It is hard to imagine a more poisonous piece of legislation than the lowered Benefit Cap, set to be introduced this Autumn, which will plunge quarter of a million children into desperate housing insecurity and possible homelessness.
This will be the third time that the Benefit Cap – which limits the weekly amount that can be received in benefits – has been lowered in just five years. In 2011 George Osborne capped Housing Benefit in a sweeping move which made much of central London unaffordable for those unable to work due to childcare responsibilities, sickness or unemployment. Then in 2013 benefits were capped further, at £500 a week for a family with children, extending the problem of unaffordability out to Greater London, the Home Counties and beyond, with many large cities seeing families affected. And now the cap is to be lowered again, to around £440 a week in London and £384 elsewhere.
On average this means families set to lose £60 a week according to an Impact Assessment published by the DWP last week and it will no longer be just a London problem. Leeds, Cardiff, Manchester, Glasgow and Bradford are all likely to have at least 1000 households affected whilst in Birmingham 3,900 households will face an abrupt cut in housing benefits. It is not the fault of struggling families that rents in the UK have soared out of reach in many areas which has led to the growing Housing Benefit bill. It is the result a failure to build enough low cost housing. But it is the poor who will pay.
The government claim the Benefit Cap has been a huge success, pointing to a series of evaluations that showed a small rise in the number of people subject to the cap who found work. But behind these celebratory statistics lies a bitter truth. It has become common, in evaluations of DWP policy, to use ‘job outcomes’ to justify any atrocity. Someone hangs themselves after being found fit for work and having their benefits stopped – well this is just fine because someone else got a job in Poundland. No other social policies would be evaluated this way. It is like testing a new drug and completely ignoring deadly side effects on the basis that a handful of people’s health had slightly improved.
With families facing eviction due to the Benefit Cap it has indeed forced many to desperately look for any job they can find. Those able to find between work, of between 16 and 30 hours a week depending on their circumstances, become exempt from the cap leading many to hound their employers for more hours, often unsuccessfully.
For the 18% of claimants affected by the Benefit Cap who are long term sick or disabled this of course has not been an option. Despite repeated lies from DWP ministers that disabled people are not affected by the cap this only applies to those with the most serious health conditions or disabilities. Claimants of the sickness and disability benefit Employment Support Allowance are not exempt from the cap if health assessors decide their condition may improve in the future. Many claimants are battling ill health as well as facing the prospect of losing their homes.
Neither is simply finding a job a realistic solution for those with very young children, or even babies. This hasn’t stopped many local councils simply shrugging off the upcoming trauma faced by those with young children who face losing their homes.
What the interviews with claimants do seem to suggest is that if the cap has had any impact at all, it has been to encourage lone parents to seek work before they felt their children were ready to be left alone.
These were parents who intended to go back to work anyway. Others have had dreams of furthering their education shattered by the cap.
Sometimes it has not been the claimant themselves who was affected.
Rarely has government policy had such a devastating impact on children’s lives. Behind the lauded ‘job outcomes’ lies a trail of destitution. Countless families have reported being left without enough money for food. Huge numbers are in rent arrears. Many have been forced to move – at the time of the most recent evaluation 10% of households had moved house due to the cap. These evaluations were carried in 2014 however, meaning many families covered by the reports would have only been subject to the cap for a short period. The growing rise in homeless families, especially in London, points to the devastating long term impact of the Benefit Cap.
Punishing children with homelessness because of the eye-watering rents demanded by landlords is a new low for even the Tory Party, but it is the upcoming lowering of the cap which will perhaps inflict the greatest cruelty. According to last week’s impact assessment, “those already capped at £26,000 will have the new, lower, cap applied to them.” This is estimated to be around 22,000 households. These are families that may have already moved to a cheaper area and are just starting to get their lives back on track. They are the families featured in the quotes that accompany this piece. Some of the poorest people in the UK, already struggling to survive and raise their children.
And now the government is coming for them again. Imagine explaining to a young child just settling into a new school, who may have recently faced a spell in temporary housing that they now have to go through it all again. A child just starting to make friends to replace the ones they lost due to the last forced relocation will now be looking at a future in yet another new school, or even another new city.
Most of those facing the Benefit Cap are women, usually lone parents. Black and Ethnic Minority families are hugely over-represented amongst those affected, as are disabled people. For those unable to find work or increase their hours their options are stark. Many have only been able to stay in their homes due to Discretionary Housing Payments (DHPs) paid by local authorities to families facing imminent homelessness. These payments will not last forever and are increasingly being used to meet the cost of housing families in temporary accommodation. A recent homelessness update from Westminster Council (H/t @nearlylegal) showed that around half of the borough’s spend on DHP’s is paying for temporary accommodation for those made homeless due to the benefit cap. It is only now that Local Authorities are starting to feel the impact of the Benefit Cap introduced in 2013. With a new further cut set to pile on the pressure even further homelessness amongst those with children could soar to levels not seen in generations in the UK.
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