Full-time carers to be exempted from the Benefit Cap

Finally, some better news ….

In last night’s debate in the House of Lords on its latest Welfare Reform Bill, the Government finally conceded defeat and agreed to exempt full-time carers from its pernicious Benefit Cap.  This follows a damning High Court judgment last November, which found that the cap discriminates against disabled people with full-time carers in receipt of Carer’s Allowance.  DWP Minister, Lord Freud announced that the Government will bring forward an amendment at the Bill’s Third Reading debate exempting those on Carer’s Allowance from the cap.

Z2K is against the Benefit Cap on a point of principle, and so we don’t think anyone should be hit by it.  However, the experience of our NextDoor project working with those affected has shown us there is an especially damaging impact on full-time carers.  They have been left facing the insidious choice of reducing the number of hours they care for their relative or losing their home.  In a classic bureaucratic “catch-22”, if they do reduce the number of hours they care to below 35 a week, they also lose their Carer’s Allowance.  That’s why we backed the call for those in receipt of Carers Allowance to be exempted entirely.

The High Court judgment really ought to have been enough to shame ministers into agreeing to change the law straight away.  But DWP has been dragging its heels over the past two months giving every impression it was looking for a loophole on which it could base an appeal.  The Work & Pensions select committee added to the pressure earlier this month, when after meeting one of Z2K’s clients who was directly affected at a visit to our advice service, it made an unambiguous recommendation that full-time carers be exempted from the cap.

Even in finally doing the right thing, however, the Government couldn’t bring itself to admit it had been wrong.  In an extra-ordinarily graceless speech, Lord Freud failed either to mention the damning High Court judgment against the Government or acknowledge Carer’s UK’s campaign against this policy.  In fact, reading his speech you would be forgiven for thinking ministers had planned to do this all along.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Only last September, Lord Freud’s fellow minister, Priti Patel, told MPs moving an amendment exempting full-time carers in the Public Bill Committee that, “It would be inappropriate to introduce an exemption specifically on the grounds that somebody is in receipt of carer’s allowance”.  It’s also worth remembering DWP vigorously contested the legal challenge in the High Court – wasting plenty of civil servants’ time and tax payers’ money in the process.

Worse still, Lord Freud’s speech last night omitted any mention of the terrible impact this policy has had on hundreds of full-time carers over the past three years.  The reality is that some of the hardest-working people in the country have been distracted from their caring responsibilities by the ever-present fear of falling into rent arrears and facing eviction and homelessness.  Take, one of Z2K’s longstanding clients for example.

Jacqui is the full-time carer for her disabled adult son.  She has had to jump through a seemingly endless series of hoops and hurdles to secure a Discretionary Housing Payment to help meet the shortfall caused by the Benefit Cap.  With Westminster City Council tightening its eligibility criteria for DHPs and many more claimants expected to seek recourse to the money, Jacqui faced a worrying wait to see whether her next application would be successful.  That worry is now finally over for Jacqui and the 1,300 or so other carers in the same situation.  It will also be a weight off the minds of the thousands more carers who would have been hit by the lower £440 lower cap.  In our view, however, DWP should apologise for putting these carers through such appalling stress and pay them back the Social Security benefit they have been docked since the cap first came in.

Disappointingly, it wasn’t all good news last night.  Another amendment exempting statutorily homeless households from the cap was withdrawn without a vote by Labour’s Shadow Front Bench Team.  It is now almost certain that thousands of homeless people in temporary accommodation will be among those hit by the lower cap when it comes into effect.  These families and vulnerable single people have been placed in these homes by their local authority, and they too face a catch-22 – if they fall into arrears they might face eviction, but if they try to move out they might be found “intentionally homeless”.

Z2K will keep campaigning on behalf of these homeless households and others hit by the cap.  But in the meantime, congratulations to all at Carer’s UK on its fantastic campaign, and to Rebekah Carrier at Hopkin Murray Beskine who instructed the legal challenge, and Caoilfhionn Gallagher and Sam Jacobs at Doughty Street Chambers who presented it in the High Court.  Most of all, well done to the three carers – Ashley, Mary and Lee – who put their name to this challenge and all those un-named carers who stood silently behind them in doing so.

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