More than 10,000 disabled people have had their benefits slashed in just one month, after the government introduced a new, lower cap on the total benefits that any non-working household can receive.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) figures are the first to be published since the level of the benefit cap was cut from £26,000 to £20,000 (or £23,000 in Greater London) last November.
The cap is even lower – £13,400, and £15,410 in London – for single adults with no children.
The cap was first introduced under the coalition and aims to push benefit claimants into employment, as it does not apply to households who earn a certain amount from paid work.
There are exemptions for anyone claiming disability living allowance or the new personal independence payment (PIP), or the support component of employment and support allowance (ESA).
But those in the ESA work-related activity group (WRAG) are subject to the cap, even though they have been found not yet fit for work.
This means thousands of ESA claimants have had their benefits slashed, often by more than £100 or even £150 a week, even though there is nothing they can do to escape the cap.
As well as those in the WRAG, the cap also applies to those in the lengthy ESA assessment stage.
The new figures show that more than 10,000 households that include someone claiming ESA had their benefits cut in February because of the cap, about 15 per cent of the total affected by the cap.
They also show that at least 32,000 households lost up to £50 every week – although it is not known how many of these were ESA claimants – while another 22,000 lost between £50 and £100 a week, and 8,500 lost between £100 and £150 a week.
In all, at least 66,000 households had their benefits capped in February, an increase of 46,000 since the new, lower cap was introduced.
The true figure is likely to be even higher, because some local authorities were not included in the February statistics.
The cap – first introduced in April 2013 – applies to child benefit, housing benefit, jobseeker’s allowance, income support and ESA (for those in the WRAG or the assessment phase) and is usually applied by reducing the amount of housing benefit paid to the claimant.
Evidence published by the Commons work and pensions select committee, before the DWP figures were released, shows experts raising serious concerns about the impact of the lower cap on disabled people.
Shelter described how it had helped a council tenant with mental health problems who had been hit by the benefit cap when she lost her eligibility for PIP.
She could not move to a cheaper home and struggled to pay her rent, and was threatened with eviction.
She stopped eating so that she could afford the rent, and as a result her weight plummeted to just six stone.
The Zacchaeus 2000 Trust (Z2K) told the committee that the new lower cap meant that tens of thousands more mothers with very young children, and sick and disabled claimants, were being hit for the first time.
It told the committee: “The cap results in vulnerable families facing an almost impossible choice between feeding and clothing their children, heating their homes and paying the rent.”
Z2K said it had advised many clients on ESA who were not exempt from the cap because they were in the WRAG and were therefore “incapable of escaping the cap by moving immediately into work”.
Its advisors helped some of them to apply successfully for PIP, which granted them exemption from the cap.
The social security consultancy Policy in Practice said that its analysis of claimants within a north London council area found that the “overwhelming majority” of single households that had been capped were receiving ESA, and therefore facing “significant reductions” in their benefits, even though they were unlikely to be able to move into work.
The Child Poverty Action Group told the committee that it was “clearly inappropriate” for DWP to force claimants with limited capability for work to find jobs “on pain of losing benefits”.
It pointed to the case of a couple with two children under five who had had their housing benefit reduced by £30 per week.
The father, who is disabled, had applied for PIP and a discretionary housing payment, but “in the meantime the family has had to cut back on fresh food and other necessities required for young children”.
Karen Buck, a Labour member of the committee, said: “As the benefit cap starts to bite across Britain it looks from the evidence we’ve seen so far like a drastic cut to income for people who are really unable to cut their living costs any further.
“The evidence does not show us that being plunged further into poverty encourages or helps people to find work, and the vast majority of those hit by this cut are already recognised as unable to work at the moment.”
She added: “It is very hard to see any benefit from the benefit cap.”