State should not support big families, says Jeremy Hunt

Minister accused of wanting to force children into destitution
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Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, came under fire yesterday after suggesting that benefit claimants should have fewer children to ease the burden they impose on the state.

Mr Hunt was accused of "lecturing" people after claiming that the planned £500-a-week ceiling on state handouts for families would encourage "responsibility" about the number of children people have.

A £26,000-a-year cap on benefit payments will be imposed – in line with the median income for working families. Defending the move, Mr Hunt told BBC TV's Newsnight programme: "The number of children that you have is a choice and what we're saying is that if people are living on benefits then they make choices but they also have to have responsibility for those choices. It's not going to be the role of the state to finance those choices."

Although he denied the ceiling was a "penalty" on large families, he added: "You can have children but if you are going to ask for support that is more than the average wage that people earn then we're saying no, the state shouldn't support that. That's not fair on working people who have to pay the taxes to pay those benefits."

Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, said: "I think we need to support all families in this country and certainly not lecture them in the way that Jeremy Hunt sounds like he's doing."

Kate Green, a Labour MP, said children should not be victimised because their parents' circumstances changed. "It's unreasonable and very cruel. It's absolutely wrong to go down the line of saying only rich people or better-off people should be parents."

Alison Garnham, of Child Poverty Action Group, said: "Forcing children into destitution on the arbitrary basis of how many brothers and sisters they have is abhorrent. As families brace themselves to discover whether their jobs will survive the cuts it is awful that those with larger families should face this extra anxiety."

Sally Copley, head of UK policy at Save the Children, said politicians should stop perpetuating the myth of the undeserving poor. "Children are the ones who'll end up suffering if a parent suddenly loses their job because of the economic crisis, or if their mum or dad becomes a single parent. And in fact, most children living in poverty have at least one parent in work – but they are still poor because that work is low-paid."

Donald Hirsch, from Loughborough University's Centre for Research in Social Policy, warned that statements such as Mr Hunt's marked "quite a slippery slope". He said: "It's a real simplification to divide people effectively into these undeserving poor or lifetime poor who we say 'these are the choices you make and if you make them we're not going to support you', and people who are working. In the present system we do expect people to go out and look for work if they can and if they lose their jobs we think about their needs, not just some crude comparison."

Yesterday the Treasury denied reports that spending could be cut at a slower pace than Mr Osborne outlined in his Budget in June. However, officials admitted that some savings might take slightly longer to achieve – for example, because Whitehall departments had contractual obligations. They insisted this would only involve changes "at the margins".