By Sarah Walker
On Tuesday disabled families lost a court challenge to changes to social housing benefit. The High Court ruled that the policy, commonly known as “the bedroom tax”, charging a subsidy to those on social housing benefit living in a property which is deemed to have a “spare bedroom” (14% less housing benefit per spare room), did not unlawfully discriminate against disabled people. Whether or not an appeal to the Court of Appeal will be successful remains to be seen. Whatever the legality of the decision to impose the “bedroom tax” (or ‘”spare room subsidy”), the policy, introduced on 1 April 2013, is still a bad one.
The Government response to criticism of this policy has been that they had “fairness” in mind and are simply trying to make room for the two million households on the social housing waiting list. However, Members of Parliament, when interviewed about the “bedroom tax” have not indicated whether alternative, more appropriately sized housing has been identified or even if it is actually available for those deemed to be in receipt of a “spare room”. It seems then that there is a shortage in social housing and instead of considering a fairer allocation of the available housing the government is simply placing a financial penalty on those unlucky enough to have been housed in a property now deemed too generous for their needs.
This, in my view, indicates that the “bedroom tax” policy is ill-thought through. It is a bad decision based on politics rather than practical, evidence-based policy.
How has it worked so far?
The Guardian recently posted a news story discussing “Bedroom tax: the first 100 days”. The outcome, it seems, is bleak. Aragon Housing Association, which had reportedly spent 18 months prior to the enactment of the policy preparing for its enactment, stated that “out of the 460 households with spare bedrooms affected by the bedroom tax, we have only been able to move just over 40 residents to smaller houses”. Discussing those social housing tenants who do choose to move to smaller accommodation, it confirms that there are very few available houses to move them to. The Housing Association reported that these tenants “face hauling young children out of schools and away from their communities”. Worse still in their sister organisation South Northants Homes, “tenants cannot downsize there because the properties aren’t available.” It seems then, so far, that the “bedroom tax” leaves those reliant on social housing with the difficult task of moving their children out of schools and away from their communities or stuck in their current housing paying a subsidy. Arguably this is punishing vulnerable people for the bad decision-making of housing associations who originally allocated them the inadequate accommodation. Certainly it leaves social housing tenants with less money to feed themselves and their children and less money to travel to work or job interviews; another area where it seems availability does not match demand.
The media on “the bedroom tax”
Times for social housing tenants are hard. I am aware that some readers may disagree with that statement. The media, with the exception of The Guardian, is not on their side. Recent BBC TV programmes such as “Nick and Margaret: We pay your benefits” propagate the workers vs shirkers myth and “The Future of the Welfare State”, first shown in November 2011 fronted by the Today programme’s John Humphrys, was found to breach BBC rules of impartiality and accuracy, putting forward the contentious idea that Britain is going through an “age of entitlement” without statistical evidence to back it up. Yes, some people in receipt of benefits do not work. Yes, some of them do not work because they do not want to but some of them, the majority of them, do not work because they cannot. Many in receipt of benefits are disabled; hit by changes to disabled benefits as well as the bedroom tax. Many in receipt of benefits are in pursuit of work, but finding themselves overqualified and under-experienced; for example, graduates emerging with high levels of debt and overdrafts stretched not by partying but by book costs or having to buy a new laptop when theirs died shortly before a crucial essay deadline.
Politically, the bedroom tax policy is, in the right media climate, a vote winner; promising fair allocation of resources and penalties for the “shirkers”. In reality, this policy is a killer, pushing vulnerable people to their financial and emotional limits. Many will have read the recent, tragic report that a man cut his throat in the middle of a benefits office, “upset about the bedroom tax” and not “getting through” to the benefits adviser tasked with assisting him. Many more stories have reported suicides for the unconfirmed reason that the victims feared or were suffering as a result of the impact of the bedroom tax.
Already living on the breadline, those subject to the bedroom tax and unable to move to more appropriate accommodation, because the Housing Associations simply don’t have any suitable properties for them, are kicked while they are down. Conversely, thriving companies such as Starbucks are allowed to escape paying the required level of corporation tax, instead “offering to pay a significant amount of tax”, treating HMRC like a voluntary tax rather than a legal and societal obligation. This juxtaposition illustrates well the current, and arguably growing, inequality between sections of UK society. The bedroom tax is no fairer than allowing Starbucks to escape paying tax.
This policy may not be illegal, but it is certainly ill-thought through. One would expect a good government, when enacting a policy, to have properly investigated (i) the need for such a policy; (ii) the practical application of the policy; and (iii) the effect of the policy. Evidently, there is a need for a clearer and more sensible allocation of social housing resources. It is right that, in the past, Housing Associations and local government have allocated properties with one too many bedrooms, or failed to re-allocate when that third bedroom was no longer needed. Applying a penalty payment for those social housing tenants stuck in now-inappropriately sized property, with few other more appropriately sized properties that they can be moved to, does not solve the problem. For this reason alone, it is a bad policy. Having followed a simple analysis of the policy it quickly becomes clear that it is an ill-thought through policy. According to the High Court, this policy is not unlawfully discriminatory to disabled people but it is certainly unfair to those reliant on social housing, the most vulnerable in society, and is ineffective in solving a long-running problem of allocation of resources.