Single mothers lose benefit fight
Lone mothers and their children have lost their legal challenge to the Government's flagship "benefit cap" policy.
Two High Court judges ruled today that new capping regulations introduced by Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith are lawful.
The capping affects housing benefit, child benefit and child tax credit to families who do not work sufficient hours to qualify for working tax credit and is set at £500 per week for couples or lone parents.
Lawyers acting for three mothers and one child from each family, all from the London area, say the "cruel and arbitrary" measure is "reminiscent of the days of the workhouse", and the women fear it will leave them destitute.
Dismissing their claim for judicial review, Lord Justice Elias and Mr Justice Bean said that no doubt many considered the cap to be "too parsimonious".
They ruled: "But that is ultimately a policy issue, and for the reasons we have given we do not think it can be said that the scheme is so manifestly unfair or disproportionate as to justify an interference by the courts."
During the court hearing, lawyers for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) argued the cap was "manifestly justifiable to make savings, and seek to reduce the fiscal deficit, by capping benefits at the level of average earnings".
A DWP spokesman said: "We are very pleased that the court has ruled that the benefit cap complies with the European Convention on Human Rights.
"The benefit cap sets a fair limit to what people can expect to get from the welfare system - so that claimants cannot receive more than £500 a week, the average household earnings."
The three mothers and the youngest child from each family had asked the judges to rule that the cap unlawfully breaches the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to respect for home and family life.
Ian Wise QC, appearing for the families, told the judges at a hearing last month that capping would result in families receiving state assistance "below destitution levels" and less than that afforded to asylum seekers.
Rebekah Carrier, solicitor acting for the claimants, who come from the boroughs of Hackney, Haringey, and Hammersmith & Fulham, said: "This is a cruel and arbitrary policy."
Ms Carrier, from law firm Hopkin Murray Beskine, said the first cappings she had seen under the new policy had begun in October.
She said the DWP claim that families hit by a loss of benefits would be protected by additional funding through discretionary housing payments (DHPs) was misleading as DHPs were only short-term solutions.
The legal challenge was supported by the Child Poverty Action Group and the Women's Aid Federation.
The campaign groups warn that the "unjustifiable" cap threatens to reduce the income of poor mothers - especially those from ethnic and religious backgrounds with traditionally large families fleeing domestic violence - to a level that makes it impossible to provide adequate food, clothing and other essentials.
The mothers who brought the challenge include "MG", a member of the Roma community who fled Poland 16 years ago and was granted refugee status in the UK.
A mother of five who is illiterate and speaks no English, she is a "devout" Roman Catholic and believes contraception "to be against the will of God".
She has been granted a DHP for 13 weeks, but fears what will happen when the payments end.
The judges were told that she had lived with four of her five children, aged between 12 months and 15 years, in damp, rodent-infested accommodation in Fulham for five years after her husband left her.
Outside court, she said through an interpreter: "My number one priority in life is my children and the second is to bring them up as proper citizens of this country."
She said that if the cap bit "I cannot imagine how I am going to manage".
Another applicant is "NS", a mother of three daughters aged between three and 11 living in Haringey who, the court heard, fled "horrific" sexual and domestic violence and abuse from her husband.
She is living in a two-bedroom, privately rented flat which was the former matrimonial home before her husband was forced out by a court order.
The third mother is "SG", who is from an Orthodox Jewish family in north London. She has six children, three of whom aged three to nine are living with her. She has also fled alleged sexual and physical violence.
Ms Carrier said it was expected that the impact of the cap would be most acute in London because of the lack of affordable housing in the capital and high housing benefit costs.
The judges are being asked to rule that the cap breaches the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to respect for home and family life.
Ms Carrier said: "It will have a catastrophic impact on our clients and many thousands more vulnerable families. They face street homelessness and starvation.
"The Government suggests that this policy is about making the system fairer, so that those who are not in work do not get more than working families earn.
"But the comparison relied on hides the fact that equivalent families in work remain entitled to benefits including child tax credit and child benefit. Child benefit is being removed from the very poorest families who need it most.
"My adult clients did not choose to become homeless, or to live in private rented accommodation which is too small for them but all that they could afford.
"The children have no choice about the circumstances in which they find themselves, and are facing life in the sort of poverty which is reminiscent of the time when the only option for out-of-work families was to send their children to the workhouse."
The judges ruled that it could not be said there was "any failure to appreciate the impact on children of this policy".
The children's interests were treated by the Government as "a primary consideration - but outweighed by countervailing considerations".
The question of what state funds should be made available to those in need was "par excellence a political question".
The judges said it was "very much the Government's contention and belief" that the "longer term shift in welfare culture which the cap was designed to achieve would positively benefit families, including children".
The DWP relied upon observations of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights that the objective of reducing long-term benefit dependency and encouraging people into work was "potentially human rights-enhancing".
The court had to tread "with extreme caution" and could not engage in a debate over whether the Government's objectives could be achieved or not.
"It is the considered view of the secretary of state, supported by Parliament, that they can.
"They take the view that a change in welfare culture is critical in the longer term, and that the imposition of the cap is an important element of that objective."
The judges said the DWP was "well acquainted with both the particular difficulties of those fleeing domestic violence and the problem of temporary accommodation".
There had been extensive consultation with affected groups and an attempt - "albeit not entirely successful" - to structure the scheme so as not to disadvantage women subject to domestic violence.
The judges said that "whilst the policy will bear particularly harshly on lone parents with young children, it is not for the court to exercise its common law powers to interfere with Government decisions as to how it will allocate public funds, save very exceptionally where the method of allocation infringes some basic human right".
In today's case the human rights challenge had failed, said the judges.