Scotland’s approach to the benefit cap leads the way for the rest of the UK

This week, by fully mitigating the benefit cap, the Scottish government has taken a hugely significant step forward in its efforts to reduce child poverty. Its clear statement that families should get the support they need through our social security system, rather than be penalised by an arbitrary limit, is laudable.

The Scottish government will provide the vital support families are missing because of the cap through local authorities. More than 4,000 families with kids will benefit from this. But where does that leave the 100,000 families elsewhere in the UK who will continue to see vital support cut by the cap?

The benefit cap limits the total amount of support many households who earn less than £658 a month (equivalent to working 16 hours a week at the minimum wage) can receive through the social security system. It was introduced in 2013, and then lowered in 2016, even as prices were rising.

While Scotland has effectively removed the cap from Scottish families, all the UK government has done is commit to finally increasing the cap by inflation (at 10.1 per cent) in April. This means families will get a bit more support when benefits rise, but they’ll be no better off overall because prices have risen too. This is the first time the cap has been increased at all – since 2016 it has been £23,000 a year in London and £20,000 outside the capital. Prices will be around 35 per cent higher in 2023/24 compared to November 2016.

The benefit cap mostly harms families with children, especially single-parent families who represent 70 per cent of all capped households. Many of these single parents are blocked from work because they are caring for young children. Many are renting from private landlords, with the vast majority of their universal credit going straight to the landlord. Cheaper accommodation is often simply not available – families are already living in it. Jessica, a single mum to four children, spoke to researchers on the Benefit Changes and Larger Families study about her experiences of the cap:

‘I’m having an awful time with the finances. I’m in private rented so my universal credit only covers my rent and leaves me with £60 a week to live on with four children… I’m getting in debt now… I get the food bank every other week because I can’t even afford basic food for us all.’

Asking a family of five, an adult and four children, to live on £60 a week is not right. Other parents have spoken of damp homes they cannot afford to heat, of difficulty buying food and clothing, and of increasing mental ill health. We know that support in the social security system is already too low. The benefit cap restricts that support even further.

For those parents in capped households who are able to work, we all know there are big challenges to finding a secure job with hours that fit with parenting, as well as affordable childcare for your children. The government should be addressing the structural barriers to work rather than forcing families to live on hugely insufficient incomes.

In April, the benefit cap will have been with us for 10 years. Ten years of desperate struggle for parents, needless harm to families, restricted childhoods for kids. The Scottish government has done the right thing for children, now the UK government must act.

There is a duty on the secretary of state for work and pensions, Mel Stride, to conduct a periodic review of the benefit cap, which in April will be still be lower than it was when it was first set in 2013. This policy has been causing great hardship to families and children for nearly a decade. A true review of the benefit cap could only lead to one conclusion: it must be scrapped.