Welfare reforms will make children's lives worse

Dr Maggie Atkinson
Tuesday, February 7, 2012

I published a joint statement last week with my fellow children's commissioners across the UK about an issue that has kept many people across the children's sector both busy, and awake at night: the Welfare Reform Bill.

 The bill is completing its – latterly stormy – passage through parliament. The statement was signed by all four commissioners, all worried about the likely consequences of the reforms for the very people who can do least to make things better.

They are, of course, the children. They are especially those who are already poor, disabled, young carers or living in private rented accommodation. These children live especially, but not exclusively, in our bigger cities. The bill will affect them especially if they are part of a larger family, come from some black and minority ethnic communities, or possess a combination of these factors. Bluntly, issues of natural justice are at stake. It is part of the commissioners’ roles to prick the conscience of adults with the power to safeguard the lives of our children. For themselves they have no power, but will be badly affected by this proposed legislation.

Our concerns have come neither out of the blue, nor late in the day. In November, as part of our joint report on the UK’s progress against the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, we called on the government to undertake a full and realistic child rights impact assessment of the likely effects of the proposed reforms.

My office conducted its own assessment earlier this year, weighing up the potential impact of the Welfare Reform Bill on children. Nobody can defend blind dependency on benefits. It is an unhealthy place for children if the adults to whom they look to as role models cannot, or will not, change their own and their families’ lives for the better through engaging in purposeful work.

What our impact assessment rests on, however, is that you cannot incentivise a child to take up work. You can, if you are not truly mindful, pass a law that makes it all the more likely they will suffer. The Department for Work and Pensions’ own statistics are stark: whatever the much discussed transitional support – the details of which are not yet known – 220,000 more children, supported by 90,000 adults, could end up in poverty through these proposals.


Poverty harms wellbeing

Children and young people have told us what living in poverty does to your mind, your prospects and your physical wellbeing. Its relentlessness, the sense of being somewhere dark and not seeing a way to the light, are hard to contemplate.

In England and Wales, our concerns about the Welfare Reform Bill are matched by concerns about the Legal Aid and Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. For all its positive proposals on reforming the criminal justice system to make offenders, including young people, less likely to reoffend, there are negatives affecting many of the same children discussed earlier. If this bill goes through unaltered, it will prevent thousands of child litigants who need legal aid from accessing it.

To plan to legislate to make children’s lives worse, seems at the very least counter-productive. Before the proposed implementation of the Welfare Reform Bill in 2013, there is time for the government to make the changes needed to ensure the bill complies with the UN Convention and other international human rights treaties. For children’s sake, we four children’s commissioners are urging that time is used.

Dr Maggie Atkinson is the children’s commissioner for England

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