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Lone parents and young children win benefit cap challenge in High Court

ANOTHER BLOW TO THE AUSTERITY AGENDA:
HIGH COURT RULES THAT APPLYING THE REDUCED BENEFIT CAP TO LONE PARENTS WITH
CHILDREN UNDER TWO IS UNLAWFUL

Today, the High Court has ruled that the application of the benefit cap to
lone parents with children under two is unlawful because of its
discriminatory impact upon children. The judicial review challenge, brought
by four lone parent families, concerned the reduced benefit cap introduced
by the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016. The revised benefit cap
drastically reduced housing benefits, leaving lone parent families across
the country unable to afford basic life necessities to care for their
children. Mr Justice Collins has ruled that the application of the revised
benefit cap to lone parents with children under two amounts to unlawful
discrimination and that “real damage” is being caused to the Claimants and
families like theirs across the country. Upon considering the impact of the
benefit cap, Mr Justice Collins concluded that “real misery is being caused
to no good purpose.”

The challenge was brought by four lone parent families for whom the reduced
benefit cap has, or will have, severe effects. They are all lone parents
with children under the age of two, and their dependent children, and a
lone parent who was heavily pregnant in May and now has a newborn baby. Two
of the families had become homeless because of domestic violence. 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.

The Secretary of State recognises that lone parents of very young children
under two should not be expected to work. Free childcare hours for low
income families start only when children reach the age of two. However, no
exemption to the benefit cap was made for this group. The Claimants argued
that the Secretary of State’s failure to exempt them from the benefit cap
has a profound impact upon them and their children, which is discriminatory
and unlawful.

Their legal team (solicitor Rebekah Carrier at Hopkin Murray Beskine and
barristers Ian Wise QC, Monckton Chambers, Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC,
Doughty Street Chambers and Michael Armitage, Monkton Chambers)
successfully argued that the Secretary of State had failed to take into
account the disproportionate impact of the benefit cap on lone parents, who
are overwhelmingly women, and their children.

In his judgment, Mr Justice Collins noted that (at [16]):

“The important consideration for the purposes of these claims is the
difficulty and often the impossibility of lone parents with children
under two being able to work because of the need to have some means of
caring for the child. There has not in the figures set out in the
Impact Assessments or the Equality Analyses been a specific assessment
of the ability of such lone parents to enter work.”

The judgement emphasised the damaging impact of the benefit cap in terms of
child poverty (at [29]):

“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.”

In reaching his conclusion, Mr Justice Collins found (at [42])

“…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. Real misery is being caused to no good purpose.”

Rebekah Carrier, the solicitor acting for the claimants, said:

“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”

The challenge was supported by homelessness charity Shelter which
intervened in the case and the claimants relied on evidence from the
charity Gingerbread on the impact of the benefit cap on lone parent
families and their problems in finding work, from the Family and Childcare
Trust on the difficulties of finding suitable and affordable childcare, and
from the Women’s Aid Federation about the particular impact upon women and
children who have suffered domestic violence. Emeritus Professor Jonathan
Bradshaw CBE, a specialist in child poverty with over 50 years’ experience,
gave evidence of the devastating impact of poverty in early childhood, and
debunked the Secretary of State’s claim that worklessness, rather than
poverty, causes adverse outcomes for children. Expert evidence was also
provided by Professor Maggie Atkinson, who was Children’s Commissioner for
England between 2010 and 2015, about the long- term impacts of child
poverty, and economist James Harvey who cast doubt on statistics relied
upon by the Government to justify the cap applying to lone parents with
such young children.

Published On: June 27, 2017|

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