Theresa May Oversees Cruel Benefit Cap That Could Make 250,000 Children Homeless


A homeless child in the UK.Please support my work as a freelance investigative journalist.


As we feverishly await the result of the US Presidential Election (with, to my mind, the clear recognition that there is such a thing as the lesser of two evils), I wanted to take the opportunity to shine a light on another story of government cruelty in my home country, the UK, to add to the colossal and unprecedented incompetence of the current government, under the stunningly inept leadership of Theresa May.

Unlike the Brexit debacle, which is being spectacularly mismanaged by May and her post-referendum Cabinet, the story I want to shine light on predates May, but is part of a continuum of cruelty for which the current Conservative Party is notorious; specifically, the benefit cap, introduced by George Osborne, when he was Chancellor and David Cameron was Prime Minister, and relaunched on Monday with an even more savage bite.

The benefit cap was introduced in April 2013, capping at £26,000 the total amount that any family can receive in benefits, which might have sounded fair to anyone who wasn’t really paying attention. A little thought, however, would reveal that the majority of that money went not to the claimant, but to their landlord.

In July 2015, Osborne’s wheeze, which had played well with tabloid-reading British citizens, encouraged by the likes of the Daily Mail and the Sun to regard welfare claimants as vermin, was further reinforced, with a reduction in the welfare cap from £26,000 to £23,000 in London and £20,000 elsewhere, beginning yesterday, November 7.

In an editorial in July 2015, the Guardian pointed out Osborne’s cruelty and mendacity, but as with so much of Tory cruelty over the last six years — even when, as with almost everything Osborne touched, it ended up costing more than before — the majority of British people failed to notice or to care. The editors wrote of the benefit cap:

It did not start out with the hunt for a solution to any policy problem, but with the hunt for a slogan for Mr Osborne’s 2010 conference speech. “Nobody on benefits should be allowed to earn more than the average wage” sounds like a winning line. The difficulty is that the comparison is dishonest, as even Iain Duncan Smith was reported as objecting at the time. Median pay might have been £26,000 a year, but this was gross pre-tax earnings for an individual, as opposed to the disposable income of a whole family, which for working and workless alike has always also depended on child benefits and help with the rent. The result of this deliberate confusion is to arbitrarily punish children born into big families paying high rents. Experts calculated that, even in unfashionable parts of London, some youngsters would end up being raised on as little as 62p a day.

Tough choices are often required, but what marks this move out as nasty is the lack of any defensible principle. If the aim is, say, saving on housing benefit, that should be capped directly; likewise targeted cuts can always be made to any other benefit. Instead, in order to swell an inflammatory headline figure about maximal sponging, all the payments to a household are lumped together before this cap is applied. The effect is to sever the connection, which has existed since the workhouse, between the number of mouths to feed and the support provided. No wonder the supreme court ruled that the cap breached the UN convention on the rights of the child.

Osborne’s second round of cuts to the welfare cap came into force this Monday, November 7, and in the Guardian last week Aditya Chakrabortty wrote a powerful article about it which I’m taking the liberty of cross-posting below in its entirety. Further commentary follows it.

Creating child poverty for a whole new generation. Take a bow, Theresa May
By Aditya Chakrabortty, the Guardian, October 31, 2016

I have seen how the new household benefit cuts will tear poor families apart. Even Margaret Thatcher would have balked at this.

In a little council house in Birkenhead, Steve is panicking over how he’ll find an extra £304 rent money a month. He has just days to magic up an answer. If he can’t, he can guess what will happen. “Eviction. Come the end of November, I won’t have a roof.” As a single parent, Steve won’t be the only one slung out. His four boys, aged from three to eight, would also lose their home and probably be taken from their dad. “I’d be fed to the dogs.” Everything I’ve tried so hard for …” – a snap of his fingers – “Nothing.”

It’s not a landlord doing this to Steve; it’s our government. It’s not his rent that’s going up; it’s his housing benefit that’s getting cut. And he’s not the only one; on official figures, almost 500 households in the borough of Wirral face a shortfall of up to £500 a month.

From [7 November] 88,000 families across Britain will have their housing benefit slashed. They will no longer have the cash to pay their rent. Among all those whose lives will be turned upside down will be a quarter of a million children. That’s enough kids to fill 350 primary schools, all facing homelessness.

Those figures come directly from the Department for Work and Pensions. Plenty dispute them, which is unsurprising since DWP officials keep changing their minds. Some experts believe the number of children at risk could total 500,000.

This is the biggest benefit cut that you’ve never heard of. The newspapers will waste gallons of ink on Candice Bake-Off’s lipstick and Cheryl’s apparent baby bump. But about a government policy that could disrupt hundreds of thousands of lives, there is near silence.

