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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The Chancellor’s furniture gaffe is just the latest terrible Tory political analogy

Philip Hammond assumes everyone has at least a second home.

“Right. Got to sort out Brexit. Go on the radio to avoid questions about it and all that. But first of all, let me work out where I’m going to put the ottoman and the baby grand. Actually, maybe I’ll keep them in one of my other properties and leave a gap in my brand new one for a bit, just to get a feel for the place. See where everything will fit in after I’ve grown familiar with the space. Bit of pre-feng shui,” mused the Chancellor. “What?”

These were Philip Hammond’s precise words on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning. OK, I’ve paraphrased. It was a pouffe, not an ottoman. But anyway, he seemed to believe that the metaphor for Brexit we would most relate to is the idea of buying a second, or another, home.

“When you buy a house, you don’t necessarily move all your furniture in on the first day that you buy it,” he reasoned with the presenter.

Which, of course, you do. If you’re a normal person. Because you’ve moved out of your former place. Where else is your furniture going to go?

Rightly, the Chancellor has been mocked for his inadvertent admission that he either has an obscene amount of furniture, or real estate.


But Hammond is not alone. Terrible political analogies – particularly household metaphors – are a proud Tory tradition that go back a long way in the party’s history.

Here are some of the best (worst) ones:

David Cameron’s Shredded Wheat

When Prime Minister, David Cameron tried to explain why he wouldn’t stand for a third term with a cereal metaphor. “Terms are like Shredded Wheat. Two are wonderful, but three might just be too many.”

It’s a reference to an old advertising slogan for the breakfast staple, when it came in big blocks rather than today’s bite-sized chunks. It turned into a bit of a class thing, when it emerged that Shredded Wheat had been served in Eton’s breakfast hall when Cameron was a schoolboy.

Boris Johnson’s loose rugby ball

When asked if he wants to be Prime Minister, Boris Johnson said “no” the only way he knows how – by saying “yes” via a rugby metaphor:

“If the ball came loose from the back of the scrum, which it won’t of course, it would be a great, great thing to have a crack at.”

George Osborne’s credit card

In a number of terrible household analogies to justify brutal cuts to public services, the then chancellor compared the budget deficit to a credit card: “The longer you leave it, the worse it gets.” Which, uh, doesn’t really work when the British government can print its own money, increase its own revenue anytime by raising taxes, and rack up debt with positive effects on growth and investment. A bit different from ordinary voters with ordinary credit cards. But then maybe Osborne doesn’t have an ordinary credit card…

Michael Gove’s Nazis

In the run-up to the EU referendum, the Brexiteer and then Justice Secretary Michael Gove compared economic experts to Nazis:

“Albert Einstein during the 1930s was denounced by the German authorities for being wrong and his theories were denounced, and one of the reasons of course he was denounced was because he was Jewish.

“They got 100 German scientists in the pay of the government to say that he was wrong and Einstein said: ‘Look, if I was wrong, one would have been enough’.”

Gove had to apologise for this wholly inappropriate comparison in the end.

Iain Duncan Smith’s slave trade

Another terrible historical evocation – the former Work & Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith compared the Tories’ “historic mission” to reform welfare and help claimants “break free” to the work of anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce:

“As Conservatives, that is part of our party’s historic mission. Just look at Wilberforce and Shaftesbury: to put hope back where it has gone, to give people from chaotic lives security through hard work, helping families improve the quality of their own lives.”

Boris Johnson’s Titanic

A rather oxymoronic use of the adjective “titanic” from Johnson, when he was discussing the UK leaving the EU: “Brexit means Brexit and we are going to make a titanic success of it.”

I prefer the more literal reading of this from Osborne, who was present when Johnson made the remark: “It sank.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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