By Georgina Lee-3 AUG 2017
In June this year, the High Court ruled that the government’s benefits cap is unlawful because it discriminates against single parents with children under two years old. In his ruling, Mr Justice Collins said the cap causes “real misery to no good purpose”.
So you might be surprised to learn that new figures out today suggest more single parents with kids under two are subject to the benefits cap.
How can this be the case when the policy has been declared to be unlawful?
FactCheck looks at what’s going on.
What is the benefits cap?
The benefits cap limits the amount of money you can claim in benefits.
It launched in 2013 under Iain Duncan Smith, who was Work and Pensions Secretary at the time. The coalition government said the cap was designed to bring “fairness” to the benefits system by making sure no-one could claim more in benefits than the average household earns in work.
The cap originally limited the amount of benefits a household could receive to £500 a week.
In 2016, the government lowered the level of the cap, and introduced a new rule: you can avoid the cap altogether if you work for at least 16 hours a week. The idea is to get more benefits claimants back to work.
But earlier this year, four lone parents with children under the age of two took the government to court over this new rule. They said that people in their situation simply did not have the option to work 16 hours a week because of childcare costs.
The judge who heard their case agreed. In June 2017, the court declared that the government’s decision to include lone parents under two in the benefit cap was unlawful because it discriminated against them.
How many single parent families with children under two are affected by the cap?
Today’s figures show that between February and May this year, nearly 3,000 single parents with children under two were subjected to the benefits cap for the first time.
But something to bear in mind: that number is based on comparing two cumulative figures, one from February 2017 and one from May 2017. These are running totals of every lone parent with a toddler who is, or ever was, subject to the benefit cap since it was introduced in 2013.
The headline figure doesn’t account for all the people who no longer fit into the category of “single parent subject to the benefits cap who has a child under two”. People drop out of that category all the time for a number of reasons (their kids might now be older than two, they might start or resume a relationship, or they might have come off benefits altogether).
So it’s helpful to think about how many people leave this group, as well as those who are joining it.
If we want to find out how many single parents of under-twos are currently subject to the cap, we need to look at snapshot data. According to today’s statistics from the Department for Work and Pensions, in May 2017, there were 16,960 single parent families with children under two who were subject to the benefits cap. Three months previously, that figure was 16,780.
That means that between February and May, the number of single parents with toddlers subject to the cap went up by 180 overall.
How does this compare to couples with toddlers?
As of May 2017, 5,300 couples with kids under two were subject to the cap, compared to 16,960 single parents with children the same age.
So single parents are three times more likely to have their benefits capped than two-parent families.
If the High Court ruled that the benefits cap is unlawful, why are so many families still affected?
The legal case against the government was brought through judicial review, but that’s not the same as changing the law.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has said that it will appeal the decision. But even if they had accepted the ruling, the government would have to pass legislation through parliament, which would take several months to come into force.