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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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

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

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage