Government wins High Court appeal against ruling benefit cap unlawfully discriminates

Court of Appeal rules against decision that DWP benefit cap unlawfully discriminates against single parents with children under two, in judgement campaigners deem 'extremely disappointing'

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Thursday 15 March 2018 11:31 GMT
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Decision follows a High Court ruling last year which found that the benefit cap, which limits the income households receive in certain benefits, unlawfully discriminates against single parents with children under two
Decision follows a High Court ruling last year which found that the benefit cap, which limits the income households receive in certain benefits, unlawfully discriminates against single parents with children under two (AFP/Getty Images)

The Government has won a Court of Appeal challenge against a ruling that its controversial benefit cap unlawfully discriminates against lone parents with children under two.

It follows a High Court ruling last year which found that the benefit cap, which limits the income households receive in certain benefits, unlawfully discriminates against single parents with very young children.

Campaigners have said the ruling is “extremely disappointing”, claiming it is "absurd" that a Government policy recognises that these lone parents should not be expected to work, but also places a cap on them and their children if they do not have a paid job.

Mr Justice Collins had ruled in favour of four lone parent families in their action against the Work and Pensions Secretary over the benefit cap last year, saying “real misery was being caused to no good purpose”.

But at the Court of Appeal in October last year, lawyers for the Work and Pensions Secretary urged three judges to overturn his decision.

Judges ruled in favour of the Work and Pensions Secretary on Thursday by a two-to-one majority.

Clive Sheldon QC, for the Government, told Sir Brian Leveson, Lord Justice McCombe and Sir Patrick Elias that the judge had made “a number of serious errors”, adding: “But for those errors, the claim would have been dismissed.”

He said Mr Justice Collins was “wrong and erred in law in determining on the evidence before him that the benefit cap unlawfully discriminated” against the claimants who brought the action.

Mr Sheldon submitted there was “no discriminatory impact and, in any event, any such impact would be justified”.

Sir Brian announced the court's decision that the Government's appeal had been allowed - but also said that the families had been given permission to appeal to the Supreme Court.

Carla Clarke, a solicitor from charity Child Poverty Action Group, said the judgement was "extremely disappointing" for lone parents with children aged under two who have a "heightened risk" of being capped.

"There is an absurdity about a Government policy which on the one hand recognises that lone parents of young children should not be expected to work but on the other punishes them and their children with the cap if they don’t have a paid job," she said.

“Over 70 per cent of capped families are headed by a lone parent, the large majority of whom are women. Our own upcoming High Court case on behalf of two lone mothers and their families takes a wider approach than today’s case, challenging the lawfulness of the cap as it applies to lone parents irrespective of the age of their youngest child.

"The cap is leaving so many lone parents stranded - unable to cut their outgoings any further yet unable to escape the cap by finding a paid job which they can combine with their multiple caring responsibilities, precisely because they are caring for children alone, something the Court of Appeal recognised."

She added that the charity remained hopeful that despite the judgment, "the end of this irrational policy is not too far away".

Housing charity Shelter, which was an intervener in the original case, said that many single parents "desperately" want to work but can't make up the required hours each week because jobs are low paid, insecure and temporary, while childcare is expensive.

“The High Court initially ruled that the blanket application of the benefit cap to single parents with very young children is flawed and discriminatory – so we are hugely disappointed that an appeal by the DWP has been upheld meaning the cap will remain," said a spokesperson.

“In reality, this cap hauls many single-parent-families below the poverty line so they can’t even give their children basic necessities like food and clothes, let alone pay for extras like school trips and birthday presents. At Shelter, we frequently hear from lone parents who are facing homelessness because of the benefit cap."

They urged the Government to listen to the judgement recognising the "incredible hardship" caused by the cap and scrap the policy "immediately".

During last year's appeal hearing, lawyers for the families had asked the appeal judges to dismiss the Government's challenge.

They said that a reduced benefit cap, introduced in 2016, “drastically reduced housing benefits, leaving lone parent families across the country unable to afford basic life necessities to care for their children”.

A Government spokesman said: “Since the benefit cap was introduced, 27,000 lone parents are no longer capped because they have moved into work. We are committed to helping parents into employment that fits around their caring responsibilities, and we welcome the court’s decision.

"The benefit cap provides a clear incentive to work, as those eligible for working tax credits or earning the equivalent in UC are exempt. Additional support is available to people who need it through Discretionary Housing Payments.”

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