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The benefit cap may be popular - but it is plunging private renters into poverty

In half of England, a family with two children living in a modest home must survive on £8 each a day.

When George Osborne first introduced the overall household benefit cap in 2013, it limited the total amount of benefits that a household working less than 16 hours per week could claim at £26,000 a year. Initial polling found that an overwhelming majority of the public supported this idea, even those who relied on the welfare safety net were in favour. In fact, it proved so popular that two years later the government lowered the cap again. It’s now at £20,000 a year outside of London, or £23,000 in the capital. 

At Shelter we have just carried out an analysis on the impact of the lower cap on private renting families. Our findings paint a pretty bleak picture: in more than half of England the cap means that, after paying rent, a family with two children living in a small two-bed home would have less than £8 per person per day to cover all their essentials like food and bills. This would leave them at least £100 a week under the UK poverty line.

For families with three children, the cap now applies in every single area of the country. In one in five areas these families would have just £2.72 per person per day to live on after paying their rent. Could you manage on just £2.72 a day if you had to put enough money in the gas meter to stop the pipes freezing, clothe your children, keep the lights on for them to do their homework and make sure you can give them a decent meal? Probably not.

I know many people reading this will be thinking £20,000 a year is a pretty decent sum, and is what many families manage to live on. But here’s the dilemma, between the Beveridge Report of 1942 and George Osborne’s party conference speech of 2010, every architect of the welfare state has acknowledged that it has to mitigate “the problem of rent”. Rents vary so hugely across the country they simply cannot be accommodated by a one-size-fits-all approach.

This means that for some, £20,000 is an adequate sum to cover their basic livings costs. But unfortunately for quite a lot of others, rapidly rising private rents mean they can’t afford to keep a roof over their head. The government knows this: that’s why even working households earning £20,000 and over are still entitled to housing benefit in many of areas of the country where local rents are higher than they can reasonably afford.

But the benefit cap means that for some families who have fallen on particularly hard times, the safety net, which the rest of us expect to catch us in a crisis, is strictly off-limits. Like a single mother with three small children living in Sunderland who recently turned to us for help. Her youngest child is only two and since her partner left, getting back into work is proving difficult for the moment. In spite of living in a modest two-bed home, she’s got to somehow find an extra £180 a month to cover the shortfall in rent created by the cap. She is absolutely terrified her family will become homeless.

While it’s right and necessary to have restrictions on housing benefit, these should be linked to local housing costs. An arbitrary, blanket national cap ignores the reality of high local rents and turns the support available into a postcode lottery. Homelessness is fast-becoming the tragic yet inevitable outcome for those families hit the hardest. I know Shelter’s workload will only increase as the cap bites deeper.

Most people desperately want to work, but not everybody genuinely can. People’s lives will always be more complicated. Unfortunately, not everyone can work the 16 hours a week needed to avoid the cap. Many of the people we are talking about will have very young children to look after or only be able to find insecure jobs that offer them a few hours per week. Imagine if you were a single parent with young children to care for whose partner had walked out on you – realistically it might take you a bit of time to get back into work.

Whatever you think of the benefit cap in principle, putting people at risk of homelessness or forcing them into emergency accommodation is not going to help anyone find a job. The rising number of people my colleagues and I meet who are facing destitution is proof of that. I refuse to believe that those who understandably want to see fairness at the core of our welfare system would consider this a fair consequence. It’s time the government committed to preventing homelessness and rethought this cap.

Jo Underwood is a children’s solicitor at Shelter. The analysis will feature in tonight’s Channel 4 Dispatches

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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