The Benefit Cap limits the total benefits a family can receive to £500 per week. For a single person, the limit is £350. The benefit cap is putting some of the most vulnerable people in our society - women fleeing domestic violence with their children - at risk of serious harm.
The benefit cap means that women fleeing abusive partners with their children may be unable to afford rent after leaving their homes, or may be unable to afford adequate food or pay bills after having paid that rent.
This is because many women and children fleeing domestic violence are placed in emergency temporary accommodation by local councils. Rents in such temporary accommodation are often extremely high. In Newham, the council estimated the cost of temporary accommodation (as of 2012) at a minumum of £525 a week. Rents are also high in BnBs, where more and more families are being placed - their numbers increased 44% between 2011 and 2012.
Although rent for some forms of temporary accommodation has been excluded from the benefits cap, this is only for temporary accommodation which is specially for those fleeing domestic violence (e.g. a women's refuge), which means that women and children in other types of accommodation will still be affected.
Shockingly, this leaves families fleeing domestic violence, and subject to the benefit cap, unable to pay their rent and therefore at risk of being made homeless. There have been cases of evictions due to the benefit cap: a report by the House of Commons Work and Pensions committee states that 'witnesses told us that some tenants affected by the Benefit Cap were being made homeless as a result of accruing unmanageable levels of arrears'. The London Borough of Brent also reported that private sector tenants were being evicted due to the cap, causing an increase in homelessness.
And the dangers of homelessness are obvious, especially for vulnerable people such as women and children: rape, being killed, and, for children, damage to mental and physical health, education and life chances.
Those who are lucky enough to be able to pay their rent are still left with little money to live on after the cap, leaving them on the verge of destitution. Maria, a woman in temporary accommodation who's also bringing a legal challenge against the benfit cap, pays £400 per week for a flat for herself and her children, leaving her just £2.98 for each of the family per day to pay for food, clothes, heating and electricity. Rachel is in a similar situation. Having fled her home after years of violence from her husband, the benefit cap leaves her struggling to pay the rent on the cramped flat she shares with her children. With rising heating, water and electric bills, and the rising prices of essential food items, their struggle can only get harder.
Why can't the women just find a job, or a cheaper place to live? Firstly, finding a cheaper place to live is problematic. Tenants do not have a choice about what type of temporary accommodation they are placed in, and local authorities often have no option but to use expensive temporary accommodation for homeless households. The responsibility of looking after young children, as well as the emotional trauma of having faced domestic violence and the upheaval of running away from home, can leave women unable to find work. The women bringing the legal challenge against the benefit cap are two examples of this.
Furthermore, the risk of homelessness and destitution discourages women from leaving abusive relationships in the first place - especially when that risk is not only to them, but to their children. Research in Haringey quotes professionals reporting that several women have chosen to stay with violent partners because they knew they that they would be affected by the benefit cap if they left with their children.
The benefit cap is leaving women fleeing domestic violence with their children at risk of destitution or homelessness, making it harder for women and children to leave abusive relationships in the first place. That's a shocking impact for a policy that 79% of people support. But shameful things often happen in this way: when people don't think about the impact, and don't try to sympathise or imagine it. When people see benefits claimants as lazy scroungers underserving of support, failing to see who policies like the benefit cap are really affecting, and how.
A petitition supporting the legal challenge against the benefit cap can be found here.