Benefits call 'unacceptable': Clegg

Stripping families of benefits for any children above a limit of two would be "wholly unacceptable", Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has said.

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Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has branded any suggestion of cuts to child benefits for families with more than two children 'unacceptable'

Stripping families of benefits for any children above a limit of two would be "wholly unacceptable", Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has said.

But Mr Clegg admitted that he had given up trying to force through his own preferred option for cutting the welfare bill by removing benefits from rich pensioners, after meeting implacable opposition from Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne.

However, he indicated that the idea will feature in the Liberal Democrat manifesto for the 2015 general election.

Radical proposals to save billions of pounds by limiting child benefit to the first two children in a family were put forward by Nadhim Zahawi, who is a member of David Cameron's Conservative policy board.

But the Tory MP was immediately slapped down by a 10 Downing Street source, who said: "This is not Government policy and is not supported by the PM."

Now, Mr Clegg has also set his face against the idea, telling a Westminster press conference: "I certainly think it would be wholly unacceptable to say to people who presently receive child benefit and have three kids that suddenly child benefit for that third child is going to be removed, when they have relied on it until now.

"We have introduced some pretty far-reaching child benefit changes already, particularly for those in the upper rate of tax, and to now say to those who are used to this that we are going to change it again, I think would be unfair.

"There is always something a bit arbitrary about a government saying how many children the state will or won't support. I think you get into lots of difficult judgments."

Mr Clegg's comments appeared to leave the door open to withdrawing the benefit from parents who have three or more children in future, but an aide poured cold water on this suggestion, saying: "This is not something that we are looking at in this Government."

The Deputy Prime Minister said that his priority for welfare savings remains a means-test for pensioner benefits such as the free TV licence and winter fuel allowance, which are currently provided universally to millionaires as well as the hard-off, but said he saw no prospect of movement on this before the general election.

"I have pushed within coalition but I have given up now because Conservatives don't want to know, really," he told reporters.

"I don't think there is any realistic prospect of getting anything delivered on that in the next 18 months. I have pushed both George Osborne and David Cameron but it is something they don't want to do, for reasons they will have to explain to you."

Mr Clegg said that pensions minister Steve Webb and Cabinet Office minister David Laws had been working on "very useful" ideas on the universal pensioner benefits, adding: "As we put together the Liberal Democrat manifesto, we will make some announcements on this."

The Liberal Democrat leader said that stripping wealthy pensioners of their benefits would not raise enormous amounts of money but would be "symbolically important".

"Of course there needs to be further welfare reform, but I start from the premise that you start from the top and work down," he said.

"What I find so curious about this chatter amongst the Conservatives about welfare reform is they appear to refuse the one obvious thing you could do with the welfare system now, which is not to ask ordinary taxpayers on low pay to pay the universal benefits for Alan Sugar's entitlement to his free television licence or winter fuel payment.

"He always gets upset when I say that. I'm not saying he is taking it, but people like him are entitled to those universal benefits and I think it's something that should be changed.

"Most people would understand that is the fair thing to do. Why is a multi-millionaire, the wealthy retired, still entitled to universal benefits paid for by people on lower incomes? I would like to see that changed, the Conservatives don't."

Writing in the Mail on Sunday, Mr Zahawi said capping benefits by family size would "save billions and help the next generation think more carefully about their relationship with the welfare state".

A family with three children, with parents earning below £50,000 and so able to claim child benefit in full, would lose out on £696 by only being able to claim for two children.

The Mail on Sunday said those earning less than £30,000 will also be denied child tax credits worth £2,725 a year under the plan, which Mr Zahawi wants included in the next Tory manifesto.