, they might have considered that its impacts on the economy and public spending far outweighed the petty cash that they snatched away.

The policy has not enabled parents to find work, or—for the majority who are already employed—to work more hours or to receive higher pay. In fact, as this year’s London School of Economics study showed, it often heightens the obstacles that they face, including childcare costs, time constraints and mental health pressures.

The cap has not stopped people from having more than two children. Again, the evidence is there—evidence that anyone with a heart could have expected to see. Families have three or more children for many reasons and in many circumstances. Storms may come to us all—bereavement or breakdown, loss of relationship or livelihood, illness or isolation. To slam the door on the smallest is neither social nor secure: it is barely even human.

The policy has real effects, though not those it was advertised that it would bring. As we know all too well, the two-child limit increases child poverty, especially for the most vulnerable families. It brings with it the old enemies of childhood: hunger, cold, homelessness and family debt. It punishes women—especially lone parents—as they struggle, going hungry themselves, to keep their children warm and fed.

It violates the most basic human rights, including the obligation, under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to give primary consideration to the best interests of the child. It breaches reproductive rights and blatantly discriminates by religion, culture and gender.

Martin Whitfield

I am very grateful to Maggie Chapman for giving way. She is making a very powerful speech—particularly in relation to the UNCRC. Would she agree that, fundamentally, the safety net of the social security system is not in any way helped by the current universal credit system, and that a review of the whole system is what the people of the United Kingdom, who seek to rely on it, need?

Maggie Chapman

I agree partially with Martin Whitfield, that universal credit is part of the problem, but that is no excuse to delay the scrapping of the obscene and immoral two-child policy right now. It could be done tomorrow, if we so chose.

The policy undermines healthy relationships by incentivising separation and discouraging blended families. Its clumsy and cynical exceptions—including the chilling rape clause—reach new depths of indignity, dehumanisation and danger.

There is no more bitter example of the cost—the simple human cost—of our shackles to Westminster. We know that the Scottish child payment is making a real and vital difference to thousands of children’s lives, but that payment should be an addition, and not an attempt to fill the chasm that is left by this deliberate shortfall—this conscious cruelty.

Earlier, Miles Briggs talked about fairness in taxation and fairness in spending. I wonder when he will press his Westminster Government to tackle tax avoidance or the obscene profits that were made at our expense by energy companies during the current cost crisis. That money could be used for so much good. Poorer families should not be made to pay.

There are MSPs here who have spoken out against their party line—their party’s infatuation with the spiteful policy—and I thank them, but I challenge them and their silent colleagues to do more. We are not here to represent Mondeo man, Waitrose woman or any other cartoon characters of the spin doctors’ stunted imaginations. We are here to represent the children of Scotland, and the families and communities who care for them. If we are truly to do so, the two-child limit cannot last. It shall not last.


Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

Just a few weeks ago, I led a members’ business debate seeking to secure cross-party support for speaking with one voice to oppose the deeply oppressive and damaging two-child cap and associated rape clause. I sought to phrase my motion such that it would be straightforward for colleagues in other parties—particularly the Labour Party—to support it. I was deeply disappointed that the Labour Party MSPs simply did not sign the motion.

Today’s Scottish Government motion is another opportunity for Labour to show movement, to bow to pressure and to do the right thing. As Labour colleagues decide how to vote at decision time, I will refer them to the questions that I asked of Michael Marra and Paul O’Kane during that debate.

I made it clear that the motion that I had put before Parliament sought, at its heart, to do something very simple: it aimed to put pressure on a UK Conservative Government that is wedded to the rape clause and the two-child limit. It was an opportunity for Labour to join the SNP in defending the 4,000 children in Glasgow and 20,000 children across Scotland who have been pushed into poverty by those UK policies. Their replies illustrated the confusion and chaos that has been part of the Labour position on the matter for a prolonged period.

Mr O’Kane was asked to rule out the rape clause. He said:

“I talk about fundamental reform of universal credit because that is what I believe in. However, unfunded spending commitments cannot be made, because working people will pay the price.”

Wow! All I did was ask Mr O’Kane to reject the rape clause and the two-child cap, but that was the reply.

Mr Marra stated:

“I associate myself entirely with the contents of the motion”—

that I had before Parliament. He went on and said:

“There is very little in it—if anything at all—that I disagree with.

