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A Victory For The Most Vulnerable Single Parents

22/06/2017 16:54

The Age of Austerity is hopefully, finally, possibly coming to an end. Conservative politicians, once the champions of the ethos of belt-tightening, now openly concede that we might in fact be able to let our collective waist out by a few more notches. The impetus for this sudden change of heart is clear: the result of Theresa May's snap election. After years of public sector pay freezes and nationwide budget cuts, a vote that ostensibly was supposed to be about Brexit became a potent warning about a growing resentment of those policies.

Understandably, national headlines continue to be dominated by the big issues of the day, such as our EU negotiations and the Grenfell catastrophe. But this morning another crack appeared in the edifice of austerity. Responding to a law suit by Hopkin Murray Beskine, Mr Justice Collins ruled that the benefit cap does discriminate against single parents with children under two - and should therefore be reformed immediately. In his words: "Real misery is being caused to no good purpose."

Gingerbread, the charity for single parents, has consistently campaigned for the cap - which sets a limit on the amount of financial support households can receive from the government - to be amended. We provided evidence for the court case, based on our research and testimony from the many single parents we're in contact with.

The numbers speak for themselves. As of Feb 2017, nearly three-quarters (72 per cent) of those affected by the cap were single parent households, and of these over a third (35 per cent) had children under two. This amounts to around 26,000 single parents with babies or toddlers being affected by the cap to date.

Nonetheless, the government has consistently defended the benefit cap. Not only was it justified on the grounds of needing to slash public spending, but the argument was put forward that it would help those out of work by spurring them on to find employment.

But evidence and experience suggests that for many, this just isn't possible. While two-thirds of coupled households where the youngest child was under two have been able to move off the cap to date, only a third (36 per cent) of equivalent single parent households were able to do so.

It's not hard to see why. When you're single-handedly trying to raise the youngest children, the obstacles to moving off the cap are often insurmountable. The job would need to be flexible whilst also providing a minimum of 16 hours; it would also need to pay enough to cover mammoth child care costs that can actually leave single parents out of pocket if they do find employment.

As Mr Justice Collins succinctly put it today:

"They are not workshy but find it, because of the care difficulties, impossible to comply with the work requirement. Most lone parents with children under two are not the sort of households the cap was intended to cover."

Unsurprisingly, then, the impact of the cap on the most vulnerable mothers and fathers has been mostly negative. It has contributed to the general worsening of conditions for single parent households, leading to the inexcusable situation whereby nearly half of all children in single parent families are now growing up in poverty. A policy defended on the grounds that it would help lift people into work is in fact more likely to push them onto the streets.

From today, though, there will be an opportunity for some respite from the relentless demand by the government that everyone should have to get a job- any job - irrespective of their personal circumstances. At Gingerbread, we value the positive impact that work can have for all families, and look to support single parents in their careers. But single parents with children under two are the least able to find that work, and were clearly being punished by this policy for their failure to do so. Today's judgement accepts and acknowledges that. We hope the government will too.

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