Artwork by Julia Giles

Legal challenge to the ‘BENEFIT CAP’ begins

The High Court will tomorrow (2nd October 2013) hear claims by three children and their mothers that Iain Duncan Smith’s flagship ‘benefit cap’ policy is unlawful. The families argue that the effect of the cap is to reduce their income to a level that makes it impossible to provide adequate food, clothing and other essentials. Two of the families will be expected to survive on sums which are less than that afforded to asylum seekers and which, if they were asylum seekers, would be considered ‘destitution’ level. See here for a factual summary.

The policy involves the ‘capping’ of benefits, including housing benefit, child benefit, and child tax credit to families who do not work sufficient hours to qualify for Working Tax Credit and is set at £500 per week for couples or lone parents. The DWP confirmed in a press release last week that the cap now applies to families across the country.

Larger families are particularly badly affected by the cap with the majority of households affected having three or more children. Children are nine times more likely to be affected than adults; 98% of households affected by the cap have children.

Because of the lack of affordable housing in the capital and high housing benefit costs, families in London are feeling the impact of the cap most acutely. Two of the  claimant families live in private rented accommodation which is already too small for them, but from which they cannot afford to move. Many of the worst affected families live in temporary accommodation provided to them when they were made homeless. Such accommodation is frequently expensive, despite being poor quality and often overcrowded. One of the Claimant families has been in damp, rodent infested 'temporary accommodation' for five years.

The families argue that the benefit cap is discriminatory against women and children, and in particular against families that have escaped domestic violence,  many of whom have particularly high housing costs. The policy is also said to discriminate against those with large families, including Orthodox Jews, Catholics, Roma and certain racial groups. It will be argued that the policy infringes the families’ right to respect for their home and family life and breaches the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The Government argues that the policy provides an incentive for these mothers, all whom have children under the age of four, to go out to work.

Rebekah Carrier, the solicitor acting for the Claimants said:

“This is a cruel and arbitrary policy which fails to have any regard for the welfare of children..  It will have a catastrophic impact on our clients and many thousands more vulnerable families.  They face street homelessness and starvation.  The government suggests that this policy is about making the system fairer, so that those who are not in work do not get more than working families earn. But the comparison relied on hides the fact that equivalent families in work remain entitled to many benefits including housing benefit, child tax credit, and child benefit. The effect of this policy is to remove benefits from the very children and families who need it most.

Many people would be surprised to learn that the amounts left for these families to live on fall below the levels that the government has set as “destitution levels” for asylum seekers. My adult clients did not choose to become homeless, or to live in private rented accommodation which is too small for them but all that they could afford. The children have no choice about the circumstances in which they find themselves, and are facing life in the sort of poverty which is reminiscent of the time when the only option for out of work families was to send their children to the workhouse.”


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