Benefit cap breaches children’s rights, says Supreme Court

The cap has a disproportionate effect on women and children and can make life impossible for victims of domestic violence


Supreme Court judges have found that the government’s benefit cap fails to comply with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which says the interests of the child must be paramount.

Although the Court declined to overturn the controversial policy, which it said was a matter for the political and not the legal arena, three of the five judges 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’.

The benefit cap, which was introduced in 2013, limits the benefits an out-of-work family can receive to £500 per week. This includes housing benefit and benefits for children, and is applied regardless of family size or circumstances such as rental costs.

The appeal was brought by two single mothers and their children who had fled domestic violence and were threatened with homelessness as a result of the cap. One of the women lives in a two-bedroom flat with her six children, the youngest of whom is four years old. The woman, referred to as Mrs SG, was unable to sustain a job because of the demands of childcare. After rent, the benefits cap left her and her children with £80 per week to live on.

The second woman, Mrs NS, fled violence and sexual abuse with her three children, but found that the benefits cap left her with a shortfall of £50 per week in rent. Although her husband had been ordered to stay away from children, in her desperation Mrs NS was forced to turn to him for money.

The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) intervened in the case, providing evidence that the cap has a disproportionate effect on women and children and that the money saved is ‘marginal at best’.

Lady Hale, one of the judges, added that:

“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)”.  

A majority found that the benefits cap did not breach Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits discrimination.  This meant that the appeal was dismissed, because the European Convention is incorporated into UK law, while the UN Convention is not. However Lord Carnwath,  who provided the crucial swing vote dismissing the appeal,  said nevertheless that he hoped the government would consider its compliance with international law in its review of the benefit cap.

Commenting today, Alison Garnham, chief executive of the CPAG, 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.”

Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter

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