So allow me to explain. From next week Theresa May’s government will extend the cap on household benefits. Poor families in London will not be allowed more than £442 a week. Those outside the capital will be cut to £385 a week. In some areas the cuts will be brought in straightaway; in others with a slight delay. But in the end, families above the limit will be hit twice over. First, they will be pushed further into poverty. And, like Steve, their housing benefit will be docked, so they will be left scrabbling just to make the rent and keep a roof above their heads.

How those families will manage is anyone’s guess. When Steve opened the letter at the end of July he had a “panic attack”. All that went round his mind was one question: “How the hell am I going to pay this?” Then came what he calls “a depressive state” that lasted nearly two months. Now he bottles it up, for the sake of his boys. “When they’re not around, that’s when I cry. When they’re out at school, when they’re asleep: that’s when I break down.”

It’s the fear of losing the boys he fought so hard for custody of that haunts him most. So worried is he about a social worker taking them away that he requests a false name.

Like many of the families that will be hit, Steve’s options are very limited. He can borrow from his mum, although she’s hard up. He can try to land 16 hours’ work a week – and has already been giving out his CV – but not too many employers will be able to fit around his school runs and meal preps. Or he can ask Wirral council to top up his rent, by filling out a complicated form that asks for proof of his weekly spend on everything from cigarettes to toiletries. And that would only cover him for a few months.

Even before next week’s cuts, Steve is already bumping along the bottom. He has one jumper and one coat to last him the entire winter. He sometimes gets by on a single bowl of cornflakes a day. Anything spare goes towards the boys. But they don’t get fresh fruit or veg, subsisting on frozen meals from Iceland.

The three-year-old comes into the kitchen for a drink, and as Steve opens the fridge, I can see it contains nothing apart from a half-full bottle of milk. The house is empty to the point of desolation: no shades for any of the lightbulbs, none of the usual family photos or decorations.

George Osborne’s benefits cap was always a rotten policy that played well in focus groups. But when introduced in 2013, it hit a relatively small number of poor families in high-rent London. And, some on the right would whisper in the ears of biddable journalists, the poor really had no place in the world’s biggest property bubble. The cuts that start next week will be a step change. They will hit low-rent areas such as Wirral and Darlington. They will render family homes rented out by housing associations “financially toxic”, according to the housing expert Joe Halewood: tenants will no longer be able to afford them, and housing associations can’t afford to leave them empty. And they will rip through the budgets of already cash-starved local councils, who will now have to find emergency accommodation and cash funds for displaced families.

To see how deep it will cut, have a look at these figures. I grew up on the outskirts of London, in a place called Edmonton. It has pockets of deprivation as bad as anything in Wirral and, on DWP estimates, around 1,200 households here will be hit by the new benefits cap. By my reckoning, this government now expects children growing up in my former home to be raised on £1.02 a day.

The basic expenses for a family with four children in Edmonton come to £399.14 per week.

My sums go as follows:

  • £315.12 for rent (the allowable local rent for a three-bed home).
  • £33.36 for council tax (Enfield council, band E property).
  • £32 for gas and electric (the average weekly bill, according to government figures, with an extra 20% added for a large family).
  • £8.54 for water (Thames Water’s average bill for 2015, with 20% added for a large family).
  • £10.12 phone and broadband (BT Anytime standard package).

Taking all that from the £442.31 allowed to any London family leaves £43.17 each week left over for the family. That is £1.02 per person per day.

Of course, these figures are arguable. The family could cut down on energy use by choosing to be cold this winter. Or they could go without showers and washing up. That said, I’ve left off mobile phone calls and TV. I’ve not factored in school trips or family breaks or Christmas.

These cuts will do something Thatcher never managed: they break once and for all the link between the needs of benefits claimants and their entitlements. Children will be punished for the “sins” of their parents: the sins of being poor and of having too large a family in the eyes of Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith. David Cameron’s Tories once legislated to “eliminate child poverty”: Theresa May’s Tories are re-creating it for a new generation.


A graphic from the Guardian showing the extent of the increased benefit cap implemented in November 2016.In a second article in the Guardian, Patrick Butler looked into analysis of the impact of the welfare cap by housing experts, who found that “[m]ore than 116,000 of the poorest households in the UK will be hit by the extended benefit cap, putting many at risk of homelessness,” and spoke to Terrie Alafat, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing, who said, “We are seriously concerned that this could have a severe impact on these families, make housing in large sections of the country unaffordable, and risk worsening what is already a growing homelessness problem.”

Butler confirmed Chakrabortty’s assessment that, unlike the the cap away first introduced, its expansion would pretty indiscriminately hit people across the country. He stated:

Unlike the benefit cap introduced in 2013, which mainly hit households in high-rent areas such as London and the handful of families with five or more children, the extended cap will have an impact on families in all areas of the country.

The cap will see “average” sized families affected in even those parts of the country with the cheapest housing, such as Wales and north-east England. For example, a couple with three children outside London will have £50.80 a week left for housing costs after out-of-work benefits are taken into account. In Leeds, where a three-bedroom property at local allowance rates costs £151.50, this would leave them with a shortfall of £100.70. In Northampton a similar family would face a shortfall of £89.04 a week, and £75.78 in Leicester.

In Butler’s words, Terrie Alafat “said the new cap could put many families at serious risk of losing their homes and would make housing in significant parts of the country unaffordable for those affected.”

Alafat said, “The results of our research are extremely worrying. It shows that the reduction in total benefits is going to hit some of the most vulnerable families of all sizes across England, Scotland and Wales. These families will lose out when the cap comes into effect from 7 November and in many cases will straight away face a substantial gap between their rent and the help they receive to pay for their housing. Worryingly, our analysis shows many families could be one redundancy or a period of ill health away from being in this situation. We are seriously concerned that this could have a severe impact on these families, make housing in large sections of the country unaffordable and risk worsening what is already a growing homelessness problem. This is a measure which seriously risks undermining the government’s commitment to making society fairer for families in Great Britain and we suggest that they look at this urgently.”

Unfortunately, the government is not listening. The latest sociopath to wear the work and pension secretary’s dunce’s cap is Damian Green, who, on Monday, blathered on about how “making sure that those people who are out of work are faced with the same choices as those who are in work,” and stated, “By lowering the cap today, we are ensuring the values of this government continue to chime with those of ordinary working people and delivering on our commitment to make sure work pays more than welfare.” On Radio 4, he even had the effrontery to state, “By the far the best long-term route out of poverty is to have a job,” as if those unfortunate enough not to be working are not aware the fact.

As usual, the minister’s words play to the darkness in British people’s hearts that is regularly stoked by the right-wing tabloid media, but do nothing to address the problem that, up and down the country, the reason people are not working is because there are no jobs. The government, with its accomplices in the media, persistently seem to be getting away with lying obsessively about the lack of meaningful work prospects in most of the UK today, but I feel sure that the government is running out of time.

Many of those who voted to leave the EU in June intended to dish out a bloody nose to the Westminster elite. I happen to think their aim was astonishingly wrong, and punching the EU’s lights out does absolutely nothing to land a blow on those who really deserve it — the self-seeking clowns of the Tory government, and their persistent lies about the ordinary people of this country.

My great fear, however, is that, when they realise how savagely they are being shafted by their own government, the put-upon people of the UK will not turn to socialism, as they should, but to fascism, and the menace of UKIP that is only currently dormant because Nigel Farage is too lazy to want to remain leader.

Over the last few years, and especially since June 23, the Tories have been trying to appear more and more like UKIP, but it is a conjuring trick that cannot last, because they cannot adequately pretend in the long run that they care about the poor and the hardworking — and, in particular, those who work hard but cannot make ends meet, and need state support — because the system itself, which the Tories are absolutely at the heart of, is committed to screwing the ordinary people  of this country relentlessly to make life comfortable for those who leech off them — and those people are not the EU, but British Tories, feeding off the people as they have for centuries.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose debut album ‘Love and War’ and EP ‘Fighting Injustice’ are available here to download or on CD via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

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22 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, criticising the cruel Tory government’s extension of the benefit cap that was first introduced by George Osborne in 2013, reducing the overall amount that can be claimed per family from £26,000 to £23,000 in London, and £20,000 elsewhere. Most of this money doesn’t go to the claimant, of course, it goes to their landlords – and housing experts are pointing out that it will hit 116,000 of the poorest households in the UK, and up to 250,000 children could end up homeless. There are evidently no depths to which this disgraceful government will not sink.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Another interesting article in the Guardian today, ‘The extended benefit cap is a cynical ploy by the UK government,’ by Clare Allan. After running through the stereotype of “the workshy family living in [a] taxpayer-funded paradise,” she notes:

    Never mind that the reality is far more complex. This government doesn’t do complexity. Prejudice thrives on gut instincts. Never mind that these benefits are largely being paid to landlords in a grossly inflated rental market, which successive governments have failed to address. Why would they, when almost a third of MPs are private landlords themselves? And this is not just a London problem, either. Thanks to the cap, a family with two children living outside London will have less than £120 a week for housing costs. In large parts of the country, it is simply impossible to rent a two-bedroom property at this price.

    Damian Green, the work and pensions secretary, thinks the cap is a “real success”. It’s all about fairness, apparently. And encouraging people to work. Because that’s the problem: there are all these jobs and they’re just too lazy to do them. You’ve got to starve them out. Never mind that research has shown that cutting out of work benefits makes it harder for people to find employment, as just getting by becomes the priority. But this isn’t about how things are, just how they look.


  3. damo says...

    The stinking vile tories allways crow on about……fairness…..look at them…just take a look at the ……average…….torie…what do you see….ill tell you…..a mean spirited thin lipped miserly tight arse….a miserable…..petty….vengfull arsehole…the ……average torie thinks that……giveing love…showing compassion….giving praise…showing kindness…giving encouragement…showing humanity…helping the poor………leaves them depleated…takes from them and that they suffer…….you know wot the people of europe are laughing at us becouse of this government

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, it’s shameful, Damo. I thought you really hit on something very accurate with your description of how Tories believe showing humanity in any decent manner “leaves them depleted.”
    I know other countries have their own “conservative” parties that aren’t openly fascistic, but in general I don’t recognise Britain’s resurgent Nasty Party in those centre-right Social Democratic movements. Our Tories have been getting more and more horrible for the last six years. They were freed to ramp up their horribleness after somehow winning outright in our broken electoral system in 2015, and now under Theresa May anything resembling brakes seem to have been cut, and we’re accelerating towards a full-blown dystopia, with increasing poverty on a scale not seen for generations, while the rich continue to work out if they can continue to milk everyone and everything for themselves.

  5. damo says...

    I dont want to stereotype but nearly every torie ive ever met has just not been a very good allways been arseholes its funny though even the royals are haveing to issue warnings to our repulsive media re there outright racism and xenophobia towards his new girlfriend……….screeming shes a foreigner and shes a non white

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    The indecent has become mainstream, Damo. Long before the EU referendum, it must be said, as every cowardly bully around – and it turns out there are really rather a lot of these despicable people – adopted a nickname and started trolling people online, threatening, insulting, making death threats and rape threats and so on. It seems to have become more and more prevalent, and now of course the EU referendum result, which I’m sure was partly facilitated by this rise in online hatred, has created a new level of alleged acceptability for pretty much every kind of vileness you can think of. Death threats to judges? Why not? Insulting a prince’s girlfriend because her mother was black? Sure, why not? Bring it on. Nothing and no one is now out of limits for these scum with their dirty hearts and their tiny unfulfilled lives. A disgrace. Maybe eventually the internet will have to be shut down because of these scumbags, proliferating until all decency has been lost.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    The scale of this story is so huge that it’s genuinely bewildering that so few media outlets are showing any interest in it. I found coverage on the BBC, in the Daily Mirror, and in the Independent, but that’s about it. How shameful that so much of our media is so corrupt, owned and largely controlled by proprietors who have no interest in political realities that work for the benefit the majority of us – Rupert Murdoch, for example, and Paul Dacre at the Daily Mail, and his boss Viscount Rothermere, the great-grandson of the Mail’s Adolf Hitler-loving founder.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

  9. damo says...

    The gloves are off the internet is the wild west your right any kind of horror or vileness is permissible. i hope this blows up on those journalists …… called …..theyre not, theyre just peddlers of shit. i hope it brings down the daily mail just like how the news of the world was taken down… to pour salt into the wound it looks like trump is winning

  10. damo says...

    Trump has won hes now the president ……jesus f..king christ ….the dark side of the force now has total power …..lets take bets andy ……how long will it be…….you know before were liveing in a mad max type dystopia…years or decades……it just gets worse

  11. damo says...

    A crooked corrupt businessman has become one of the most powerfull men on the planet this …..thing…has access to nukes…good god…… least in star wars they have other planets to flee to, we’re trapped

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I had a bad feeling about this election for a long time, Damo, and of course the EU referendum result showed me that the WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) world – primarily the white working class, but also those parts of the middle class hit by declining living standards, especially since the establishment’s cynical response to the 2008 crash – is responding to its existential crisis by moving decisively to the far right.
    That said, I’m still quite shocked – and depressed too. Here in the UK the referendum result has transformed reality for the worse, and I can’t imagine that the situation will be any different in the US.

  13. damo says...

    Well im a victim of the benefit cap too, just got my letter….i feel like getting a gun and shooting dead every torie in this country

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    I’m very sorry to hear that, Damo. When the Tories introduced the cap, they suggested that it would make landlords reduce their rents, but I don’t imagine that’s happened, has it? All I’ve heard about is how it’s been getting more and more difficult for anyone on benefits to find a landlord who will rent a property to them – and, of course, the unreported stories of people being wooed to leave London entirely, and to take up empty social housing in the north east of England, which you told me about.
    The very notion of a “home” has been removed by the Tories, unless you’re fortunate enough to have secured an affordable mortgage (or, indeed, if you even believe in private property, as, to my mind, there is a pride to be taken in living in social housing), and they have ended up regarding social tenants as second-class people, occupying units that we should not be allowed to regard as a home, as they are doing all they can to find a way to move us out. I’ve been in my home for the last 17 years – since just before my son was born – but I haven’t felt secure since May 2010, when the Tories got in, having made it clear that they regarded me as sponging scum because I had the nerve to live in not-for-profit housing, thereby depriving some rich piece of sh*t of his or her pound of flesh.

  15. damo says...

    Wot can we do were is a fightback ooh there isnt one i mean for fucks sake when will people rise up its like no point planning for the future

  16. damo says...

    It just makes me sick this country thease vile c..tfaced cruel people there crushing everyone ……there like some kind of plague

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    It’s worse than ever, Damo, as Brexit showed. On the one hand we have the smug and entitled – those with jobs and affordable mortgages (or generous pensions), who, for the most part, are either Tory voters or Blairites – and on the other the disillusioned – that weird mix of UKIP voters, and Labour voters who backed the Leave campaign, who are finding common ground, as in Trump’s America, in their opposition to the status quo and the establishment, which they perceive as having failed them. This is a correct analysis, but it also comes with a giant dose of racism and xenophobia, and when it comes to finding leaders, the disillusioned are being lied to. Americans get Trump, we got Farage and Boris Johnson.
    Asa result, the number of people who are genuinely aware is shrinking. I’m now aware that my opinions have diverged massively from people I once regarded as allies, and that I’m in a shrinking club from which many of the more interesting people have departed, leaving me with lots of middle-of-the-roaders with whom I wouldn’t normally have that much in common.
    And ever in the background are the millions of people who won’t engage with any of the processes at all, but without whose participation nothing can ever adequately be addressed …

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    And the plague is spreading, Damo. Intolerance and cruelty are on the rise. Politicians and the media deserve a backlash from the very horrors they have unleashed in their malevolent 35-year mission to destroy solidarity and tolerance, but in the end we are all suffering. Society is darker, colder, less welcoming. It cannot end well unless there is a change.

  19. damo says...

    But when…when is there going to be a change? this would not have been allowed 25 years ago thered be rioting in trafalgar sq if osborne cameron and farage have achieved anything its diveding the nation were like rats in a sack…..were is all of this going

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s the big question, Damo, and I have no answer. The depoliticisation of the last 35 years has been so successful that serious dissent appears to have become lost.
    We still exist, and in our millions, but we’re not out in the streets in significant numbers (for which let’s blame the internet and smart phones – and kettling, of course), but the biggest betrayal, the biggest loss is the working class, those who once knew that they were engaged in a class struggle, but have now forgotten.
    The clearest thing to me is not that racism is resurgent (that’s horrible, but it can, I hope, be tackled), but that people can’t work out who it is who’s shafting them. It’s neoliberalism, and its proponents are the people who they refuse to turn against – Trump, the Tories, Nigel Farage and UKIP.

  21. Thomas says...

    When people do mobilise now, they riot or otherwise act idiotically, be it smashing up shops, being racist or voting for Trump.

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    The smashing of shops has always been on the fringes of street mobilisation, Thomas, and has never bothered me overly. It’s just a small statistical element of popular dissent. However, the resurgence of racism and xenophobia and the really quite fundamental mistaking of an idiot for a saviour are developments that I find profoundly dispiriting. As a culture, we are dumbing down enormously. The BBC’s Newsnight was good tonight, with James O’Brien (who also has a hard-hitting show on LBC), looking at how dumbed down people are becoming because a majority of them now only get their news from social media, and, of course, their feeds are like an echo chamber. The programme actually put a lot of emphasis on how conspiracy theories take root on social media, which is partly true, and I know how biases are reinforced from my own left-leaning circle, where there was a huge amount of Hillary-hating going on, with the related false claims that she was worse than Trump. However, what wasn’t mentioned was the role of the algorithms used by search engines like Google and social media like Facebook, which reinforce the echo chamber, trying to make sure that no one sees anything outside of their specific narrow interests. I think it’s a problem that really needs looking at.
    For Newsnight, see:

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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