The benefit cap: what does it mean and why is it unfair?

Peers are to fight plans to cap benefits at £26,000, despite public support. Here is everything you

What is the benefit cap?

A cornerstone of Iain Duncan Smith's welfare reform, the principle behind the benefit cap is that unemployed people should not be paid more than working families. Under the proposals, working-age benefits would be capped at £500 per week, or £26,000 a year. This is equivalent to the average wage earned by working households after tax.

What do voters think?

The public are broadly with Duncan Smith on this one. A YouGov poll shows that 76 per cent of the public are in favour of the benefits cap, including 69 per cent of Labour voters. It also shows that 36 per cent would like to see even tougher measures, with no household getting more than £20,000 in welfare payments.

Why is it unfair?

There are several criticisms levelled against the cap, centering on the impact on children, and on the very families -- those in work and paying taxes -- who it is meant to defend.

It takes no account of children
The benefit cap is the same regardless of how many children a family has. Therefore a family with five children would receive the same amount as a family with just one or two. This has proved particularly problematic, with church leaders have called for child benefit to be exempted, while Nick Clegg conceded that government may need to look at "the place of children who were born, if you like, innocently into another set of rules".

Leaked government analysis showed that the move could push a further 100,000 children into poverty. Duncan Smith's team are scathing about an amendment that would exempt child benefit, saying it would encourage people on benefits to have more children. But what about families that already have many children? They should not be penalised for the fact of their existence.

It ignores employment history
A couple who have never worked will end up being less affected than families on a low to middle income who are suddenly affected by unemployment in the recession. This is because families with parents who have never worked will tend to live in social housing where rents are cheaper. However, low to middle earners are likely to rent privately: they are not poor enough to qualify for council accommodation but not well off enough to buy. There are 680,000 working households claiming housing benefit, making up 14 per cent of the total housing benefit caseload.

As the recession claims more and more jobs, many families who need short-term support could find themselves in an impossible position. Duncan Smith has criticised "people being placed in houses they cannot afford", but for these families, it is a case of rapidly changing circumstances rather than flagrantly living above their means.

It penalises those in the south-east
Rents are higher in the south-east, and cutting housing benefit to £100 a week makes it practically impossible for a family with children to rent privately. In the Guardian today, Tim Leunig says that after council tax, rent and utilities, a family with four children would be left with 62p per person per day to live on.

Critics have said that this will result in "social cleansing" from inner-city areas -- the percentage of privately rented properties in central London available to housing benefit claimants will fall from more than 50 per cent to just 7 per cent. Leunig predicts that many people will remain in these areas, where job prospects are better, but will have to "downsize", with siblings sharing bedrooms and parents sleeping on sofa-beds.

Who opposes it?

Lord Paddy Ashdown, the former Liberal Democrat leader, has said that he is unable to support the reform as it will unfairly penalise children in benefit dependent homes. He said:

I voted with the Government on everything until now. I see it as my job as an ex-leader to support my successor, but I will not support the benefit cap in its present form.

Church of England bishops, led by John Packer, the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, will today table the key amendment around which rebel Lords plan to gather. It would exempt child benefit from the cap. As outlined above, the government is hostile to such a plan, though Clegg has suggested that there may be some scope for "transitional arrangements" to cushion the effect.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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