Children are ending up in care because of a benefits cap which unfairly traps families in poverty and hardship, MPs have warned.
The cap on benefits was designed to motivate claimants to find work, by ensuring they never receive more than £23,000 in London and £20,000 everywhere else.
But according to parliament’s work and pensions committee, the vast majority hit by the limit are people who have been told by the government they do not need to look for a job – including people who are sick, disabled or caring for very small children.
It means 82% of households hit by the benefits cap “simply cannot escape it”, the committee said in a report published on Tuesday.
For every 100 families affected by the cap – which limits household benefits to – only around five move into work because of it.
“It would be difficult to think of a more cruel cut,” said committee chairman Frank Field. “Benefits are being cut with the aim of driving people into work, but four in five people bearing this cut aren’t expected to work.
“What genius in government thought this one up?”
The inquiry heard how the limit on benefits was pushing families into rent arrears, with some losing their homes altogether. Others were forced to depend on foodbanks because they couldn’t afford to buy groceries.
One woman – a single mother to three children – told MPs she was forced to choose between paying her bills or feeding her children.
“My eldest lad used to leave food because he knew I ate the leftovers,” she said in a video testimony. “You don’t want to take food away from the children as you don’t know when you’ll next be able to buy it…”
Another claimant, who has four children, said she and her sick partner could only afford to heat the house when her kids were at home, so would “sit there in the cold with jumpers and coats on” until they came home from school.
In “extreme but real cases” families are being left with so little money to live on their children are being taken into care because of neglect, the report said.
Meanwhile Universal Credit – the government’s flagship benefits scheme which combines six payments into one – is making the situation worse for many families, MPs said.
While under previous systems only housing benefit could be capped, under Universal Credit a family’s entire benefits payment is eligible – including money for children.
MPs are now calling for households not expected to find to work to be removed from under the benefits cap, while the committee said that elements of Universal Credit must be ring-fenced to avoid the “appalling effects” of the limit.
Independent MP Heidi Allen – who quit the Conservative Party last month to join parliament’s newly-formed Independent Group – said the government had no “moral grounds” to uphold the cap.
Chris Goulden, deputy director of evidence and impact at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said families were being “locked in a daily struggle to make ends meet by a policy which is making life harder and forcing many into impossible situations”.
“The cap is having a disproportionate effect on those that can’t work, due to issues such as childcare or disability, while having only a marginal effect on those who can work,” he said.
“It is not right to expect families to bear the brunt of this policy when they need the benefits system to provide an anchor in hard times. The government should heed this report to scrap the cap.”
The report comes just months after a government welfare minister sparked disbelief by suggesting families hit by the controversial cap could alleviate the strain by taking in a lodger.
A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions told HuffPost UK: “The benefit cap restores fairness so that it pays to work and still ensures there’s a safety net for the most vulnerable.
“We will carefully consider the report’s findings and respond in due course.
“People receiving certain disability benefits are already exempt from the cap.”