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Supreme Court declines to overturn benefits cap

But cap breaches children’s rights, says Court

Supreme Court judges have criticised the Government's benefit cap for breaching international law on the rights of children.  However, in R (on the application of SG and others (previously JS and others)) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions [2015] UKSC 16 the Court declined to overturn the policy, leaving the issue to be settled "in the political, rather than the legal arena".

The benefit cap, introduced in 2013, limits the benefits an out-of-work family can receive, including housing benefit and benefits for children, to £500 per week.  It is applied regardless of family size or circumstances such as rental costs.  The appeal was brought by two lone mothers and their children who fled domestic violence and were threatened with homelessness as a result of the cap.  Child Poverty Action Group intervened in the case.  

In a divided judgment, three of the five judges found that in introducing the cap, the Government failed to comply with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which requires the best interests of children to be paramount.   They said that the cap deprived children of "the basic necessities of life" and made them "suffer from a situation which is not of their making and which they themselves can do nothing about".  

However, a majority found that the policy did not breach Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits discrimination.  The European Convention is incorporated into UK law, while the UN Convention is not.  As a result, the appeal was dismissed.

The judgment leaves the benefit cap policy intact, but puts pressure on the Government to reconsider its compliance with international law.   Lord Carnwath – who provided the crucial swing vote dismissing the appeal – said nevertheless that he hoped the Government would address the breaches of children's rights in its review of the benefit cap.  

The judges referred to CPAG's evidence that the cap disproportionately affects women and children; that it is unnecessary because families in work are already better off than families out of work and that the money saved is "marginal at best".   Lady Hale said:

"As CPAG point out, the Government accepted in its grounds of resistance to the claim that 'the aim of incentivising claimants to work may be less pertinent for those who are not required to work' (such as parents with young children)."

Commenting today, Alison Garnham, Chief Executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, said:

"The women and children involved in this case were escaping horrific abuse.  As three of the judges have said: 'It cannot be in the best interests of the children affected by the cap to deprive them of the means of having adequate food, clothing, warmth and housing'. We hope the Government will listen to the Court and comply with international law on the protection of children."

The judgment is here and the press summary here.