Department for work and pensions secretary Ian Duncan Smith will stop child benefit payments for larger families.
Despite using his speech at the Conservative party conference earlier this month to call for the party to stay compassionate, Duncan Smith has said that families with more than two children should not receive additional child benefit, risking an increase in child poverty.
The government has been looking for ways to cut the benefits bill, with chancellor George Osborne indicating that he wished to save £10billion by 2016/17 in addition to the £18billion pounds reduction already announced.
Duncan Smith, speaking on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4, said that those who received significant levels of benefits were more likely to have larger families, and he wanted them to have to think harder about whether they could afford to have more children as those on middle incomes had to.
He said that it was no surprise that the country was "in massive debt and huge deficit because we are not paying our way", but wanted further reforms to be about providing fairness to taxpayers, not just savings.
Duncan Smith said: "My view is that if you did this you would start it for those who begin to have more than say two children. Essentially it's about the amount of money that you pay to support how many children, and what is clear to the general public, that they make decisions based on what they can afford for the number of children they have. That is the nature of what we all do."
"It's not about hurting," he said. "It's about saying we have accepted far too long in this country that it is possible just to stay on benefits, that we write them off, and we work only with those who get up in the morning and go to work. And that's simply not acceptable. It's not acceptable because it destroys their lives. It also destroys the lives of taxpayers who have to pick up that bill to pay for them. It's no surprise that we are in massive debt and huge deficit because we are not paying our way. All of that is the consequence of years of simply saying it's too difficult, these people should be left as they are and the rest will do all the work."
He added: "This is not just about the money. It's also about those children growing up in workless households. Their lives are destroyed by this. They need also to learn that it's the right thing for parents to go to work."
Alison Garnham, the chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group, was concerned about the signals being sent out about parents on benefits. She said six out of 10 poor children lived with a working parent on low pay, such as a cleaner or care worker, not an unemployed benefit claimant.
"Like many other people, when they [parents] plan their families they're not thinking about whether at some point in future they might be on benefit. I think some of the things that are being talked about today are a bit worrying, for example the implication that people don't want to take jobs when, in fact, we know, if you look at the jobseeker's allowance figure, you will see that most people, 90%, have left jobseeker's allowance between six to 12 months, so there's no evidence that people are not willing to take jobs."
She also rejected government suggestions that there were large numbers of people who did not want to work.
She said: "I don't think it's that they don't want to work. Those are people probably with multiple problems. They have issues about skills, some have health problems and so on, so I don't think it's a simple picture for that group either. There are always people that we disapprove of but I think it's best to look at the facts. In the majority of cases that is not what is going on. What we're seeing is people cycling in and out of benefits because of the state of the labour market. Many of the jobs they go to are short-term, insecure and very low-paid and they find themselves back on benefits shortly afterwards, so there's no unwillingness to work."
The shadow work and pensions secretary, Liam Byrne, said: "For all the tough talk the truth is it's working people who are seeing their help axed. Never before have working people paid so much in and got so little back. Yet this government sees fit to give £40,000 to 8,000 millionaires in tax cuts, yet is cutting tax credits so hard that thousands are now better off on benefits.
"We were promised a welfare revolution and all we've got is welfare chaos – chaos that working people are being forced to pay for."
His calls for compassion don't match up to Ian Duncan Smith's judgemental rhetoric on benefit claimants. The main result of cutting child benefit for larger families will be to ensure more children grow up in poverty. If the aim is to get people to change their behaviour, as stated, then the cut could only be justified for those who have not yet had a third child, but applying it across the board means that responsible people who have planned their families according to the existing child benefit system will be left in financial difficulties.
Suggesting that children who grow up in households without work are greatly damaged by the experience would be reasonable if the response was to support their parents to overcome the skills shortages, personal issues and lack of their own role models that entrenches worklessness. Instead, those children are likely to be far more damaged by growing up in households without sufficient heating, clothing or food, creating more young victims of these cuts.
Making a link between the size of the benefits bill and the national debt is similarly unreasonable. The deficit was highly manageable when the economy was not in recession; the change came with the failure of the banking system, and any increase in the benefits bill has come because people have lost their jobs as a result.
Complaining about this increase is hugely unfair. Unemployed people are victims of a mis-firing economy over which they have no control. To blame them for receiving benefits when the vast majority just want to work, and when their personal conditions have deteriorated through unemployment that isn't their fault, is an injustice.
The government seems to be engaged in driving a wedge between low-waged working people and the unemployed. This is likely to fail, as many unemployed people are stuck in cycles of low pay/no pay; when the economy thrives they are workers, but when it sinks they are unemployed. Their morality is constant but their circumstances change.
Trying to set out a moral case to justify making cuts leads the government to some difficult places where it demonises some of the most vulnerable and poorest people in our society while venerating those who have, in many cases, just had better luck or are in an upswing in their personal lifecycle.