Thursday, 19 September 2013

Bedroom tax - what is happening and who is to blame?

The bedroom tax (or spare room subsidy) is a bullying and pointless attack on some of the most vulnerable people in our society. It is causing widespread misery and is unlikely to produce any financial savings. The government ignored warnings before introducing the policy and seems, shamefully, to be closing its ears to criticisms now. 

The bedroom tax was introduced on 1 April 2013, without any pilots beforehand. It applies to working age people in social housing (properties owned by the council or a housing association or similar body) who receive housing benefit. It affects about 660,000 claimants of working age, almost two thirds of whom 420,000 (63%) have a disability. As these numbers do not include the claimants’ children, it is likely that at least a million people are directly affected.

Under the policy, if a claimant has one “spare bedroom” they lose 14% of their housing benefit. If two or more, they lose 25%. So, if the rent on a property was £100 per week and there was one “spare bedroom”, £14 per week would be deducted from housing benefit and this amount would then have to be paid from the claimant’s own pocket. 

The government has always presented the policy as if the claimant has a choice about having an extra bedroom. However, in reality, as the government was repeatedly warned, there are not enough smaller properties. Many people cannot move; for them this is effectively a large benefit cut. 

David Orr of the National Housing Federation has said: "Housing associations are working flat-out to help their tenants cope with the changes, but they can't magic one-bedroom houses out of thin air. People are trapped.”

Those who have managed to move have often been forced to break their family, school and community support networks.

There are plenty of reports of severe hardship and even suicide as a result of this policy.

The policy has only been in place for a few months and it has already been reported that some 50,000 people affected by the tax have fallen behind on their rent and face the prospect of eviction. In the worst affected area, Barrow in Cumbria, 74% are in arrears. The pay day lenders will be doing good business.

It seems likely that all this hardship will be to no purpose as the policy will not produce any savings. If tenants are forced out of social housing they will either end up in expensive temporary accommodation or will have to rent in the private sector, where rents are considerably higher than in social housing. Housing benefit will then have to fund these higher rents. In addition, many of the tenants’ current properties have had adaptations installed by councils because of their disabilities and these will need to be carried out again at a new property.

TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady has said: “The bedroom tax is not saving money. Instead it is pushing up rent arrears which will force councils to waste more cash on evictions, debt collection and emergency support for homeless families.”  

David Orr, following the latest figures on rent arrears, said: - What more proof do politicians need that the bedroom tax is an unfair, ill-planned disaster that is hurting our poorest families? There is no other option but to repeal."

Who is to blame for this unfair, ill-planned disaster? First, the Tory politicians whose ideologically-driven idea it was. Secondly, all the MPs, Tory and Lib Dem, who trooped through the lobby in support. And thirdly, the media, which is always so keen to claim that it plays a vital role in holding the government to account but which never seems very concerned when it is the poor that the government is abusing.

As for Labour, if they do not pledge to repeal the bedroom tax, it will be reasonable to ask what on earth is the point of the party.

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