The challenge that is faced by any incoming Chancellor of the Exchequer in this country is that we have to have the money to be able to pay the bills.”—[Official Report, 12 September 2023; c 87, 90]

Mr Marra is, of course, in part right. The issue is that, with the rape clause and the two-child limit, the UK Conservative Government denies the most vulnerable families in Scotland the level of income that they require in order to pay their bills—their electricity bills, gas bills, food bills and shopping bills—to buy clothes for their children and much more. Those are the bills that should focus the minds of the UK Labour Party. Unfortunately, the conclusion that I had to reach then was that UK Labour’s elected representatives in Scotland would rather deny vital support to the most vulnerable citizens than challenge Sir Keir Starmer.

We should not be deflected by any chat about Labour reviewing universal credit. The two-child cap and rape clause can end now, irrespective of any future review of universal credit.

I understand that that change could be made now by the Conservative Government. Does Bob Doris recognise that it cannot be made now by the Labour Party?

Bob Doris

I thank Mr Marra for that really helpful intervention. Should there be a future UK Labour Government, the policies could be abolished within months—perhaps even weeks—but that commitment has not been given this afternoon by Labour. [Applause.]

Can anyone imagine designing a UK benefit system that identifies need and seeks to support those who clearly have such need, but effectively also says, “We’ll help you support your first two children, but you’re on your own with any other siblings. They simply don’t count—their needs don’t count”? At its core, that is precisely what the benefits cap of the two-child limit does, and it does not require a Labour review of universal credit to reach that position.

The Scottish Government has been clear that any benefits system that operates in such a way is immoral and unethical. The Scottish Government has not only condemned the system, but has acted to put in place an alternative dignified system here in Scotland, within our devolved competences and within the constraints of our budgets. The difference has been transformational, with delivery of our game-changing Scottish child payment. We roundly rejected any suggestion of a two-child limit or a rape clause. We designed a system that is based on fairness, dignity and respect. That is all that we are asking Labour to do, as well.

Paul O’Kane

Does Bob Doris accept that there are significant challenges in delivery of social security in Scotland, not least in terms of the wait times that exist for adult disability payment and with getting the right advice and support for people across Scotland?

Bob Doris

What Mr O’Kane is saying is that Social Security Scotland will continue to strive to improve the service that it offers to the people of Scotland, based on dignity, fairness and respect. I am absolutely happy to confirm that.

This is not about politics; it is, of course, about people. It is about offering vital support to people and families who are really struggling. I have previously mentioned in the chamber how Glasgow North West Citizens Advice Bureau, which is based in my constituency, has been helping people who have been impacted by the rape clause and the benefits cap. Here is what the bureau told me:

“Our bureau supported a lone parent of four children aged between 14 and four months who needed help with energy debt and support to progress a child maintenance claim. No one plans to be in financial difficulty. The parent found herself in financial difficulty when she separated from her husband and became reliant on universal credit, and she was entitled to support for only two of her four children.”

Glasgow North West Citizens Advice Bureau assisted another lone parent with four children who ranged from 12 years old to three years old. The bureau assisted in applying for health-related benefits for two of the children, who had severe additional support needs. The parent had found himself in financial difficulty when his wife died and he gave up well-paid work to care for his children. In claiming universal credit, he was entitled to support for only two of his four children.

Presiding Officer, imagine experiencing such a bereavement or a relationship breakdown then facing such severe financial hardship under a UK benefits system—not by accident, but by design. That is the reality of the two-child limit in practice. It is also the early years of what a future UK Government is willing to put up with—for how long, we just do not know. Today we can, however, come together as a Scottish Parliament and unite against the current UK system, the two-child cap and the rape clause. The system must change and it must go, and we do not need a review of universal credit to tell us that. What is needed is a conscience, political will and determination to act. Our SNP Government has the conscience, determination and political will. I hope that, at decision time, so will others.


Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

It is, as always, a pleasure to follow Bob Doris in the debate.

We find ourselves here during challenge poverty week, and I am disappointed that the motion that the SNP Government chose is so narrow that we cannot laud the work that happens in challenge poverty week. I look, instead, to the various amendments to allow that discussion to happen. It is right to hold the Tory Government at Westminster to account for its failings, choices and decisions, but it is also right to look to the people of Scotland to see what we can do to challenge poverty.

Challenge poverty week was launched in 2013 to highlight the injustice of poverty in Scotland and to show that collective action based on justice and compassion can create solutions—that is a fascinating message for the debate. This week, in particular, the asks are for a Scotland where people

“value our communities”,

can be safe and secure in sustainable homes, can

“have enough to live a decent dignified life”,

and can travel where they need to go, and

“where no one goes hungry”.

