Since publishing my previous article on the cruelty of the 'bedroom tax', several readers have pointed to the unfairness of people occupying houses with 'spare' rooms whilst others are in need. It is an argument repeated by government ministers. Often they cite the numbers of empty houses, as if the two could easily be matched.
But pointing to one unfairness, the shortage of suitable homes, cannot justify another, the indiscriminate injustice of forcing the poorest deeper into poverty, or for them to lose their homes. It is particularly unjust if it is unlikely to resolve the problem, for it cannot then be justified on any utilitarian ethical consideration. It fails to give an equal consideration to the genuine interests and needs of all concerned. It neither addresses the plight of the homeless or those in overcrowded accommodation, nor does it address the problem of low pay and families struggling to pay their bills. Justice requires that people should be treated fairly.
The 'bedroom tax' is cruel because it is indiscriminate in its effect. It fails to take account of circumstances and real availability of housing stock. It seeks to turn one sector of the community against another. And it should be clear, the objective of the 'bedroom tax' is to reduce spending, not to solve the housing shortage. It is disingenuous for government ministers to suggest otherwise.
The Secretary of State, Mr Ian Duncan Smith says “These changes are about fairness. We will be able to make better use of our social housing stock, and help more families into their own home whilst keeping the welfare budget sustainable.” This is not so.
Freeing up accommodation according to 'need' is at best a secondary objective, and from the studies cited in the DWP impact assessment, is unlikely to be effective. Indeed, this is acknowledged by the DWP in their impact assessment:
"If all existing social sector tenants wished to move to accommodation of an appropriate size, there would be a mismatch between available accommodation and the needs of tenants."
The real cause of the shortage of suitable homes is the lack of social housing stock, not under-occupancy. The stock of social housing is pitifully low.
But there are two problems with the the empty housing argument. It makes the assumption that 1) a 'spare' room is not 'needed' and 2) that matching those who might need to move with available empty properties would be easy. Simply counting the numbers of unoccupied social houses doesn't make them available or suitable for those who might be forced out of their homes by the 'bedroom tax'. It assumes the homes will be located suitably for available work, schools, transport links. it also fails to address the social cost of families being forced to move from communities where they have established ties. Focusing on the number of empty properties distracts us from the real need to build more homes.