Benefit Cap – a change of tone but not substance

DWP’s quarterly statistics last week showing that 20,000 households are still impacted by the Government’s Benefit Cap is grim reading for anyone but the architects of this pernicious policy.

Numerous of these statistics that should give cause for concern: 94 per cent of claimants hit by the cap are families with children; two-thirds of those hit are single-parent families and 78 per cent of those have a child under five years-old (17 per cent have a child under 12 months).  But the figure that best reveals the distance between the Government’s claims and the reality of the cap is that just 15 per cent of those hit by it are in receipt of Job Seekers Allowance i.e. required to be looking for work.  The rest are in receipt of Employment Support Allowance, Income Support, Carer’s Allowance or another benefit.

Z2K doesn’t think the cap should be applied to any of those households.  But it is simply inexcusable that those on Carer’s Allowance are still hit by it.  Back in January, the High Court ruled that the cap discriminates against disabled people and their full-time carers, and under pressure in the House of Lords too, ministers conceded that they would be made exempt.  More than six months later, around 1,500 full-time carers are still finding their Social Security benefits docked by the cap.  Ministers won’t even instruct local authorities to award them a Discretionary Housing Payment to ensure they don’t fall into rent arrears and lose them home.

Of course, the day is fast approaching when the cap is lowered to the rates set out in the Welfare Reform & Work Act 2016 – £442 a week for families in London and £384 a week for families elsewhere.  We still aren’t sure exactly when – officially, ministers still only say “autumn”.  But DWP is now sending letters to those who may be affected, so it really can’t be long.  DWP’s initial assessment last year was that over 120,000 households will be hit by this lower cap, including those hit currently.  As the Act completed its passage through Parliament, DWP also published very rough estimates of how many households would be hit in each local authority area.  But that’s all we know so far.

Given that it is now just a matter of weeks before the lower cap comes into effect, it is astonishing that DWP has still failed to publish any assessment of the numbers of these 120,000 households who will be in receipt of each type of benefit.  In answer to a recent Parliamentary Question, the Minister for Welfare Reform, Lord Freud, simply said this information will be published “in due course”.  If that information is known it really ought not to be withheld from Parliamentarians.  Perhaps officials are scarred by their botched assessments in the run-up to the original cap.  Or perhaps political forces within DWP were deliberately withholding it because it didn’t suit their narrative.

Interestingly, the publication of these statistics was not accompanied by the usual inflated claims from ministers extolling the virtues of the cap in getting “tens of thousands” of benefit scroungers back into work or dodgy opinion polls “proving” the public support it.  This less shrill tone could just be the result of DWP joining the rest of Whitehall becalmed in the August doldrums.  But Z2K always likes to think the best of people until proven otherwise.  And so we hope it might indicate a change in substance as well as style from the new Secretary of State, compared to his recent predecessors.  Mr Green has genuine credentials as a “One Nation” Conservative.  Nowhere is a change of political philosophy more needed than in his new department.

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