Those asks, generic as they are, speak to the volume of the challenge that exists around poverty in Scotland, across the United Kingdom and across the world.

In today’s debate, some members have looked to labour a very specific point. It is their right to do so, and that is a political decision. However, it is a missed opportunity, in this week, not to look across our Scottish communities for answers on how to improve the wellbeing of our children, young adults, new families, people who are working and in poverty—whose number has increased recently—and older generations. Those people need the care and support of their communities, the Scottish Government and the Westminster Government so that they can have a dignified life.

I echo a comment that Miles Briggs made about the availability of childcare and the information that has become available today about the private sector. It is concerned not just about not being able to deliver the Scottish Government’s promise, but that, if it did so, it would lead to childcare providers going bankrupt and out of business, which would cause huge problems for families—particularly single-parent families, in which there are significant numbers of women—who need that childcare to allow people to go to work.

I would also like, in the short time that I have, to echo the point that Roz McCall made in her speech about “education, education, education”, which was a reference to a speech that Tony Blair made back in 2001 at the University of Southampton, which is one of the great education institutions. I welcome her acknowledgment that education is one of the long-term solutions to the problem of poverty. However, it is not one of the long-term causes of poverty, and the expectation that our schools, our teachers and the adults who support our young people can solve a problem such as poverty is disingenuous and unfair. It is putting unacceptable pressures on a system that should be there to allow young people to develop and mature, so that they can take part in their future life, and—to echo a previous debate in which John Swinney intervened on me—to allow us to have the discussion about the responsibilities and obligations that rest with parents and schools, and the difference between them.

Turning specifically to the debate that we have had this afternoon, it is right to echo Carol Mochan’s comments about whether there was a need for this to be the politically strong debate that has been brought about because of the phrasing of the motion. Of course, that is a choice for the Government. However, to make that choice in the way that it has done is disingenuous, particularly in this week of all weeks.

Bob Doris’s speech was interesting. He was right to talk about the provision of social security being a developing and iterative process that will hopefully result in people being dealt with more fairly, more equitably and—let us face it—just more kindly. However, reflecting on some of the other comments, I would ask, why can that not happen now? Why is it not happening now? Why can it not happen today? Bob Doris is fully aware of why it cannot happen today, and, again, I find it disingenuous that there seems to be a clarion call, particularly towards ourselves—

Bob Doris

I think that the member is conflating two opposite things. The Scottish Government started off with a £10 Scottish child payment, and that is now £25. That was not about process; it was about delivery. Similarly, abolishing the two-child cap is not about process; it is about delivery, and UK Labour could do that immediately after it is elected.

Martin Whitfield

I compliment Bob Doris on recognising the potential privilege that Labour has of being in government at Westminster imminently—I deeply wish that it could be tomorrow, but we must deal with reality, and that brings me to the part that I was going to go on to.

I thank Bob Doris for that intervention, because there is a difference between delivery and a promise to deliver. The fact remains that—as, I hope, we can all agree—the role of social security, at one level, is to provide a safety net that individuals and communities can be confident they will not fall below and that should offer them the dignity that we have talked about. However, that does not involve the two-child cap; it involves the aberration that is universal credit, which fails to recognise the complexity of individuals’ lives. It was initially brought in to even out the complexity in the system and make it a simple system that could be delivered. However, we have seen, through experience, that that has not happened. Under the Tory Government at Westminster, universal credit has become almost as complex as the myriad benefits that it sought to replace.

I will bring my comments to an end, Deputy Presiding Officer. We have said here today that Labour will review universal credit, and we will do so for the very reason that we spoke about earlier today in relation to the parental transition fund, which involves a promise of the SNP Government for £15 million a year. That was an original idea that came through parents themselves and was developed by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. However, now, a year later, they are told that they cannot have that fund, because the Scottish Government does not have the power. I urge all Governments to be incredibly careful about what they promise and to make sure that they can deliver what they promise, because people feeling betrayed and upset lowers the reputation of politicians, Governments and, indeed, Parliaments.


