The High Court has ruled [pdf] that the government acted illegally in applying its flagship benefits cap to lone-parent families with children under the age of two. In fact, the judgment went as far as claiming that the cap could [pdf] do “real damage” and cause “real misery” with “no good purpose” to the families affected.
In 2013, the government first introduced a cap on the amount of housing benefit people were allowed to receive. This was reduced even further with the 2016 Welfare Reform and Work Act. The cap disproportionately affects those living in areas such as London where rents are high.
Between 2013 and 2016, 76,200 households were capped. Those affected predominately lived in London and mostly had children. Data seen by Shelter shows that 27% of homeless households in London suffered because of the benefits cap. And in some places, this was as high as 55%.
Shelter predicted this would only get worse with the further limitations of the 2016 cap. In fact, it estimated the numbers affected could quadruple.
But there will now hopefully be a reprieve for some of the most vulnerable families. The case, brought by four lone parents with children under two, centred on whether the cap should apply to them.
Some in-work benefits count as an exclusion for the cap. But these parents argued this was unfair as they were unable to work the requisite number of hours because their children were so young. Their solicitors explained [pdf]:
As a result of their caring responsibilities and the cost of childcare, they were unable to work the required 16 hours to escape the cap. As a result, their benefits were cut which left each of the claimants with a choice between rent and food and other essential items and unable to provide basic necessities for their children.
Rebekah Carrier, the solicitor acting for the claimants, said [pdf]:
The benefit cap has had a catastrophic impact upon vulnerable lone parent families and children across the country. Single mothers like my clients have been forced into homelessness and reliance on food banks as a result of the benefit cap. Thousands of children have been forced into poverty, which has severe long term effects on the health and well-being. We are pleased that today’s decision will relieve my clients – and other lone parent families around the country – from the unfair impacts of austerity measures which have prevented them from being able to provide basic necessities for their children.
A damning judgment
The High Court agreed. And it issued a damning judgment on the government’s actions. It highlighted [pdf] the damage it causes to children living in poverty:
Those in need of welfare benefits fall within the poorest families with children. It seems that some 3.7 million children live in poverty and, as must be obvious, the cap cannot but exacerbate this. The need for alternative benefits to make up shortfalls is hardly conducive to the desire to incentivise work and so not provide benefits. There is powerful evidence that very young children are particularly sensitive to environmental influences. Poverty can have a very damaging effect on children under the age of five.
Justice Collins went further [pdf] in concluding:
the cap is capable of real damage to such as the claimants. They are not workshy but find it, because of the care difficulties, impossible to comply with the work requirement. Most lone parents with children under two are not the sort of households the cap was intended to cover and, since they will depend on DHP, they will remain benefit households.
And perhaps most damaging to the government’s policy:
Real misery is being caused to no good purpose.
Breaking the law
This is the third time in a month that the UK’s highest courts have found Theresa May’s government acted unlawfully. All the cases show a government without compassion, and a government ready and willing to punish the most vulnerable people in society.
It is great that these families have found sympathetic lawyers willing to bring their cases. But it is an absolute disgrace that these cases needed to be brought in the first place.
The general election showed that many people are fed up with the cruel austerity policies of the Tories. Policies that are causing “real misery” with “no good purpose”. It’s essential that all of us keep up the pressure and work towards a political system that is not punishing and causing misery for those people who are most in need of help.
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