Benefit cap – ‘Real misery is being caused to no good purpose’

Policy Director Marc Francis highlights the injustice of the benefit cap, and why it should be scrapped

Marc Francis, Policy Director

The Zacchaeus 2000 Trust welcomes today’s High Court ruling that the Benefit Cap unlawfully discriminates against lone parents with children under two years-old.  We hope this is the beginning of the end of a truly dreadful policy.  But given the Government’s swift announcement of its intention to appeal against the decision, thousands of lone parent families suffering this unlawful discrimination are still left facing severe financial hardship and homelessness while the legal tussle continues. 

Z2K has consistently argued that claimants should receive the Social Security benefit they are entitled to, rather than having it artificially capped.  Time and time again through our casework we see this policy causing severe financial hardship and homelessness, so we’re absolutely delighted with this judgment.  But now we need urgent action to protect those single parents suffering this unlawful discrimination.  And we need to see further legal challenges on behalf of others in a similar position.

In a withering final paragraph summarising his judgment, Justice Collins states:

Whether or not the defendant [Department for Work & Pensions] accepts my judgment, 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 under two are not the sort of households the cap was intended to cover and, since they will depend on Discretionary Housing Payments, they will remain benefit households.  Real misery is being caused to no good purpose.

The basis of this judgment is that the Government hasn’t demonstrated it thought about the very particular impacts of the cap on lone parents with children under two, let alone established effective mitigation for this group of families.  Justice Collins repeatedly notes the long-established legal position that lone parents with children under two years old are not required to be actively seeking work.  He was clearly also persuaded by evidence from Gingerbread and the Family & Childcare Trust about the difficulties mothers with young children have if they do try to go to work.

Today’s judgment follows that last year that disabled people were being unlawfully discriminated against when their full-time carers were hit by the cap.  In that judgment too, Justice Collins was scathing of the arguments put forward by DWP and its QC on behalf of the Government – going as far as to say the use of the term “workless families” to describe full-time carers as “somewhat offensive”.  But this time he has been much more pointedly critical of the ministers themselves in their response when these concerns were put to them during the passage of the legislation.

For example, he states that in response to an amendment tabled by Emily Thornberry MP, the-then Minister of State for Employment, Priti Patel MP did “not engage with the difficulties faced by those with children under two”.  This won’t come as any surprise to those who sat through the committee stage debates on these amendments back in September and October 2015.  Ms Patel failed to engage with any of the amendments meaningfully.

Similarly, he notes that when Baroness Hollis and Baroness Lister challenged him during the debates in the House of Lords, Welfare Reform Minister, Lord Freud “did no more than reiterate the view that parents in work were in the children’s best interests and the levels of the cap would reinforce the message that work paid and that it was not fair for someone on benefits to be receiving more than many working households”.  Again, Justice Collins concludes that, “it is difficult to see how this engages with the problems facing lone parents with children under two.”   

As the Government have already confirmed they will appeal no-one should imagine lone parents with children under two will be made legally exempt from the cap any time soon.  But it would be inexcusable for these lone parent families to be left facing rent arrears, eviction and homelessness as a result of a policy that has been found to be unlawful.  And so DWP really must make additional Discretionary Housing Payment funding available to cover all these benefit shortfalls for as long as the case is in court.

Equally this judgment opens up the possibility of further legal challenges against the cap.  For example, using the reasoning applied by Justice Collins, Employment Support Allowance claimants in the Work-Related Activity Group (WRAG) who have been found too disabled or unwell to be required to actively seek work should surely be made exempt too.  We really hope cases along those lines now quickly come forward.

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