Collette Stevenson (East Kilbride) (SNP)

It is challenge poverty week, and today’s theme is adequate incomes, so it is apt that we are having this debate. The UK Government must scrap the two-child limit. It is abhorrent and punitive, and it undermines action to reduce child poverty in Scotland. The two-child cap likely affects around 1,000 children in my East Kilbride constituency and more than 80,000 children in Scotland. Last year, families in Scotland lost out on nearly £96 million as a result of the policy, compounding hardship during this Tory cost of living crisis, and that is nothing short of disgraceful. As Engender pointed out, the policy disproportionately affects women and is part of a Tory welfare system that entrenches women’s poverty.

Abolishing the two-child limit could lift 20,000 children in Scotland out of poverty. Research suggests that that would cost around £1.3 billion across the whole of the UK, which is a fraction of the £4.3 billion that the Tory Government wrote off in alleged fraudulent Covid loans.

The two-child limit is also known as the rape clause. The UK Government website says that there are exceptions to the two-child limit, including where a child was

“born as a result of a non-consensual conception”.

Women have to declare the name of their child and sign to confirm that they “believe” that this applies to their son or daughter. In Scotland last year, more than 2,500 women had to relive the trauma of sexual assault or coercive control just to put food on the table. That is just one example of the cruel effects of the two-child limit, an abhorrent policy introduced by the Tories and one that the Labour Party will keep.

A recent study led by the University of York found that the two-child limit is a “poverty-producing” policy that has failed even to meet its own aims. The researchers found families with three or more children that did not know about the two-child cap because they were not on benefits at the time of the birth. Of course, circumstances can change for anyone, and a person does not know when they might have to rely on the social security safety net. That safety net has been shrinking under the UK Tory Government.

With limited powers over social security, in recent years, the SNP in government has built a new system with dignity, fairness and respect at its core. The game-changing Scottish child payment has been rolled out by the Scottish Government, providing £25 per week for every eligible child. It is estimated that it will lift around 50,000 children out of poverty in the next 12 months. That policy highlights the stark difference between the cruelty of the Westminster system and the fairness of Scotland’s social security system.

I welcome the fact that Scottish Labour is favourable to the SNP’s calls to scrap the two-child cap. However, that means nothing, unfortunately, since its Westminster colleagues have made it clear that a UK Labour Government will keep the cap. Considering the Tory amendment, it is clear to me that the Tories just do not get it. They support austerity to manage public finances for future generations, but their austerity agenda and policies such as the rape clause are harming those future generations.

Leaving aside the immorality of the Tory Government’s policy choices, with nearly one in three children in the UK living in poverty, that statement is a false economy. Child poverty affects future outcomes—it leads to future tax receipt losses for Government as well as additional social security spending in the long run. CPAG estimates that child poverty will cost the UK Government, at the very least, £39.5 billion this year. Therefore, the Tories do not actually care about the reality of the public finances, and they certainly do not care that their policies are creating poverty. The Conservatives say that they are the party of growth. Well, the economy is on the verge of recession, and the only thing that they are growing is child poverty.

I want to tackle and eradicate poverty. It is not easy, and there are many factors at play. However, it is clear to me that there are some easy choices that would relieve child poverty levels and help to ensure that no more children are dragged into poverty.

Carol Mochan

I hope that the member picked up from my speech that I am really keen for us to make progress on tackling child poverty. Therefore, I am keen to know what is discussed when the group meets in relation to what more can be done here and now on child poverty and how it ensures that it pushes members on the front benches in that regard.

I ask the member to clarify what she meant by “the group”. Could she elaborate on that?

Of course. I meant the SNP group that the member sits on.

Collette Stevenson

What? I am sorry, but I will move on, as I am running out of time.

For as long as Scotland is at the mercy of right-wing Tory and Labour Governments, we will need to spend money mitigating the worst effects of Westminster decisions. In a union where policies such as the two-child benefit cap and the rape clause are allowed to exist, there can be no doubt that the only way to protect families in Scotland is with independence.


Michael Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

I thank all members who have participated in the debate. Scottish Labour welcomes the opportunity to debate child poverty and broader poverty at every opportunity because—there is, I think, unanimity across the chamber on this point—child poverty is a moral affront.

The shape of our economy in Scotland determines that a quarter of children in this country grow up in grinding daily poverty, and that should be and is, I believe, an affront to every one of us. Those children are not saved by social mobility, which has collapsed in Scotland in recent decades. It is still significantly more difficult for young people from the poorest backgrounds to aspire to a better and different life for themselves, their families and their communities. Access to higher education, particularly university courses that lead to the professions with the highest earnings, remains closed to far too many. If we are to address that, we have to build an economy that ensures that there is greater equality instead of seeking to accelerate divisions.

