A cap on the amount of benefits lone parents of children under two can claim “causes real misery” and is illegal, the High Court has ruled.
In a blow for the government, a senior judge said the policy unfairly discriminated against some of the poorest families in the country.
The government said it was “disappointed” with the ruling and would appeal.
Under the policy, which was introduced by the last Conservative government, parents must work at least 16 hours in order to be exempt from the cap.
The High Court case was brought by four lone parents whose welfare claims were cut because of the benefit cap, which is set at £20,000 a year outside London or £23,000 in the capital.
The court heard that the difficulties of finding child care for lone parents made it very difficult for them to find work.
Mr Justice Collins' damning verdict, which was published onn Thursday, said: “It seems that some 3.7 million children live in poverty and, as must be obvious, the cap cannot but exacerbate this.
“The need for alternative benefits to make up shortfalls is hardly conducive to the desire to incentivise work and so not provide benefits. There is powerful evidence that very young children are particularly sensitive to environmental influences. Poverty can have a very damaging effect on children under the age of five.”
The judge added: “The cap is capable of real damage to such as the claimants. They are not workshy but find it, because of the care difficulties, impossible to comply with the work requirement.
“Most lone parents with children under two are not the sort of households the cap was intended to cover. Real misery is being caused to no good purpose.”
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson said: “We are disappointed with the decision and intend to appeal. Work is the best way to raise living standards, and many parents with young children are employed.
“The benefit cap incentivises work, even if it’s part-time, as anyone eligible for working tax credits or the equivalent under Universal Credit, is exempt.
“Even with the cap, lone parents can still receive benefits up to the equivalent salary of £25,000, or £29,000 in London and we have made Discretionary Housing Payments available to people who need extra help.”
But Mark Serwotka, general secretary of civil servants' union the PCS, said the benefit cap should be scrapped.
He said: “As the union that represents DWP staff, we opposed the benefit cap from the outset because we knew it was cruel and unnecessary, and would drive families into poverty and homelessness.
“We welcome the judge’s ruling and comments about the misery being caused ‘to no good purpose’, and we now call on the government not just to tweak the cap but to scrap it entirely.”
'DEMONSTRATION OF FAILURE'
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn described the ruling as a “further demonstration of the failure of this government's austerity agenda”.
“It is failing in its own terms, it's failing our communities, and it’s failing the most vulnerable in our country – including the victims of domestic violence and those facing homelessness,” he said.
“Labour has stood against the benefit cap, its discrimination against parents with children and the government’s cruel austerity programme.
He called on the government not to appeal the decision, and to “end this discrimination against parents and children”.