What we mean when we talk about benefits cuts

The Secret Housing Barrister describes the consequences of the UK government’s continued enforcement of an illegal benefits cap.

Photo: Adrian Scottow via flickr

Imagine what it’s like being a tenant with £10,000 rent arrears. You do your best, you save what money you can from your benefits and you phone your housing officer and you say to them, ‘I’ll pay it back. I’ll start. Next week.’ And the housing officer says, ‘It’s too late. That’s if they’ll so much as talk to you. It’s too late, you’re too far gone. Even if you could borrow a few hundred pounds from a friend, it wouldn’t make a difference now.’

So you talk to a solicitor – if there is a housing solicitor anywhere near where you live. They’ll try, they tell you. But it’s going to be hard. You try to explain what your case is about and you can see in their eyes the disbelief. It’s ten grand, they’re thinking, how are we ever going to explain that?

Now imagine you go before a Judge. He won’t even listen to you. ‘£10,000’, he tells the housing officer. ‘She won’t ever pay it back, will she?’ You watch as he writes on the pad in front of him, possession granted…

Now think how a tenant might find themselves in £10,000 arrears. Most people have heard of the bedroom tax. Maybe you know that if a person is living alone in a 3 bedroom flat, housing benefit can’t pay more than 75% of the rent.

Forget the bedroom tax. There’s something else, even worse than the bedroom tax. Let me tell you about the benefits cap.

The benefits cap means that particular groups of people – lone parents, couples and all benefits claimants – can’t be paid more than a total of £20-£26,000 per year including all welfare benefits. The numbers sound huge until you remember that they include housing benefit, and for large house in outer London, the market rent is often £10-£15,000 a year.

Imagine you are a single mother in London with four children aged under 10. Imagine the practical consequences of the cap: you still get child benefit in full, you still get child tax credits. You get your own living allowance (income support) cut to just £40 per week. You get 33% of your housing benefit paid. To house yourself and your children you have to pay a minimum of £160 per week: all the money that is supposed to be paying for your food, your electricity, your water, around half of the money that’s supposed to be paying for your kids.

Imagine what it’s like, every week having to skimp on your own food.

Imagine what it’s like, every week having to choose between housing and feeding your own children.

Now stop imagining, because the next part I’m going to tell you is for real.

On 22 June 2017 the High Court ruled that the benefits cap is illegal for this category of people: single mothers with children.

The government then appealed, first to the Court of Appeal and then to the Supreme Court, which heard the case in July 2018 (the decision is not yet published). Although the High Court found that the benefits cap was illegal, the government refused to lift the benefits cap while the case was before the courts. So for two years the government has been enforcing the benefits cap, even though the courts have said it was illegal.

The shame, the misery of being £10,000 in arrears, the choices that claimants have to make, they all stem from this single refusal to back down – the defence of a policy which the courts have already found cannot be justified.

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