Friday, 21 February 2014

A busy week for benefits watchers... (Part 1)

Having not managed to post anything for more than a month, I now find myself facing a deluge of events, all of which seem to have happened together. Which to comment on?

Dear me, I can't decide. Perhaps I'd better just summarise them all, and then see where it leaves us.

But I can't do it all at once. So today it's just the bedroom tax, and the benefit cap.

The Bedroom Tax 

In July last year the High Court ruled against disabled claimants affected by the bedroom tax (you can see my post on this here: The lawyers acting for these claimants were granted leave to appeal to the Court of Appeal, and this court has issued its ruling today. It is not good news, as you can see from this report, from the lawyers acting for two of the claimants in this case:

Remember, this case is not about whether the bedroom tax is morally right, or even fair: The Law is not that interested in that kind of question. It is not even about whether disabled people are being discriminated by the bedroom tax: the courts agree that they are. The question is whether the discrimination is justified. The Court of Appeal has confirmed the High Courts opinion that it is. 

The odd thing is that the High Court has previously ruled in favour of families with disabled children and who are affected by the bedroom tax (see my earlier post as referenced above). Why is it OK for claimants to lose money if there's an adult in the house who's disabled, but not a child?

Lawyers acting for these claimants will now be considering whether a further appeal, to the Supreme Court, is possible.

A spokesperson for the DWP reiterated their standard line, including the comment that 'we have ensured extra discretionary housing support is available for vulnerable people'. Let's remind ourselves that this fund is (obviously) discretionary, and is cash limited, and is awarded for a limited period. Local authorities are placed in the invidious position of deciding who is in most need, and who is not.

Not incidentally, A disabled couple in Birmingham were refused a Discretionary Housing Benefit because they were getting Disability Living Allowance. The local authority argued that they could use the Disability Living Allowance to pay the shortfall in their housing benefit. Like many other claimants in this position, the couple are perfectly willing to move to a smaller home, but none is available. The couple are being helped by lawyers to judicially review the local authorities decision:

Also not incidentally, remember the loophole in the bedroom tax rules that came up last month ( Well, it's being closed. From 3rd March 2014, to be precise. The closing of the loophole is not retrospective, however: claimants who fit the conditions (see my post on this) will still be entitled to get their bedroom tax paid back up to 2nd March. 

Finally, three cheers are due to Ian Lavery, MP, for bringing a bill to the house of commons to abolish the bedroom tax (under the '10 minute rule'): On 13th February the House voted by 226 votes to 1 in favour of the bill (Tories were instructed not to vote), and it's due to get its second reading on 28th February. It's unlikely to become law, of course.

Lavery says:

'Make no mistake about it, the full and sole intention of this Bill is to sweep away the dreaded bedroom tax. It seeks to restore justice for up to 660,000 people—some of our country’s most vulnerable citizens, two thirds of whom are disabled. They have been inhumanely let down by the Government's reforms to housing benefit in the social sector. 

'The tax has caused heartache and devastation to thousands of residents up and down this country. It is a tax whose forced implementation has put extreme pressure on councils, housing associations and social landlords. It is a tax that has put extreme pressure on the ordinary working people who are forced to deal with those unable to move and those unable to pay.'

You can read Lavery's bill here:
And you can read more information about the bill here: 
The Benefit Cap

The High Court has also ruled on the lawfulness of the Benefit Cap. Regrettably, the court ruled that it is lawful. In this case, the full text of the decision is available:

A useful summary of the issues is given by the claimants' solicitors:
Both claimants were women with children, and each had fled a violent partner. Not being able to pick and choose their accommodation, each had ended up renting an overcrowded property in the private sector. As their solicitors put it, 'the benefit cap threatens to leave them with so little disposable weekly income that they will have to choose between feeding their children and paying their rent'.

In essence, the case was argued on the grounds of the cap being, in its effects, discriminatory against women and against children. As in the bedroom tax case, the court ruled that although the cap was discriminatory in its effects, the discrimination was justified.

A key statement in the decision, in my opinion, is this:

'The [benefit cap] scheme was not aimed at discriminating against women. If it had been, it would not have been justified. The justification lies in the Government's fundamental objective of changing the welfare dependency culture. In our judgment, that is a reasonable basis for the cap.'

In other words, the court appears to be saying (at least to me): 'The government didn't set out to discriminate against women. It set out to get people off benefit generally. The disproportionate effects on women happened by accident. That means the discrimination is OK'.

I realise I'm being disingenuously naive here. But the fact is that its a given in discrimination law generally that not intending to discriminate doesn't generally get you off the hook. If an employer takes the lift out of service in order to help their workforce get fitter, that won't help them when a wheelchair user complains they're being discriminated against. 

We wait to see if an appeal to the supreme court is considered.

1 comment:

  1. Very informative, keep up the good work!