However, we should reflect on the political context in which we are having this conversation today. The scenes that we have been watching from Manchester have been, frankly, to be expected. There is standing room only for Liz Truss, who is a year on from crashing the UK economy, while the rest is a sparsely attended Trump rally in which conspiracy theories abound in all the speeches. Conservative ministers are making speeches that are anti-15-minute neighbourhoods and on the control of populations. There are also calls to remove the woke from science, which is one of the most ludicrous things that has come from the Tory party this week. Frankly, the Conservative Party meeting in Manchester in recent days is anti-reality. That party is desperate to divide people by whatever means, wherever it can.

I would not apply the entirety of that to the SNP—far from it, I have to say—but it has been making up things today. There are things that have been entirely made up.

Scottish Labour remains opposed to the two-child limit. We have been abundantly clear on that; our position has not changed. My colleagues Paul O’Kane, Carol Mochan and Martin Whitfield have set that out in clear detail. We are absolutely clear that universal credit requires fundamental reform, and that must happen. However, we are in the fourth debate in two weeks from the SNP specifically about the Labour Party—not about its job of governing the country, but about the Labour Party.

As Mr Whitfield pointed out to Mr Doris, on some levels it is great that the SNP has faith in the Labour Party’s ability to form a Government across the UK and bring change to the people of Scotland. However, I gently say to the SNP that just saying things about the Labour Party in these debates does not make them true. I can tell the SNP that misrepresenting the position of the Labour Party in this or any other area will not change a single vote in Rutherglen tomorrow. Our approach to politics is defined by the issue of poverty and child poverty. Labour’s record in that area stands up to scrutiny.

Will the member take an intervention?

Michael Marra

I will take the member in a moment.

The scourge of child poverty holds back this country. It is a malignant legacy of collective moral failure, and addressing it will be a defining purpose of any Labour Government at any time. It has been in the past and it will be in the future.

Kate Forbes

In that vein, and taking that at face value, if a policy were presented to the Labour Party that would, tomorrow, lift 15,000 children out of poverty, such as scrapping the two-child limit, would the Labour Party do that rather than wait for a review?

Michael Marra

I absolutely can comment on that. If this Government wants to bring forward a policy tomorrow to scrap the cap and if it wants to lift 15,000 children out of poverty, Scottish Labour would happily back that position.

Kate Forbes might want reminding that Labour is not in power here or at Westminster—and her party is. Her party could do it, and could do it now.

We have heard various statements during the debate, which I will quote. Mr Stewart said that he wanted it done. He said:

“We want an ... end to”

it immediately, so

“let us get rid of it now.”

Maggie Chapman said,

“It could be done tomorrow”

but it could be done by the SNP, not by the Labour Party. The SNP Government could mitigate the policy tomorrow, should it take the option to do so.

Will the member give way?

No thank you, Ms Forbes—on that point, you have had your chance. I may come back to you later.

Members: Oh!

Michael Marra

Yes, well, I think that that is a fair comment. The point was answered.

On the issue of timing, the Labour Party cannot act on the issue now. We think that a fundamental review of universal credit is required—that is absolutely clear.

Will the member give way?

Will Mr Marra give way?

Michael Marra

No, thank you.

If we are to make real inroads into bringing child poverty levels back down again in this country, we must tackle the scourge of in-work poverty. I have heard nothing, or very little, about that today from SNP members, other than some warm words about Labour’s position on the new deal for working people.

In government, we would ban zero-hours contracts, which is obviously bad news for the SNP’s by-election strategy in that regard. We would outlaw fire and rehire, with day 1 rights to sick pay, parental leave and on unfair dismissal, and we would ensure that the minimum wage is a liveable wage.

Mr Stewart might want to listen to this, because that programme—

Will the member give way?

No thank you, Mr Doris.

That programme has been endorsed by the Trades Union Congress, which calls those proposals “transformative”—

Will the member give way?

Will the member give way?


Kevin Stewart

I recognise that the TUC has made positive comments around about some of those things. Mr Marra has just said that the Labour Party will scrap fire and rehire on day 1. Why can it not do the same with the two-child cap? It is that simple. If it can do that for one thing, why not for this one?

In conclusion, Michael Marra.

I move to conclude, Presiding Officer.

I am afraid Mr Stewart will find that that is not what I said—

You did say that.

