What’s Wrong With The Bedroom Tax?

Photo by Moyan_Brenn

The bedroom tax is wrong, and must be defeated. It is a harsh, unfair penalty on the poorest people. In two articles running today and tomorrow, Edinburgh Greens Policy Officer Peter Mountford-Smith takes a look at the Tory/LibDem tax. Today, he asks what is wrong with it and why is it happening?, and tomorrow he’ll be discussing what can be done about it?

 

 

What Problem Is The Government Addressing?

They say there are a million spare bedrooms in social housing, at the same time as many overcrowded households are waiting years for a move. The bedroom tax will get people into smaller property, freeing up bigger properties for those in need. Sounds sensible. That is, until you give it more than a moment’s thought. Most underoccupying households are pensioners. But pensioners are exempt from the bedroom tax, so the biggest potential pool of larger properties won’t be tapped.

Many who will be hit by the bedroom tax don’t see themselves as underoccupying. Perhaps their children don’t share a bedroom, or perhaps they have shared custody of children who stay only some of the time. Perhaps an adult couple don’t share a bedroom, because of illness. Maybe a member of the household is disabled, and they need more space for equipment. Perhaps they are foster carers, who need an extra room from time to time. Maybe they have an adult child serving in the forces, who stays with them when on leave.

All these people will be affected – though in a partial U-turn on 12 March, the Government announced that 5,000 foster carers and “rather fewer” forces families would be exempt. They are all meant to move to smaller property, which is just big enough for their minimum space requirements – even if the rent is higher. If they don’t move, they will lose 14% of their housing benefit, or 25% if they have two “spare” bedrooms. If they don’t make up the rent from whatever income they have from work or benefits, they will be in arrears and will face eviction. If they do move, they will get no help with all the costs of moving. So either way, there’s a cost to them.

People who are “underoccupying” didn’t just decide to move into a place that was too big for them, like the Minister pushing this through, Lord Freud, with his eight-bedroomed mansion. They were allocated the property by their landlord, based on their needs at the time. Most households have a fluctuating need for space over the course of their lifetimes. Things change. We don’t all move house whenever a child is born or moves away, or when someone dies. Government policy used to recognise and value this, with talk of “lifetime homes” and “stable communities”.

What will happen?

If the policy achieves its aims, then every bedroom will have one or two people sleeping in it. These are not big properties – they are built to a budget, the rooms are small and often have poor sound insulation. There will be greater stress and pressure on people both within the home, and in the neighbourhood.

The clear message this sends is that if you are on benefits, you can have the minimum necessary space, and no more; if you have a little more than the absolute minimum, you must move, even if it costs you and the state more money.

But this bedroom tax won’t achieve its stated aim of more “efficient” allocation of housing. There aren’t places of a suitable size waiting for people to move in. In Hull, 4,700 tenants are affected, and there are 73 smaller properties available for them to move to. Many other areas have similar shortages. Of course the Government knows this, and says £500m will be saved. These savings can only happen if people stay where they are, somehow finding the shortfall in their rent. It is an admission that very many people simply won’t be able to move.

 

What then will happen to them? In Wales, a housing association sent its staff out to ask tenants what they would do. The results give an insight into the fear and hardship which will be caused.

Many of those affected are disabled, and some might have to move. If their home has been adapted, then the adaptations will be ripped out, and their new smaller home adapted, both at a cost to the council. David Cameron told the House of Commons that people with severely disabled children, and people who need round the clock care, are exempt. Neither claim was true, as Channel 4’s Factcheck has shown. Disabled people were seeking a judicial review of the bedroom tax, and the Government was fighting them.  However, on 12 March it decided not to continue appealing against a decision by the Appeal Court in favour of disabled children who were contesting having to share a bedroom.  Now, disabled children may not have to share a bedroom where the nature of their disability means that it would be unreasonable to do so.  Each case will be decided on its merits – it is not a blanket exemption, but a grudging acceptance that courts are likely to find in favour of such children.  For this relief, much thanks.

Perhaps some people will move into the private rented sector, though it is less secure, more expensive, and often worse quality. This will increase the housing benefit bill, as private rents are always higher. People may have to move away from friends and family, and change schools. So much for building stable communities.

Maybe the Government is happy paying more housing benefit if it goes to private landlords. Buy-to-let is the most rapidly growing part of the housing market, with buy-to-let mortgages increasing by 20% in 2012. Perhaps the Government think another housing bubble should be encouraged, to revive the economy. Didn’t that lead to the last crash?

Part of the Government’s aim is to demonise people on benefits, by suggesting people are choosing to live in homes which are too big for them, and this costs the rest of us money.

Every way you look at it, this policy is just plain wrong.