The bedroom tax is a hateful, illogical and unjust attack on vulnerable people by a government of millionaires, finds Adam Tomes

Buckingham Palace

The ‘bedroom tax’, introduced from this April, will hit the most vulnerable people in our society, affecting around 660,000 homes in the UK. It will cut the amount of benefit that people can get if they are deemed to have a spare bedroom in their council or housing association home. The definition of ‘spare’ is wide: children are expected to share until they are 10, or 16 if they are the same gender, while only disabled people who need non-resident overnight care will be allowed to keep a bedroom for their carer. The cost of the spare bedroom will be a 14% benefit cut (£12 per week), or 25% (£22 per week) for two.

This centrepiece of Coalition policy needs to be understood in terms of its aims, content and potential consequences for society. The aims of the bedroom tax are clear enough. The government argues that the purpose is to cut the unaffordable housing benefit budget – running at £23.6 billion per year – and to deal with the crisis of overcrowding by freeing up under-occupied social housing.

Demonising the poor

There is little doubt that the housing benefit bill is large and that there is a problem of overcrowding. Shelter estimates that the number of overcrowded homes has doubled in a decade. In some regions more than one in four households live in cramped conditions, while up to five million people are stuck on social housing waiting lists.

According to the Coalition, the causes of all of this are the scroungers and skivers who are choosing not to stand on their own two feet and who are deliberately living in houses that are far bigger than they need. This directly ties in to their aim to demonise the poorer sections of society and turn people against each other in competing for limited state resources.

At the same time, it frees the government from the responsibility of tackling the housing problem. There clearly are steps they could take to improve the situation. The first option would be to build a raft of green, fit-for-purpose social housing across the country. This would tackle the housing budget, deal with overcrowding and have the added benefit of kickstarting economic growth in a flatlining economy. A second option, as Owen Jones argues would be to control rents in the private sector. Housing benefit has become a honeypot for private landlords, allowing them to charge extortionate rents in the knowledge that the taxpayer will pay the price.

Who the bedroom tax will hit

The next step is to think about who the ‘bedroom tax’ will affect, and how. Let’s start with separated parents, since only one parent will be allocated extra rooms for the children. In the case of a separated father of three, who is not listed as the main carer, he would only be paid benefits for a one-bedroom house even though the children live with him for half the week. When tackled with this question on a Radio 5 phone in, Lord Freud suggested that the father could put them up on the sofa. Excellent, empathetic and caring advice from a man living in an eight-bedroom mansion, Mark Steel has pointed out.

In addition, couples using a spare bedroom when recovering from serious illness; foster parents, as foster children are not counted for benefits purposes; families with disabled children and families living in specially-adapted homes for disability will also suffer. Indeed, the evidence suggests that 2/3rds of the 660,000 homes affected by the bedroom tax will include someone who is sick or disabled.

No options

According to the Department of Work and Pensions, here are the options available for those in the 660,000 homes affected:

‘continue to live in accommodation which is assessed as larger than their household needs, and make up any shortfall from their other income, or from savings, from moving into work, increasing working hours, or from letting out a spare room to a lodger, a boarder, or a family member; or live to accommodation which better reflects the size and composition of their household.’

The first option makes some incredible assumptions that reflect how out of touch with ordinary people the governing class has become. This country is undergoing a crisis of high unemployment and underemployment as well as a period of falling real wages. Perhaps the DWP should have checked out the evidence collected by Affinity Sutton as part of the Housing Futures Network, which indicated that only 19% of households hit by the bedroom tax included someone who was already in employment.

Steve Webb, the DWP Minister, claimed that a person would only have to work a few hours extra a week to make up for the shortfall. However a single woman, allocated a two-bedroom flat, working 16 hours per week at minimum wage, would need an additional 12 hours per week just to recover the lost £14, after taking account of the benefits she would lose for working longer hours.

There is no option for people to make up for this shortfall except perhaps to skip meals, not put on the heating, or go into rent arrears and become homeless. Is this really the way our country wishes to treat the most vulnerable people in society?

The second option is to move to accommodation which better fits the household. On the surface, this seems entirely logical, but there are serious flaws. Firstly, this assumes that there are smaller properties available.

This is particularly a regional problem for those living in the industrialised areas of the North and Wales where most social housing was built for larger families. If we take for instance, Bron Afon Community Housing in Blaenavon, we find that there are 113 homes said to be under-occupied, yet only 29 one-bedroom flats are available locally with about five or six becoming available each year. This means that households faced with the bedroom tax will have either to move out of the area or into private rented accommodation, where the rent is higher and incredibly, the taxpayer will have to pay more in housing benefits.

If they are forced to move out of the area, how is the government measuring the damage to local communities, children who have to move schools and the negative impact on families who are removed from the extended families and social roots? In a further absurdity, retired people, who may be keen to downsize, won’t be affected by the bedroom tax and may find that they cannot move to a smaller property as they have been taken by younger households forced out of their larger homes.

The human cost

Lastly, it is worth moving beyond the economics of the government’s argument to consider the human cost of the bedroom tax. This can only be done through individual stories such as that of Becky Bell’s parents in Hartlepool. Becky Bell died last year at the age of seven and her parents are now facing the loss of £672 in housing benefit for leaving her bedroom untouched in her memory as part of their grieving process. It is a key reminder that this benefits change will bring untold human misery on the most vulnerable in our society. Here is a selection of personal stories taken from a brilliant post by Duncan Forbes, chief executive, Bron Afon Community Housing, which reflect the human tragedies that will be associated within this vicious and inhumane tax:

‘I met with a man with post-traumatic stress caused whilst serving in the army. It was obvious that he suffered with severe depression and went on to tell me a bit about the family, their home, his condition and the effects of the changes to his housing benefit the he foresaw. He currently lives at the property with one daughter who is hoping to go to university next year.

So where he currently under-occupies the property to the tune of one bedroom this is likely to increase later next year. His daughter is worried about him and her decision (whether she even goes on to higher education) is going to be heavily influenced by the effects of the changes to dad’s benefit. His depression is not seen as a disability sufficient to prevent him seeking work so his benefit was cut recently.

We talked about how he could manage the additional cost following a cut in his housing benefit, short of stopping eating and heating the home he was unable to identify any other savings. He was resigned to having to move to a smaller property but did not want to do it. The current home is the one he raised his children in, the one his wife shared with him until she died. He was proud of the home and the time, effort and money he had clearly put into it. Leaving that to start again was a thought that (I observed) made him so very anxious and visibly shaken.

When I went door knocking I met a lady who is blind and lives in a two-bedroom property. She will get a cut in benefit due to the ‘bedroom tax’. She has lived in her home around 20 years and it has been adapted for her needs. Her neighbour acts as a carer for her too.

If she is forced to move because she can’t afford to stay she will have to leave the community she loves because there are no one-bedroom properties in her area. If she moves away she will leave an area she is able to safely travel around because she knows it so well.’

This tax will not solve the overcrowding problem and will not reduce the housing bill. This tax will lead to mass evictions, the breakdown of communities and to huge levels of personal suffering. It shows how fake is the veneer of this government’s apparent commitment to fairness. It is an all-out attack on the poorest of society to solve their debt crisis, whilst at the same time removing any responsibility from the governing elite for dealing with the massive inequalities the neoliberal project has delivered.