Tuesday, 5 March 2013

This medieval, cruel and unfair 'bedroom tax' will push families deeper into poverty.

From next month all working age tenants renting from a local authority, housing association or other registered social landlord will receive Housing Benefit based on what the government calls "the need of their household". It sounds libertarian and just: to each according to his need. If only they had also adopted the other half of the balance: from each according to their ability. But the 'bedroom tax', as it has been called, is by its nature a medieval piece of legislation. Its aim is primarily to cut the costs of housing benefits, but also to encourage tenants to move out of their homes. It isn't 'giving according to need', it is taking away from the poorest. It isn't an incentive, but a penalty, and that is why it is unjust. It assumes 'need' can be determined solely by considering numbers of rooms and numbers of people. If only it was that simple.

The 'bedroom tax' means those tenants whose accommodation is 'larger than they need' may lose part of their Housing Benefit. Those with one extra bedroom will have a 14 per cent reduction applied to their eligible rent and those with two or more extra bedrooms will have a 25 per cent reduction applied. And all this at a time when household budgets are being squeezed from all directions.

 It is the worst kind of social engineering to force people out of their family homes. David Cameron famously described society as being 'broken'.  In the wake of rioting and looting in the streets in 2011, he put fixing what he called 'broken Britain'  at the top of his agenda. He is also on record as wanting to put family life on the political agenda, promoting the importance of good parenting. All very commendable. But the government's 'bedroom tax' is  at odds with these ambitions. At best it demonstrates a very poor understanding of how families work, and no recognition of the impact of such policies on communities.

Of course there is a shortage of houses and there is also an injustice when families cannot be properly housed. But there is a world of difference between a financial incentive and a financial penalty. Financial incentives may be an appropriate way to encourage people to 'downsize' in the social housing sector, but financial penalties create the potential for a different kind of injustice; forcing people deeper into poverty, because they cannot readily move.

A family who have grown up in a neighbourhood, made friends, established mutual support in caring for children are being encouraged to move, not by choice and opportunity, but because they have one room too many. Yet the DWP in their assessment of the likely effects of the change acknowledge no social impact, no potential impact on health and well-being or any potential for injustice. In their impact assessment they simply write against these assessments the word 'none'. And yet clearly there will be impacts in all these areas, and they know this to be so. Where they have been assessed, the DWP have ignored the findings.

One assessment was of the likely impact of the change on a community of 452 families.  Over two thirds of the households in the study had a household income (excluding housing benefit) of less than £150 per week.  Forty-two percent report struggling to manage financially to some extent and 41% say they regularly run out of money before the end of the week/month. The main reason for for having spare rooms is children leaving home but other factors such as bereavement and separation are significant. Needs often reflect complex family relationships rather than simplistic assumptions about need based on bedrooms. The vast majority (82%) thought their accommodation was 'about right' for their needs. Only a minority would consider moving. Many households regularly have relatives stay overnight, shift working alters sleeping arrangements. More than a third were likely to move into arrears as a result of the change in housing benefit.


The DWP are selling the 'bedroom tax' on the injustice of the current distribution of housing and housing shortages. But the primary aim is to reduce housing benefit costs. Freeing up accommodation according to 'need' is secondary and from the study done is unlikely to be effective. Indeed as the DWP say 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." In other words this is an ill-thought out policy that won't meet its promise, but will meanwhile cause anxiety, suffering and injustice and push families deeper into poverty. 

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