Lone mothers and their children are in fear of destitution because of the Government's flagship "benefit cap" policy, the High Court was told today.
Two judges are being asked to rule that new capping regulations introduced by Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith are "unlawful" and breach the human rights of out-of-work women struggling to bring up families on their own.
The capping affects housing benefit, child benefit and child tax credit to families who do not work sufficient hours to qualify for working tax credit and is set at £500 per week for couples or lone parents.
Lawyers acting for three children and their mothers, who all live in the London area, say the "cruel and arbitrary" measure will be "catastrophic" for them and is reminiscent of the days when the only option for out-of-work families was to send their children to the workhouse.
Supported by the Child Poverty Action Group and the Women's Aid Federation, they warn the "unjustifiable" cap threatens to reduce the income of poor mothers - especially those from ethnic and religious backgrounds with traditionally large families fleeing domestic violence - to a level that makes it impossible to provide adequate food, clothing and other essentials.
But a legal team for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) are submitting that it is "manifestly justifiable to make savings, and seek to reduce the fiscal deficit, by capping benefits at the level of average earnings."
A DWP spokesman said before today's hearing: "We are confident that the measures are lawful.
"The benefit cap sets a fair limit to what people can expect to get from the welfare system - so that claimants cannot receive more than £500 a week, the average household earnings."
The application for judicial review is being heard by Lord Justice Elias and Mr Justice Bean at London's High Court.
Ian Wise QC, appearing for the families, opened the case and said capping would result in families receiving state assistance "below destitution levels" and less than that afforded to asylum seekers.
Rebekah Carrier, solicitor acting for the claimants, who come from the boroughs of Hackney, Haringey, and Hammersmith & Fulham, said: "This is a cruel and arbitrary policy."
Ms Carrier, from law firm Hopkin Murray Beskine, said the first cappings she had seen under the new policy had begun last week.
She said the DWP claim that families hit by a loss of benefits would be protected by additional funding through discretionary housing payments (DHPs) was misleading as DHPs were only short-term solutions.
Among those affected is "Ms G", a member of the Roma community and "devout" Roman Catholic who is involved in today's legal challenge.
She has been granted a DHP for 13 weeks, but fears what will happen when the payments end.
The judges were told she had lived with four of her five children, aged between 12 months and 15 years, in damp, rodent-infested accommodation in Fulham for five years after her husband left her.
Granted refugee status in the UK after suffering persecution in Poland as a Roma, she is illiterate and speaks no English.
Outside court, she said through an interpreter: "My number one priority in life is my children and the second is to bring them up as proper citizens of this country."
Ms G, who cannot be named for legal reasons, said that if the cap bit "I cannot imagine how I am going to manage".
The applicants also include "Ms S", a mother of three daughters aged 3-11 who, the court heard, fled "horrific" domestic violence and abuse and is living in a two-bedroom, privately rented flat.
The third mother is "Ms G", who is from an Orthodox Jewish family in north London, has three children aged 3-9 living with her and has also fled domestic violence.
Ms Carrier said it was expected that the impact of the cap would be most acute in London because of the lack of affordable housing in the capital and high housing benefit costs.
The judges are being asked to rule that the cap breaches the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to respect for home and family life.
Ms Carrier said: "It will have a catastrophic impact on our clients and many thousands more vulnerable families. They face street homelessness and starvation.
"The Government suggests that this policy is about making the system fairer, so that those who are not in work do not get more than working families earn.
"But the comparison relied on hides the fact that equivalent families in work remain entitled to benefits including child tax credit and child benefit. Child benefit is being removed from the very poorest families who need it most.
"My adult clients did not choose to become homeless, or to live in private rented accommodation which is too small for them but all that they could afford.
"The children have no choice about the circumstances in which they find themselves, and are facing life in the sort of poverty which is reminiscent of the time when the only option for out of work families was to send their children to the workhouse."
The legal challenges, brought by one parent and one child from each family, continue tomorrow and are expected to last three days.