The Conservatives have been dealt a blow by a high court judgement today, which ruled that the government’s highly controversial benefit cap unlawfully discriminates against lone parents with young children. The imposing of a benefit cap on tens of thousands of lone parents with children under the age of two is not only unlawful, it has has resulted in “real damage” to the families affected, the high court has ruled.
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.
The flagship welfare policy meant that there is a cap on total benefits, at either £23,000 a year in London, or £20,000 for the rest of the UK. The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) had said that people were exempt from the cap if they work at least 16 hours per week – which the claimants said discriminated against lone parents with children under the age of two.
The benefit cap, which limits the total amount households can receive in benefits to £20,000 a year, or £23,000 in Greater London, was claimed to be an “incentive” to “support” unemployed people to move into work. In reality, it has hindered people who want to prepare for work, demotivating them because they are struggling financially to meet their basic needs. Implying that taking support away from people – making cuts – is somehow “support” is a particularly ludicrous Conservative claim.
Mr Justice Collins said in his judgment that the policy visited “real misery to no good purpose” on lone parents with very young children who were subject to the cap despite there being no “official” requirement for them to find work. However, even for those citizens who are required by the state to seek work, it is still very difficult to justify cutting those people’s support, too, since welfare was designed to meet only basic needs.
Lone parents with children under two do not qualify for free childcare and so would find it difficult and often impossible to juggle working the minimum 16 hours a week required to evade the cap while finding means to care for the child.
He said: “The evidence shows that the cap is capable of real damage to individuals 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 aged under two were not the sort of households the cap was intended to cover and it was “obvious” that it would exacerbate poverty. “Real misery is being caused to no good purpose.”
He continued by stating that: “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 (Discretionary Housing Payments), they will remain benefit households.”
Cutting people’s lifeline support causes extreme hardship and harm
Campaigners have argued that the benefit cap is a powerful driver of poverty and destitution. Official estimates published earlier this year show 50,000 low-income families caring for an estimated 126,000 children were at risk of serious financial hardship after being trapped by the lower benefit cap.
Rebekah Carrier, the solicitor acting on behalf of the families, 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 their health and wellbeing.”
She added: “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 Conservatives have said they intend to appeal the decision. The DWP has been given leave to appeal against the ruling. A spokesperson said: “We are disappointed with the decision and intend to appeal. Work is the best way to raise living standards, and many parents with young children are employed.”
Alison Garnham, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group charity, said: “In exposing the absurdity and cruelty of the benefit cap, we hope this case is the beginning of the end for this nasty policy. It is a policy that punishes the vulnerable for being vulnerable and even fails on its own terms.”
In 2015, although the Supreme Court found that the original cap was lawful, a majority found that it breached the rights of children. Despite evidence of the impact upon child poverty and amidst calls to review the way the benefit cap works, the benefit cap was lowered again in November 2016. The new annual limit was reduced significantly, with lower rates for households outside of London. Previously, London seem to bear the brunt of the policy but the revised cap is now affecting thousands of households across the country.
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of civil servants’ union the PCS, said the benefit cap should be scrapped.
He said: “As the union that represents DWP staff, we opposed the benefit cap from the outset because we knew it was cruel and unnecessary, and would drive families into poverty and homelessness.
“We welcome the judge’s ruling and comments about the misery being caused ‘to no good purpose’, and we now call on the Government not just to tweak the cap but to scrap it entirely.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn described the ruling as a “further demonstration of the failure of this government’s austerity agenda”.
“It is failing in its own terms, it’s failing our communities, and it’s failing the most vulnerable in our country – including the victims of domestic violence and those facing homelessness,” he said.
“Labour has stood against the benefit cap, its discrimination against parents with children and the government’s cruel austerity programme.
He called on the Government not to appeal the decision, and to “end this discrimination against parents and children”.
Earlier this year, I wrote an article about comparative research at an international level, which has undermined the government claim that the UK welfare state encourages “widespread cultures of dependency” and presents unemployed people with “perverse incentives”.
The study, which links welfare generosity and active labour market policies with increased employment commitment, was published in 2015. It has demonstrated that people are more likely to look for work if they live in a country where welfare provision is generous and relatively unconditional. Empirically, the research includes more recent data from a larger number of European countries than previous studies.
The research also compared employment motivation in specific sub-sections of communities across countries: ethnic minorities, people in poor health, non-employed people and women, and adds depth to previous studies. It has been concluded that comprehensive welfare provision is increasingly seen as a productive force in society (Bonoli, 2012), that stimulates employment commitment (Esser, 2005) and supports individual inclusion and participation in society and the labour market, particularly among disadvantaged groups.
The researchers found that the more a country paid to unemployed and disabled people, and invested in employment schemes, the more its population were likely to agree with the statement, whether employed or not.
The research findings challenge the Conservative’s neoliberal ideology, antiwelfare narratives regarding so-called “perverse incentives”, their highly controversial and stigmatising “scrounger” rhetoric and the brutal welfare cuts, implemented in stages since 2012.
Welfare was originally intended to cover only basic needs: it allows families to pay rent, buy food, keep warm and simply keep going. When families get less money because of the Benefit Cap, the government’s own research shows that large numbers of people go into debt, end up with rent arrears, and can’t afford adequate food. Through no fault of their own. When people are struggling and can’t meet their basic needs, surviving becomes their overwhelming priority. This demotivates people, and means that it is almost impossible for them to meet their higher level psychosocial needs. Such as the need to look for work.
The government’s draconian welfare policies are founded on a “small state” neoliberal ideology, traditional Conservative class-based prejudices and a mean spirited, punitive approach to public needs.
Lies, damn lies and sadistics. The Tories have introduced sanctions which affect people in work who are low paid or work part-time. People have to prove that they are trying to “progress in work”. Once upon a time, we had a strong trade union movement for collective bargaining. Nowadays, when employers exploit workers, paying them a pittance, the employee is punished by the government.
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