The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been lying about reviewing the controversial benefit cap.
The Tory/Lib Dem coalition government brought in the benefit cap in 2013. It restricts how much money the DWP gives social security claimants. The cap is currently:
- “£20,000 per year (or £13,400 for single adults with no children) nationally”.
- “£23,000 per year (£15,410 for single adults with no children) in Greater London”.
The DWP is claiming it can only review this cap once per parliament, which is simply not true. On top of this, the cap is affecting nearly 300,000 children, with more set to be living under it by next year.
The benefit cap
People have heavily criticised the benefit cap – the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) said of it:
In April 2022, capped families in London saw the real value of their benefits fall by £2,070 as inflation hit 9 per cent – a 40-year high – and their benefits didn’t increase at all. The ceiling created by the benefit cap hasn’t increased since it was introduced in 2013. In fact it was lowered to its current level in 2016.
Almost all capped families are in deep poverty, with many at risk of homelessness and falling into debt to pay for essentials even before the recent price increases.
Now, the DWP has said that it may review the cap. But this is not the full story.
DWP: “statutory duty”
In response to a question from Labour about when the DWP last reviewed the benefit cap, DWP minister David Rutley said:
There is a statutory [legal] duty to review the levels every parliament. The last time the benefit cap was reviewed was November 2016.
Labour’s question is timely – at the end of June, DWP boss Therese Coffey said she may review the benefit cap levels. This was due to the so-called ‘cost of living crisis’. At the time, Coffey stated that:
We do have this statutory duty – I think I’ve had some advice because now we no longer have the Fixed-term Parliaments Act on exact timing – I’m slightly concerned as to whether we have a real reflection of life, but I’m getting some advice on that.
This is similar to what another DWP minister said last year. They stated on record that:
There is a statutory duty to review the benefit cap levels once in each Parliament, unless an early election is called. As such, the review will happen at the appropriate time, yet to be determined by the Secretary of State, which must currently be by December 2024.
The law matches this – kind of.
Buried in the detail of the law surrounding the benefit cap are rules surrounding when the DWP should review it. The law states that it must be reviewed once each parliament. In theory, this would mean that since 2016 it should have reviewed it at some point between the 2017 and 2019 general elections.
The DWP has a get-out clause – the law also states that an early general election cancels the benefit cap review. So, that means that the 2017 and 2019 general elections did this; at the time, the Fixed Term Parliaments Act was still in place. This is why the DWP is saying it doesn’t have to review the benefit cap until December 2024.
But this isn’t strictly true, either – within the law, the DWP has another option.
The DWP can review the benefit cap when it wants
The law states that the DWP boss:
may, at any other time… [they consider] appropriate, review the sums specified in section 96(5A) to determine whether it is appropriate to increase or decrease any one or more of those sums.
That is, Coffey could review the benefit cap whenever she wants. Plus, the DWP has also said that any changes following the review would be “subordinate legislation” (secondary legislation). This means the government can just do them quickly without a vote in parliament.
So, Coffey is literally choosing not to review the benefit cap.
A cruel DWP policy
Currently, around 120,000 households are affected by the benefit cap. This includes nearly 300,000 children. As The Canary previously reported, it:
was keeping around 150,000 children in poverty as of 2020.
Households hit by the cap lose around £50 a week. The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) says another 35,000 families could be subject to it by April 2023.
For the DWP to pretend it can only review the cap once per parliament is incompetent at best – and at worst, a lie. Of course, the DWP has form on lying – given it did similar over increasing benefits, incorrectly claiming it couldn’t due to its IT systems.
Coffey should review the cap right now. But even if she did, the policy would still be cruel to the countless people affected.
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