Michael Marra

No, I did not—he can check the Official Report. I said “day 1 rights to sick pay”, so that when someone goes into a job, they have day 1 rights.

The member should check the Official Report, and he will find out what the Labour Party’s policy is. It is as I have related it, and if those on the Government benches try to misrepresent it on a weekly basis, it will do them no favours.


Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

It is always interesting to find out that the Scottish Government is bringing to the chamber a debate on social security. I always find myself wondering what the topic of the debate will be. Will it address the unacceptable processing times that are experienced by those who are trying to claim benefits through Social Security Scotland? Will it be about how long it is taking to transfer the devolved benefits to Social Security Scotland, and will it maybe thank the DWP for agreeing to continue to administrate some benefits in the meantime? Or will it be simply the Scottish Government taking the time to apologise to all those who have been failed by its shambolic attempt to distribute much-needed support?

Will the member give way?

Jeremy Balfour

Not at the moment.

Of course it will not, because Government is not interested in looking at its own failings. It would rather deflect than own up to the mess that it has made.

Today, we have seen tactic number 1 from the Green-nationalist playbook: members shout about something that the UK Government is doing, while sitting on their hands and not taking action that it is well within their competence to take.

The truth is that, if the Scottish Government really cared so deeply about the two-child cap, it could do something about it. I say to Kevin Stewart, Alex Cole-Hamilton, Kate Forbes, Marie McNair, Maggie Chapman, Bob Doris and Collette Stevenson: here is the good news—we, in this Parliament, have the power to deal with the issue here and now. This Government has decided to sit on its hands and do nothing about it, except slag off other Governments.

That is not student politics—it is school politics. It is simply members shouting at somebody else while taking no responsibility themselves. This Government could decide to give those families more money if it wanted to, but it has chosen simply not to do that.

Will the member give way?

Will the member take an intervention?

Will the member give way?

Will the member give way?

Oh my goodness—there are so many. I will take an intervention from Ms Forbes, as I heard her first.

Kate Forbes

Jeremy Balfour is a member of the Conservatives and, according to campaigners, the Conservatives have plunged 15,000 children into poverty. In the spirit of taking responsibility, does he take responsibility for that?

Jeremy Balfour

Let us look at the number of children in temporary accommodation that the Scottish Government has put into trouble. Actually, I do not take responsibility because, like Ms Forbes, I was elected to this Parliament to deal with the issues that we are responsible for. If I wanted to go to Westminster, I would have gone there—depending on the electorate—but I chose to come here. The point is that we have the powers, but SNP ministers sit on the front bench and are simply happy to point fingers at other Governments and do nothing.

Will the member give way?

Will the member give way?

Jeremy Balfour

I need to move on.

The reality of governance is that choices have to be made. The Government has to decide what its priorities are and then make difficult decisions. If the Scottish Government wants to lift the two-child cap, it should top up payments for bigger families, finding the money from another budget such as health or education. That is exactly the same process that the Scottish Government is asking the UK Government to do.

Will the member give way?

Jeremy Balfour


The UK Government has to make decisions about where to spend its finite budget. It is time for the SNP to follow its own advice, if the issue means that much to it.

Miles Briggs helpfully pointed out the amount of money that the UK has spent in the past number of years, particularly during Covid, in protecting the most vulnerable in Scotland. Roz McCall made the absolutely right point that the Scottish Government has failed to keep its promise on free school meals, and neither John Swinney nor Kate Forbes has given us a reason why that promise has been broken.

What we should be debating today is how to get more people out of poverty. Martin Whitfield was right to talk about childcare and education, but let us look at what the Government is doing to get more disabled people into employment. The number of disabled people looking to get into employment is higher in Scotland than anywhere else in the UK. Let us look at what we are doing with regard to education, as we fall further and further down the leagues across the world. Let us look at what we are doing to help people from all backgrounds into employment—we are simply failing them.

I am sure that, collectively, we do not want to see any individual or family on benefits. We want to give people the opportunity to work and the ability to provide for their families. The Scottish Government should start debating the devolved powers that we have in the Scottish Parliament.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I invite the member to work with the Scottish Government. If he wants us to do more with the powers that we have, he should help us to stop having to spend £127 million per year to mitigate the worst excesses of the UK Government and having to spend £405 million on the Scottish child payment because universal credit is absolutely pitiful in this country. He should help us to have an essentials guarantee that allows us to help people, because people cannot always be in work and, even if they are in work, they will need support from the benefits system. Why do the Scottish Conservatives not work with us to see what we can do to stop us having to mitigate the worst excesses of the UK Government, and then we can spend that money on employability, childcare and other matters?

