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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.