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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Do you see yourself as British or English? The answer could help define modern politics

The rise of English identity has left a glaring space in politics for an English nationalist party. Who is going to fill it?

Political scientists call it the “Moreno question”. In the 1980s, the Spanish academic Luis Moreno Fernández came up with a test for identity, which was originally applied to gauge interest in Catalan independence. In its English incarnation, it asks voters to grade themselves from “I feel more British than English” to “I feel more English than British”. Unsurprisingly, Ukip does best among those who describe themselves as “English, not British”, while Labour’s vote rises the more people see themselves as British. In the biggest group – the 47 per cent who see themselves as equally English and British – the Tories lead.

The Moreno question helps us make sense of three interlinking trends in modern politics. First, the stark fact that in the 2015 election, a different party won in each nation of the United Kingdom: Labour in Wales, the SNP in Scotland, the Tories in England and the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. Second, Ukip’s lack of success north of the border: the Herald reported in July that Ukip’s only elected representative in the country, David Coburn MEP, had been forced to take on the role of treasurer at his local branch in Fife because it has so few members. Third, Labour’s declining performance in its historic northern heartlands. Many voters there want a party with a distinctively English flavour and don’t feel that Labour is it.

Devolution has had many unexpected consequences, but the rise of an English identity is one of the least explored. Because of its demographic dominance, mainstream politicians have long argued that it would be unfair to give England its own parliament. Labour is particularly resistant to the idea because it would magnify the Conservatives’ power. As it is, the principle of “English votes for English laws” will exclude the SNP and Plaid Cymru from the grand committee-stage hearings on grammar schools, because education is a devolved matter.

However, the last general election showed that there’s a problem with English voters feeling ignored. In Worcester, the Tory MP Robin Walker told me in April 2015 that arguments about the SNP holding Labour to ransom cut through on the doorstep. “There is a real concern if [voters] are saying, ‘The proceeds of the mansion tax are all going to go on nurses in Scotland. That doesn’t help us,’” he said. Many English voters felt that the SNP would be a successful lobby group at Westminster for Scotland’s interests. Where was their equivalent?

For John Denham, the former Labour MP who now leads the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester, the same dynamic applied this summer in the EU referendum campaign. “Scotland got ‘Scotland Stronger in Europe’,” he tells me. “England had to put up with ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’. That was an elite campaign run by people who think Britain and England are the same thing.”

Once again, the Moreno question helps us understand a fundamental divide among English voters. Denham says that 80 per cent of people who defined themselves as “English only” voted Leave, while 80 per cent of those who called themselves “British only” voted Remain.

Denham thinks that this presents an enormous challenge for Labour in northern seats where Ukip is in second place, given that its intellectuals and leading politicians feel so squeamish about Englishness. “If Labour continues as a cosmopolitan, liberal party that doesn’t want anything to do with the politics of identity,” he warns, “it won’t reach those voters.”

Other politicians worry that if Labour doesn’t occupy this space, another party will. “As nationalists go, the SNP is pretty good,” a senior left-wing politician told me recently. “An English nationalist party could be something altogether more nasty.”

In this light, the election of Diane James as the leader of Ukip looks like a rare stroke of luck for Labour. She is a southerner, educated at Rochester Grammar School, and an MEP for south-east England. Although she is polished and professional – albeit prone to outbursts of admiration for Vladimir Putin – she seems unlikely to appeal on an emotional level to working-class white voters in the north, where the greatest potential for an English nationalist party lies. Thanks to Ukip’s Caligulan internal politics, the deputy leader, Paul Nuttall (from Bootle), did not stand and the charismatic Steven Woolfe (from Burnage) was excluded from the race after the party’s executive committee ruled that he had submitted his nomination papers 17 minutes after the deadline. (Another potential candidate, Suzanne Evans, was suspended by the party, and pretty much everyone else in Ukip seems to hate its only MP, Douglas Carswell.)

If not Labour, or Ukip, perhaps the Conservatives? Theresa May’s rebranding of the party, complete with articles on bringing back grammar schools in the Daily Mail, shows that she is pitching for Ukip-leaners. “In terms of language and biography, she has a better understanding of that struggling, socially conservative, English nationalist voter than Cameron did,” says Robert Ford, a professor of political science at Manchester University and co-author of Revolt on the Right. He believes that any party that thinks a simple economic message can sway these voters is underestimating the “emotive” nature of identity-based politics. “It’s no use going to Sunderland and saying, ‘We’re going to nationalise the trains,’ and thinking, ‘They’ll come back to us.’”

There is another option. A new party could be born, perhaps even out of the ashes of post-referendum Ukip: Arron Banks, its mega-donor, has said that he fancies the idea. With the right leader, nationalist sentiment could spread like wildfire among the “English, not British”. And, as Nigel Farage has shown, you don’t need to get elected to Westminster to have an effect.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times