What will happen when the High Court sees the human face of the benefit cap?

The benefit cap is another Coalition policy that, advertised as creating fairness, targets the most vulnerable. These families illustrate the living truth behind the Coalition's rhetoric.

Maria and her children have been in temporary accommodation for five years, after they became homeless in 2008. Her youngest is one year old and there’s four of them now crammed into a flat in London. The place smells of damp and she tells me it’s infested with rodents. She’s paying almost £400 a week for this.

The benefit cap – the policy, introduced nationally in July, that sees a ‘cap’ of £500 per week in benefits per household – means that this rent now takes up almost all of the money she has coming in. She’s been left with £2.98 for each of them per day to pay for food, clothes, heating and electrics.

Maria is one of six claimants from three families who this month have challenged the lawfulness of the benefit cap, forcing the Government into a judicial review at the High Court. The benefit cap is another Coalition policy that, advertised as creating fairness, targets the most vulnerable. The £500 limit applies to lone parents and couples equally, including those like Maria who are caring for a pre-school child alone (and therefore judged by the Government as not having to be in employment), and takes no account of the number of children or other dependents in the family. Vulnerable families often have higher housing because they live in temporary accommodation and are therefore both more likely to be affected by the cap than other families, and less able to take steps to avoid or mitigate its effects.

Maria is a refugee, having fled Poland to England after suffering persecution for being Roma and Roman Catholic. She was denied schooling as a child due to the widespread discrimination against the Roma community and is now unable to read or write. Maria’s husband has left her, living nearby with their fourth child, their 12 year old daughter, and she is heavily reliant on her church and relatives who live locally. She has no choice but to remain in London.

“I want to stay near the children’s father, my daughter, and the boy’s schools if at all possible,” Maria says. “I’ve been trying to get cheaper accommodation for many years but without success.”

The waiting list for a council house for her family size in her area is ten years.

With her benefits capped but with no way to increase her income or reduce her rent, Maria’s left trying to provide for a family of five on £104.50 a week. If they were asylum seekers, the Government would count the family as destitute.

“I was surprised to learn in the course of preparing the legal challenge to the benefit cap that some of my clients would be left with so little money to live on that if they were asylum seekers they would be considered destitute,” Rebekah Carrier, the solicitor representing the claimants tells me. The asylum seeker rate assumes this is a short-term situation and not a level people are expected to live at permanently, she adds. "And they don't include light, heat, water rates and council tax, none of which would be payable by a failed asylum seeker. It's astonishing that the benefit cap leaves families with even less money than those the government only gives the very minimum needed to survive." 

“I find managing my day to day affairs difficult because of my illiteracy but I care very much about being in debt,” Maria tells me. “I know that if I get into debt I won’t be able to get out of it. The idea of debt mounting at £180 a week or more is terrifying to me.”

Before the judicial review was issued and her housing association reduced her rent, she was paying £525 per week. The policy was leaving the family with minus £25 to live.

The cap is making no more financial sense for the Government than the people affected. As George Eaton pointed out for the New Statesman last week, the policy’s costing nearly as much to manage as it’s saving, and there is little evidence that it’s achieving its stated aim of moving claimants into work (just 74 of the 740 households affected have found work). Indeed, for a policy wrapped around the tag "no out-of-work family should receive more in benefits than the average family receives from going out to work", it even penalises people who are in part-time employment (but who don’t receive Working Tax Credit).

Still, this is a popular policy. A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 79% of people support the cap. Just 12% were opposed.

“I think that people don’t understand that the benefit cap hits people like me,” Rachel says.

Rachel was abused by her husband and after many years of violence fled the family home. She now lives with three of her children in a two bed flat. It’s another poor quality, overcrowded London flat but the benefit cap means she’s struggling to pay the private rent even for something this size.

“I’m terrified the landlord will evict me,” she says. “My children have already experienced a lot of disruption in their lives. I’m trying my best to help them to settle in a new environment and make sure that they get the things that children need. I can’t move anywhere smaller as I already don’t have enough room.”

She has two other children. Her eldest daughter, 17, developed mental health problems related to her father’s abusive behaviour to her and her mother and is currently in foster care nearby. Rachel’s 12 year old son was abducted by his father but a court order means it’s likely he’ll soon be returned to her. It will see one adult and six children living in a two-bed flat. 

“I don’t know what I will do if my two older children come back to live with me as there is nowhere for them to sleep,” Rachel says.

Because the cap is set at a fixed rate regardless of family size, Rachel will have no additional benefits if her son and daughter are returned to her.

“I can’t really imagine how I will feed and clothe them,” she says.

“The local authority are paying in the region of £600 to keep [Rachel’s daughter] in care, but if she returns home, her mother will receive not a penny in benefits to support her. This could mean she has to remain in care,” Carrier tells me.“If this sort of catastrophic effect on family life is the intended consequence of the benefit cap, this should be made clear,” she adds.

The fact that women like Rachel are likely to be pushed further into a vulnerable position by the cap suggests unintended disastrous effects of the policy spread widely. Someone escaping domestic violence will often have higher housing costs through having to live in women’s refugees. They may also be receiving additional housing benefit because they’ve recently fled their family home.

“It’s absolutely vital that women know they’ll be able to go to somewhere safe and stable when leaving a violent relationship,” Polly Neate, Chief Executive at Women’s Aid says. “The benefit cap puts women at further risk when they are already incredibly vulnerable by making it impossible to keep hold of their own homes, by making it harder for refuges to offer places, and by making it harder to house and feed their children when they try to live independently.”

She tells me many refuge services will be settling their budgets soon for the next financial year but this process will be difficult without knowing what the housing benefit rules will be. “Many services are becoming increasingly anxious about their ability to provide much-needed services,” she says.

Sarah and her three daughters fled horrific violence from the children’s father. They’ve moved six times, twice to women’s refuges, before a court order allowed them to return to their family home. It’s a two bed flat. Two of the girls share a box room and the other sleeps with her mother.

Sarah’s ex-husband has been coming to the home against court orders and social services have made it clear they may take the children into care if the family stays where they are. The benefit cap means moving is financially impossible.

“If I move, I’ll almost certainly have to move to more expensive accommodation leaving me less money to feed and clothe my children,” Sarah says. “If I don’t move, social services may take action to remove my children, and I don’t know if I’ll have to move in the future to be safe from my husband as he’s breached the order preventing him from coming to my home.”

When we speak, Sarah talks to me through the anonymity of her solicitor due to the fear of being identified. Her children witnessed the violence and have been further traumatised by their time in temporary accommodation. If the family is forced to leave their flat, they’ll be back going between hostels, guesthouses and refuges. Their housing costs will only increase.

Sarah knows at this point her only hope is the judicial review. 

“I can’t work to avoid the effect of the cap because I need to be able to care for my children and with little backup,” she says. “I feel it’s particularly important for me to be there for my children, caring for my three year old…during the day and being there for the older girls in the holidays and after school. They’re both less confident and independent than their peers [after what they’ve seen].”

“I feel that I’m in an impossible situation,” Sarah says. “I can’t imagine how I’ll manage to live on the reduced income.”

If Sarah went back to the girls’ abusive father, because he works, they would automatically escape the benefit cap.

She is now waiting, like the other claimants and the people they represent, to see if the High Court will give her another way to feed her children.

Names have been changed.

The benefit cap is stifling social mobility. Image: Getty

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation