Welfare Policy in Northern Ireland Contents

5The two-child limit in Northern Ireland

129.The two-child limit is the Government’s policy that families are not able to claim child benefits for any third or subsequent child born on or after 6 April 2017.

130.Families in Northern Ireland are likely to be disproportionately affected by the two-child limit. Some 21.4% of families in Northern Ireland have three or more children, compared to 14.7% of families in the UK as a whole.144 The two-child limit is expected to increase absolute poverty between 2015/16 and 2021/22 by one percentage point in Northern Ireland, compared with 0.4 percentage points in South East England and 0.5 percentage points in Scotland.145

131.The impact of the two-child limit means that a family with three or more children will be worse off by an average of £2,780 per child per year for their third (or additional) child than they would otherwise be if the limit were not in place.146 The Cliff Edge NI Coalition argued that the two-child limit “will deepen the impact of poverty in NI. Already 24% of children in NI are living in poverty and the problem is forecast to increase.”147

132.The two-child limit can have a significant effect on poverty despite affecting a relatively small number of claimants. The Institute for Fiscal Studies explained that this is because affected families can lose a large amount of income; that larger families are already more likely to be in poverty or near poverty; and that since the two-child limit by definition affects families with more children, if one household moves into poverty, then it means a substantial extra number of people in poverty. 148

133.The Women’s Resource and Development Agency observed that families in Northern Ireland do not have access to the Government’s childcare offer in England and Wales, making it more difficult to offset the two-child limit through work:

It is particularly frustrating that a number of women who have been able to get back into training and employment through the support of a women’s centre are now telling us they will have to drop out of work because of the cost of childcare. With no childcare strategy in Northern Ireland and no access to the free childcare hours for 2- and 3-year-olds that families in GB can access, it makes the two-child cap extremely hard to deal with.

As one mum told us: ‘My child tax credit for my first two was the only reason I was able to go out to work part time. But now that I get nothing for my third child, my childcare bill just for him would completely wipe out my wages so what’s the point in going to work?’149

Is the two-child limit discriminatory?

134.We heard evidence that the two-child limit may discriminate against families with particular cultural backgrounds or religious views. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) told us that:

The policy will […] disproportionately affect families from certain cultural or religious backgrounds where there is a trend for bigger families or a moral opposition/conscientious objection to contraception, emergency contraception, or abortion.150

135.In Northern Ireland, Catholic families are particularly likely to be affected in this way. Kelly Andrews, Chief Executive of Belfast and Lisburn Women’s Aid, told us:

From the Northern Ireland 2011 census, it said that—well, we have bigger families—proportionally the Catholic community would have larger families. I think it said 2.7 for the Catholic community and 2.4 for the Protestant community. On average, across all society in Northern Ireland, there are larger families but then, within that, there is a further breakdown that within the Catholic community there appears to be larger families again. That is a particular cultural-religious thing within Northern Ireland. It is a fact of the society here.151

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

The two-child limit is having a significant negative impact on faith communities where larger families are more prevalent. Amongst the general population, 31 per cent of children live in households with more than two children. Within some faith communities, the proportion is significantly higher. […]

Within these communities, raising children is closely bound to their faith and culture. When introducing the two-child limit, the government envisaged that it would influence the choices that families make about the number of children they have, and lead to more ‘responsible’ decision making. However, where reproductive choices and family planning are motivated by deep faith and devout practice, financial considerations about child-related benefits are likely to play a limited role.152

The two-child limit and abortion in Northern Ireland

137.Multiple witnesses observed that the two-child limit policy also interacts with the legal position on abortion in Northern Ireland. For example, the Cliff Edge NI Coalition explained:

NI’s abortion law framework means that abortion is not available in most circumstances in NI and accordingly, women in NI are likely to be impacted by this policy to a greater extent that women in GB.153

138.The Government has argued that the two-child limit policy is designed to influence families’ decision-making. The fact that many pregnancies are unplanned suggests that a number of families are not making an active decision to have an additional child. In Northern Ireland, there is further complexity because of the religious and cultural context and the legal status of abortion in Northern Ireland, notwithstanding recent Westminster legislation on this issue. As a joint report by the Church of England, the Child Poverty Action Group, Women’s Aid, Turn2us and the Refugee Council explained:

A significant number of the women we interviewed had also had an unplanned pregnancy, making knowledge of the policy irrelevant even had they known about it, as there was no ‘decision’ to become pregnant. The only way to exercise choice would have been to have a termination, which some of the women simply would not contemplate for moral or emotional reasons and which those in Northern Ireland would have been unable to access even if they had wanted to.154

The report quoted Samantha, a single parent from Northern Ireland, who said:

I would never have an abortion, but even if I was to look for one, I couldn’t afford it, I couldn’t afford to fly to England to pay for it.155

139.The British Pregnancy Advisory Service has recently said that it is aware of cases in the UK where the two-child limit “has been a factor in a woman’s decision to end a third, unplanned pregnancy”.156 It therefore appears—regardless of the legal situation in Northern Ireland—that Government policy may be putting women in a situation where they decide to terminate a pregnancy because of a lack of financial support.