Please conclude, Mr Balfour.

Jeremy Balfour

The issue here is about political choices. The UK Government has made choices and the Scottish Government has made choices. The Scottish Government’s choice has been not to intervene to get rid of this policy. That is a choice that the cabinet secretary and her Government have made.

We all need to work to help the most vulnerable in our society. Let us start talking more about what we can do in the Scottish Parliament and what the Government can do, and let us stop talking about other Parliaments that we have not been elected to.


The Minister for Equalities, Migration and Refugees (Emma Roddick)

Let me be clear from the outset: the Scottish Government does not have the powers to scrap the two-child cap. Jeremy Balfour might want to check again which Parliament he was elected to and where the powers sit. Members who are calling for mitigation are calling for us not to scrap the cap but to allow people to go through the awful rape clause process and then come to us to ask for the money that the UK Government should have given them in the first place. We do not have the powers to scrap the policy. If we were in charge of income benefits, we would not dream of denying vital support to children. The powers to change the policy sit with the UK Government, and it is only the SNP and the Greens that are trying to do anything about it.

In a debate about whether children who did not choose to be born should be exempt from state support due to archaic judgments about people who need to rely on benefits and the number of siblings a child has, it is astounding that there has been so much disagreement. The Scottish Government has consistently called on the UK Government to scrap the policy and support all children. It is a shame that others refuse to follow our example, even when they completely agree on how awful the policy is.

I can confirm to the minister that Scottish Labour will vote for the motion on that basis. There is unanimity on it; there is not a word in it on which we disagree.

Emma Roddick

The difference is that, if Labour is successful in the next Westminster election, it will not scrap the two-child cap. It is talking about reviews. It says that it will wait and see and that it will look into whether the policy is terrible, but we all know that it is. As a social democrat and someone who wants child poverty to be eradicated, I have been really disappointed with Scottish Labour, so I cannot imagine how its supporters feel.

I want to understand what the conflict is. We will support the motion, and I have called on us to work together, but it seems that we are placing conflict in a place where it should not be.

Emma Roddick

I think that the policy is in a place where it should not be. We would scrap the policy immediately, whereas Labour refuses to go down that road. Labour had the opportunity to say that it would ditch the cap if it got into power. Instead, it is dancing around the issue, presumably playing to the gallery of Conservative voters.

What have we heard from Labour today? Labour members have said, “We’re not going to ditch the policy if we get in, but why don’t you mitigate it?” Scottish Labour does not support the devolution of the powers that would allow us to change the system, but it is asking us to mitigate the Conservative decision that its UK colleagues have decided to inherit and safeguard. How brazen can you get?

Paul O’Kane

Does the minister agree that universal credit is fundamentally flawed and that all its parts need to be reformed? Such reform is about more than just one policy, as abhorrent as the policy is. It is about making universal credit a proper safety net for people who need it, and it is about ensuring that work pays and that it pays well.

Emma Roddick

Certainly, but Labour could scrap the policy and have a review—it could do both. If even Scottish Labour has accepted that, no matter who is in power down south, it will fall to the Scottish Government to step in and provide a bit of sense and fairness in welfare policy, it is perhaps time for it to stop shouting down every mention of independence, because it is very close to getting the point that we have been making the whole time. In Paul O’Kane’s words, little changes here and there will not do it; we need fundamental change. The UK is even more broken than universal credit, and we do not need a lengthy review to tell us that.

Will the minister take an intervention?

Emma Roddick

I am going to make progress.

In Scotland, we do not choose to cap the number of kids who we think should not be hungry. The Scottish child payment is available for all eligible children. There are no questions about how many siblings they have or whether they were a planned conception, because asking those questions would be wrong. It is astounding to me that we are debating that.

It is also astounding to me that Miles Briggs said that the policy is about fairness. There is no fairness in the policy. The Conservatives—including Miles Briggs in his comments about employment—seemed to echo George Osborne’s comments when the policy was first launched. He claimed that it would force families in receipt of benefits to make

“the same financial choices about having children as those supporting themselves solely in work”.

If Miles Briggs had accepted one of my interventions earlier, I would have asked him whether he realises that 59 per cent of the families who are affected by the cap are in work. People who are in work face unprecedented challenges with budgeting thanks to his party crashing the economy and refusing to protect children from bearing the brunt of that.

