Earlier this week Channel Four broadcast a new Dispatches documentary on the impact of the lower Benefit Cap. Despite the fact that the new lower level affects a much broader group of people than the initial cap, including many more single people, the programme largely focused on lone parent families with a large number of kids. To truly reflect the impact of the lower cap it would’ve been better to show a broader group of those affected.
The first family featured in the programme was a single mother with five children who lived in a two bedroom council flat in Lewisham. Her rent was only £112pw but the lower cap left her with a shortfall of £83pw. When asked by the presenter how she was managing to feed her kids she simple replied that she was doing the only thing she could do – not pay her rent. As such she had built up arrears of over £1,000 and the council were threatening to seek possession. In the end she was given a short term DHP, but with Lewisham only receiving £1.5m in DHP funding to cover a £2.5m shortfall created by the cap not everyone will be so lucky. As if that weren’t bad enough DHP funding isn’t for the Benefit Cap alone, it also has to cover those hit by the Bedroom Tax. So the small pot is stretched even further.
The mother in question was considering moving out of London but unless she was placed in social housing there are very few places that would be affordable for her family. This was highlighted by Shelter research featured in the programme that showed that a capped two child family living in a two bed property in Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol would be at least £100 below the UK poverty line. For a three bedroom property families in 60% of England would be £150 below the poverty line.
The programme featured a Leeds based estate agent who said the lower cap now meant families could really only afford a privately rented one bedroom property in the city. The agent claimed to have family sized properties sitting empty now they were no longer affordable. In Leeds the number of capped households has increased from 225 to over a thousand.
Caroline Nokes MP, a DWP Minister, was interviewed as part of the programme. She said the Government were giving capped households a simple choice: cut back on costs or move into work. But the reality is it’s impossible for many to make that choice. The majority of those affected by the cap are receiving benefits which mean they are not otherwise expected to work, either because they have young children or are sick and disabled. One women featured in the programme was struggling with a £166.60pw shortfall in Croydon and while looking for work. Five months later she hadn’t managed to find a job compatible with her child care responsibilities. Why should she be arbitrarily pushed into poverty when she is doing everything the Government asks of her?