The non-consensual exemption in Northern Ireland

140.The two-child limit includes an exemption for those whose third or subsequent child is conceived as a result of non-consensual sex (the “rape clause”).

141.Section 5(1) of the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967 places, in the case of serious offences, a duty on third parties to “inform the police of any information that is likely to secure, or to be of material assistance in securing the apprehension, prosecution or conviction of someone for that offence”.157 In theory, this may mean that any woman who applies for the non-consensual exemption should expect to have the case reported to the police by Jobs and Benefit Office staff.

142.The Department for Communities told us that the legal duty would not apply to Jobs and Benefits Office staff since “an approved professional will not have to determine whether the incident actually occurred, rather the focus will be on whether the claimant’s circumstances are consistent with the veracity of the claim.”158 The Attorney General for Northern Ireland has also published guidance which states, in line with the Department’s position, that the vast majority of cases in which disclosures are not drawn to the attention of the police, no breach of legal duty will have taken place; and that even if an individual did breach a legal duty by failing to report a case of rape when processing a non-consensual exemption, there is unlikely to be a public interest in prosecution.159

143.These subtle distinctions and qualified assurances are unlikely to provide enough reassurance both to affected women and to professionals. Multiple witnesses told us that the reporting requirements discouraged women from applying for the non-consensual exemption, and placed professionals a in a difficult position. Kelly Andrews, Chief Executive of Belfast and Lisburn Women’s Aid, told us:

professionals are called into question to support that because of the legislation that we have in Northern Ireland. Under section 5 of the Criminal Law Act you could be prosecuted for not disclosing a crime, so we would like to see that negated.160

The Women’s Resource and Development Agency said:

despite these messages coming from those at the law and policy level, on the ground we believe that there are still barriers for women who are entitled to claim support on the grounds of this exemption. For example, the wording on the application form is not acceptable as it merely provides a legal disclaimer but offers no reassurance that a prosecution is unlikely.161

144.The most recent figures published on the application of the two-child limit show that the non-consensual exception accounts for a lower proportion of exceptions in Northern Ireland compared to England, Wales and Scotland.162

145.Despite the guidance from the Attorney General and the Department for Communities, the reporting requirements in section 5(1) of the Criminal Law (NI) Act remain an obvious barrier to women applying for the non-consensual exception in Northern Ireland, and place professionals in an unacceptably risky position. While the two-child limit continues to apply in Northern Ireland, this anomaly must be addressed urgently.

146.We recommend that, in the continued absence of an Assembly and Executive, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland bring forward proposals to address the anomaly of section 5(1) of the Criminal Law (NI) Act applying to women seeking the non-consensual exemption, and to professionals processing it. This should be a priority for any incoming Northern Ireland Executive.

147.The evidence we heard leaves us deeply concerned about the financial impact of the two-child limit on families in Northern Ireland, who are disproportionately affected by the limit compared to families in other areas of the UK. It has also highlighted how the limit may discriminate against particular communities, especially Catholic communities. We therefore call on the Government to halt the implementation of the two-child limit in Northern Ireland and to reimburse any families who have been affected thus far, pending a full investigation into its financial impact on families with children and the potential discrimination against those with larger families and poorer communities. Historically in Northern Ireland, there have always been larger families than in the rest of the UK. Any benefit restriction on the number of children discriminates particularly adversely against families in Northern Ireland.


144 Women’s Resource and Development Agency (WEL0026)

147 Cliff Edge NI Coalition (WEL0033)

149 Women’s Resource and Development Agency (WEL0026)

150 British Pregnancy Advisory Service (WEL0038)

153 Cliff Edge NI Coalition (WEL0033)

157 Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967, section 5(1)

158 Department for Communities (WEL0037)

159 Department for Communities (WEL0037)

161 Women’s Resource and Development Agency (WEL0026)

162 Department for Work and Pensions Child Tax Credit and Universal Credit claimants: statistics related to the policy to provide support for a maximum of 2 children, April 2019, Table 6. Northern Ireland statistics are for Child Tax Credit only, and so do not include Universal Credit claimants.




Published: 9 September 2019