This article was written by James Meikle, for theguardian.com on Friday 21st February 2014
The government’s welfare shakeup has survived two legal challenges at the court of appeal after five disabled tenants failed in their attempt to get the bedroom tax declared unlawful and judges ruled against claims the £500-a-week cap on benefits violated the human rights of vulnerable families.
The decisions mean that central planks of Iain Duncan Smith’s benefits changes remain intact, although there may yet be further challenges at the supreme court.
The bedroom challenge questioned the legality of new “size criteria” regulations that have led to reductions in housing benefit payments to tenants in social housing assessed to be underoccupying their home. It was backed by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
Two lone parents and a child from each family challenged the benefit cap after being forced into temporary accommodation in London.
Campaigners say the welfare cuts are having a particularly harsh impact on women fleeing domestic violence, and on their children, threatening to trap them in abusive relationships.
Those challenging the bedroom tax vowed to continue their battle following the ruling. Ugo Hayter from law firm Leigh Day, representing two people with disabilities who argue that their second bedroom is essential, said lawyers were disappointed and baffled by the ruling.
“The court recognised that our clients and thousands of disabled people across the UK had a need for accommodation not provided for by the new housing benefit rules. However, the court decided that disabled tenants should not have their housing needs met on an equivalent basis to their able-bodied counterparts just because they are disabled.
“Instead disabled tenants are being forced to rely on short-term and discretionary payments. We are currently considering whether an appeal to the supreme court is possible. Our thoughts go out to the thousands of disabled tenants who continue to be faced with uncertainty, poverty and the risk of eviction.”
Anne McMurdie, of Public Law Solicitors, which is acting for three of the appellants, said: “The government has sought to make savings by targeting the most vulnerable in our society. On the government’s own figures at least 440,000 disabled households will lose out under the new regulations.
“There is compelling and growing evidence of the terrible adverse impact on disabled tenants, having to make the dreadful choice between paying the rent and buying food or heating their homes. Disabled tenants are not asking for extra funds, they are asking for housing benefit to be paid at a level which meets their needs – for the same right as others.”
Richard Kramer, deputy chief executive of Sense, the national deafblind charity, said the bedroom tax policy had been devastating for many disabled people. “Many have been found to have a so-called extra bedroom despite requiring it because of their disability, for example needing extra space to store disability-related equipment and for short-term carers.
“Many disabled people, including the deafblind people that Sense supports, have been pushed to breaking point. They are struggling with the transition from DLA [disability living allowance] to Pip [personal independence payment] and many are facing huge cuts to their social care, leaving them without the support they desperately need to live full and active lives,” said Kramer.
“Alongside other benefits being cut, housing benefit has been the final blow for many disabled people and can lead to serious financial hardship.”
A statement from the Department for Work and Pensions said:”Reform of housing benefit in the social sector is essential to ensure the long-term sustainability of the benefit. But we have ensured extra discretionary housing support is available for vulnerable people.”
On the issue of the cap, the statement said: “We are pleased that the courts have ruled again 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.”
In the judgments, Lord Dyson said Duncan Smith was aware of the “serious impact” of the new criteria for housing benefit, which was why so much effort had been devoted to seeking a solution. He recognised the benefit cap would “cause hardship to some (possibly many) people who are on benefit” but the government recognised it might need modification.
> I suspect the only modification Duncan Smith has in mind is extending hardship from “some” people to the greatest number possible.
The cap in its present form reflected the political judgment of the government and had been endorsed by parliament after considerable debate. It was not up to the court to say whether it agreed with the judgment or not, he said.
Rebekah Carrier, of Hopkin Murray Beskine solicitors, representing two women who had fled violent marriages along with their children and were challenging the benefit cap, said the judges had not decided important issues of principle affecting the large numbers of women and children made homeless by domestic violence every year.
“The government promised to address this in April 2013, 10 months ago, but has failed to do so. The court recognised the problem and expressed concern about the government’s delay in addressing it, but they have abandoned many domestic violence victims to their fate until the government chooses to act,” said Carrier.
“That is not good enough for my clients, or for the many women who will face a stark choice about whether to stay with a violent partner, or flee and risk losing their home or being destitute.”
Source – Welfare News Service, 21 Feb 2014