I cannot get my head around the idea of someone who looks at a hungry child and decides that we should not do anything about it because of uninformed judgments about the personal decisions of the parents.

Regardless of that, Nuffield Foundation analysis shows that the policy has had little impact on birth rates. That is just as well, because we want and need more babies to be born in Scotland, but it shows that, whatever the Tories thought they were doing with this policy, it has not worked.

Carol Mochan’s assessment of the Tory amendment today was absolutely right. It is a bizarre rewriting of history that completely fails to acknowledge that the future generations that they are talking about carefully managing finances for are growing up in poverty now.

Jeremy Balfour

I asked the question of both Ms Forbes and Mr Swinney, but neither of them answered, so perhaps the minister will. If it is so concerned about children growing up in poverty, why has the Scottish Government failed to deliver on its promise on free school meals by now? Why the delay if the Government is so concerned?

Emma Roddick

We are absolutely behind that commitment. We will roll out universal free school meals.

On the later points that were made by Carol Mochan, I extend the invitation that the cabinet secretary tried to offer to her or Scottish Labour spokespeople to come along to meetings in the run-up to the budget to tell us what they want us to do when they come to debates and say, “Do more.” Give us some detail, tell us what it will cost and where the money should come from, because we do always want to do more. However, we have to do the work and not just say, “Do more.”

I am sitting here as part of a Government that has spent more than £400 million this year on the Scottish child payment and almost £3 billion on policies that tackle poverty. Labour is in opposition—it has not even made it to government yet—and it is prevaricating about ditching something as awful as the two-child cap.

Martin Whitfield was right to talk about what we can do here in Scotland. There is plenty that we are doing and plenty more that we could do if we had the financial, welfare or employment powers that we need or if we were not having to constantly mitigate the worst of UK decisions.

Miles Briggs

Just before the debate, the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice sent me a letter; at First Minister’s questions, I had asked when all benefits would be devolved to Scotland. The Scottish Government still does not have a date for that, so why, when the Government says that it is doing so much, has it not managed to find the ways to deliver what it has the powers for here in the Scottish Parliament?

This is a joint programme with the Department for Work and Pensions, so it is not entirely within our gift to state when—[Interruption.]

Let us hear the minister.

Emma Roddick

—powers will be devolved, but not all powers are planned to be devolved, so that might be a question that the member should ask of the UK Government.

When our mitigation bill is sitting at more than £1 billion and Scottish Labour keeps coming to the chamber and asking us to add to that—when it will not put its money where its mouth is but instead abandons its principles before it even takes office—I suggest that there is a bigger problem at play. My colleagues behind me were right to keep pointing out that independence is needed if we want to tackle the issue without constantly fighting against the tide.

Official figures that were released on 13 July revealed that a total of 2,590 women had to disclose details of rape in order to receive welfare support for a third or subsequent child. Rape Crisis Scotland said:

“The two-child policy for accessing child tax credits is cruel and forces families into poverty, particularly during the cost-of-living crisis.”

Nobody should be forced to disclose sexual violence in order to access welfare.

That clause lays bare the unfairness at the heart of this cap. If your policies are retraumatising survivors, you need to be very sure that that is necessary. People are being forced to prove rape, sexual assault and domestic abuse just to prove that their kids should be financially supported. For children who are conceived by other means, it tells parents, “Well, that’s your fault for getting pregnant,” as though circumstances do not change, as though assault and abuse are easy to prove and as though how they are conceived or born could ever justify a child growing up in poverty.

By telling women that they must be raped to be deserving of help, the two-child cap ignores bodily autonomy, the possibility of contraception failing and religious views on the use of contraception or abortion. It ignores the experiences of women. It is misogynistic at heart. The two-child cap also punishes children because their parents are on low incomes. It cannot be right to limit the financial support that is available to children. We do not need a review to tell us any of this: the two-child cap is one of the most blatantly punitive and plain wrong policies that I can ever remember.

Labour needs to take a step back, listen to the lines that it is repeating and wake up. I cannot believe that my colleagues over there, who often speak very passionately about tackling poverty, genuinely want to defend the indefensible.

Will the minister give way?

The minister must conclude.

Emma Roddick

No exceptions to the cap could ever be enough. There should be no exceptions to our efforts to eradicate child poverty. Nobody deserves poverty.