Obviously, we all know that this is Government is absolutely vile. But of all the vile things that they have done, or are planning to do (or at least, that they currently admit they are planning) the imposition of the Bedroom Tax or, as the Department for Work and Pensions so quaintly describes it “housing benefit size criteria restrictions for working age claimants in the social rented sector” must be in with a fighting chance of winning the prize for the vilest. In fact, it would be a dead cert except for a late challenge due this autumn with the introduction of Universal Credit (just don’t get me started).
From April, housing benefit for tenants of social housing will be restricted to allow for one bedroom for each person or couple in a household. Children under 16 of same gender will be expected to share a room and kids under 10 will be expected to share regardless of gender
All claimants who are deemed to have at least one spare bedroom will be affected. This includes:
- Separated parents who share the care of their children and who may have been allocated an extra bedroom to reflect this. Benefit rules mean that there must be a designated ‘main carer’ for children (who will receive the ‘extra’ benefit)
- Couples who use their ‘spare’ bedroom when recovering from an illness or operation
- Foster carers – because foster children are not counted as part of the household for benefit purposes
- Parents whose children visit but are not part of the household
- Families with disabled children
- Disabled people including people living in adapted or specially designed properties.
The cut will be a fixed percentage of the Housing Benefit eligible rent, which has been set at 14% for one extra bedroom and 25% for two or more extra bedrooms.
Because 31% of social housing tenants between the ages of 16 and 61 currently claim housing benefit, the new regime will affect an estimated 660,000 households. The Government’s impact assessment indicates that those affected will lose an average of £14 a week, with housing association tenants are expected to lose £16 a week. And these are people who are currently expected to live on £71 if jobseekers, or the princely sum of up to £105.05 if you are severely disabled.
However, that is only the average cut. In Hammersmith and Fulham for example, the weekly rent for a three bed council house is £122.97. If one bedroom is deemed to be ‘surplus’ a tenant formerly received Housing Benefit equivalent to 100% of the rent will be expected to find £17.20 a week and if two bedrooms are ‘surplus’, £30.74.
So far, the reaction of Labour controlled councils and the lone Green controlled council in Brighton to being required to implement the Tories’ cuts programmes has been a corporate wringing of hands and statements of regret, but no active opposition. But this, surely, has to be a red line for at least some of them, and now real opportunities exist for councils to resist the Government if they have any guts – or consciences – at all.
As with the imposition of some Council Tax, typically between £1.80 and £3.50 a week, on all those apart from pensioners who have previously had 100% Council Tax relief, the effect of the Bedroom Tax will be to pauperise a large proportion of those it affects and many will simply be unable to pay and will thus inevitably start to run into arrears.
Chasing up these arrears is likely, in the case of Council Tax, to be uneconomic. The cost of taking tenants to court for a couple of hundred pounds will be far more than any revenue recovered. We should be demanding of Councils that, if only in the interests of saving money, they should announce that they will not be pursuing tenants who were previously exempt for Council Tax and who have subsequently fallen into arrears.
Similarly, it is absolutely inevitable that tenants who are already very poor will be simply unable to pay what even the Government says is going to be at least £14 a week from their tiny incomes. Councils will have a choice, either they threaten tenants who are forced into bigger and bigger arrears with eviction or they state publicly that they won’t. If, say, Hammersmith and Fulham evicts a family with two small children from their home because of their inability to find £17.20 a week, the Council will be legally obliged to rehouse them in emergency accommodation at a cost, in London, of possibly £1,000 a week. Financially it makes much more sense for the family to be left in their own home.
So we should be demanding that Labour councils (and the solitary Green one) adopt and publicise a policy of not pursuing families hit by the Bedroom Tax to the point of eviction.
The Welfare Reform Act contains a curious loophole – doesn’t define what a bedroom is. As a result, one housing association, Knowsley Housing Trust has already reclassified ‘spare’ bedrooms in its tenants’ homes as dining rooms and studies etc. – in other words, the sort of rooms that the swine who introduced these new regulations have in their own homes. We should be demanding that councils should start doing the same.
Now, clearly the Government would not like this policy of dumb insolence, but it would have to challenge mutinous councils in the courts – where it might not win – and/or change the law to force them to heel. In both cases it would force the bastards onto the back foot and increase the self confidence the hundreds of thousands affected by these iniquitous policies.
Of course, in the long run the Tories would find ways of using state power against recalcitrant councils and revolting tenants, and many councils would, no, will use methods like forced removals to other cheaper parts of the country to enforce the new rules, but it would be the start of a fight back. And that’s what we desperately need right now.