From The Guardian, Society, 26 January 2015. Story by Patrick Butler, social policy editor.
The government has finally abandoned its controversial policy of imposing benefit cap penalties on full-time carers for adult relatives, two months after a court found it unlawfully discriminated against disabled people.
The welfare reform minister, Lord Freud, told peers during a debate on the welfare bill on Monday that all those who spend more than 35 hours a week in a caring role would be exempt from the cap.
Charities welcomed the U-turn as “a significant victory” for carers and carers’ rights.
Heléna Herklots, the chief executive of Carers UK, said: “By changing the law to exempt carers who receive carer’s allowance from the benefit cap, the government has shown that it recognises the valuable contribution that carers make to society and that the benefit cap unfairly penalises carers, many of whom are already facing significant financial hardship as a result of their caring role.”
Freud made the announcement in response to an amendment to the welfare reform and work bill tabled by the Labour peer Lady Pitkeathley, which sought to exempt carers who look after adult relatives from the cap.
Freud made no mention of the court judgment, merely that “the government have been carefully considering the position of carers and the people who they care for in relation to the benefit cap”.
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson said: “In recognition of the hugely important contribution carers make to society, we will be exempting all recipients of carer’s allowance from the benefit cap.”
Last year, government lawyers vigorously defended the policy in a judicial review case brought by two families affected by the cap, arguing that unpaid carers should be treated as unemployed people who should have to make the same choices as anyone else about whether to work or cut their living costs.
But Mr Justice Collins said in a scathing judgment that describing people who provided full-time care for adult relatives as “workless” was offensive. Caring for a seriously disabled person was “difficult and burdensome and could properly be regarded as work,” he said.
He ruled that capping these carers – an estimated 1,400 people are currently affected, although this would have increased in April when the level of the cap is lowered – created financial hardship for them and forced them to give up caring for loved ones, loading extra care costs on to the taxpayer.
Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow employment minister, said he was delighted that the government had bowed to pressure and finally decided to exempt carers from the benefit cap.
“However, it is depressing that the Tories had to be dragged kicking and screaming through the courts to get to this decision,” he said. “New figures uncovered by Labour show that last year, the government racked up more than £53,000 of fees for just one failed legal case, in a bid to apply the benefit cap to a carer’s family. This is yet another example of Tory callousness and waste.”
Although carers who look after disabled partners and children under 18 are already exempt from the cap, it affects those who care for adult disabled children, siblings or elderly parents.
Pitkeathley withdrew her amendment after Freud promised to bring forward a government amendment at the bill’s third reading in the Lords. Carers UK estimates it could take six months for the regulations exempting all carers to come into effect.
The benefit cap, which limits working-age unemployed people to £500 a week in benefits, was introduced by the government on the basis that it sent a strong message to “workless families” that they had to try harder to get a job.