Monday, 20 October 2014

Going spare

From: Inside edge

With just 62 days left the bedroom tax has gone mainstream in parliament and the national press.

The last week alone has seen three different debates in the Commons, a DWP questions in which it was the main issue, and stories in the Sun and Mail as well as, more predictably, the Guardian, Daily Record and Mirror.

Meanwhile virtually every local paper in the UK seems to be finding families affected by the tax that few of their readers would consider to have a ‘spare room’. From Bute to Torfaen and from King’s Lynn to Northampton to Hartlepool the bedroom tax is big news. In Hull, a family of seven in a four-bed house say they face losing £20 a week because of the rules on how old children have to be to get their own room.

But will any of it make any difference to what happens from April 1? A barrage of questions in parliament yesterday was met with a range of stock answers from DWP ministers. It was, alternatively, all Labour’s fault, only fair to private renters, only fair to overcrowded families or all covered by discretionary housing payments (perm any one or two from four).

All of the points raised by MPs and the media were raised again and again as the Welfare Reform Act made its way through parliament in 2011 and early 2012. The impact of welfare reform as a whole on housing associations was well summarised by the National Housing Federation last week.

The difference now is the arguments come with human stories attached. It’s one thing for ministers like Lord Freud to defend the changes in the abstract but quite another when they are confronted by the people they affect on live radio or face tabloid exposure of their own spare bedrooms (11 since you ask).

Meanwhile, as Penny Anderson notes, there is a growing mood of resistance among tenants to the bedroom tax and other cuts. Tenants in Liverpool have organised a Defend Your Home Against the Bedroom Tax campaign while both Shelter Scotland and the STUC are backing a No Eviction for Bedroom Tax campaign organised by Govan Law Centre. Could there yet be legal challenges (as Joe Halewood is arguing forcefully on his blog)?

In terms of public awareness alone all this must make a difference on top of all the publicity campaigns, door knocking, social media initiatives, tenant incentive schemes and phone calls by individual landlords. The attention paid to the issue by MPs from all parties is evidence that it is reaching their surgeries and postbags.

However, the same could be said for any number of the other welfare changes that directly affect housing, from the benefit cap to the direct payment of housing benefit, and for many more that do not. Last night’s Panorama, for example, exposed the failure of the work programme for disabled people.

At DWP questions in the Commons yesterday, ministers faced question after question about the shortage of smaller homes for downsizers and the impact of the under-occupation penalty on particular groups.

Labour’s Liam Byrne made the bedroom tax the subject of his main attack on the government but  work and pensions minister Steve Webb responded to human stories with predictable reassurances about discretionary housing payments and to arguments about the shortage of one-bed homes with a list of options like taking a lodger and working more hours.

Before that, Labour MP Tom Greatrex had raised the case of a foster parent with four foster children who lived on the border between two local authorities and and was facing considerable confusion about discretionary payments. Webb responded that the government had set aside £5 million ‘so that o that local authorities can respond on a case-by-case basis to the needs of foster carers. We believe that that is a more flexible approach than a blanket exemption.’

Labour’s Stephen Doughty asked what the impact of rent arrears from all the benefit changes would be on housing association finances and was told bluntly by Iain Duncan Smith: ‘I don’t believe there will be an impact.’ IDS continued with an attack on Labour’s record before adding: ‘We are trying to ensure that those who are paying this money are not allowed to slip into debt for any great length of time. That matter is being discussed with housing associations and we are making good progress on it. I believe that this approach will help people who are trying to get back into work enormously, rather than their being treated as though they are children who have to have all their bills paid for them.’

Newport East Labour MP Jessica Morden did not even get an answer when she pressed him about ‘the chronic shortage of smaller houses in Wales’. IDS instead attacked the opposition’s record in government and its MPs for shouting ‘like a bunch of discombobulated monkeys bouncing up and down’

The (non) answers kept coming. Webb dismissed arguments about fairness with the point that Labour had been happy with an under-occupation penalty for private renters. And he answered a question on the shortage of smaller accommodation by saying: ‘There is a danger that this is viewed in a very static way. Many of the best housing associations are looking at groups of constituents, some of whom are over-occupying and are overcrowded, and are moving people around to create space.’

However, the questions were not just coming from Labour members. Lib Dem John Leech asked how many families the DWP thought would end up downsizing into more expensive homes in the private rented sector. ‘It is worth stressing that moving is one option, but only one option, for those in work’ said Webb.. ‘Just two or three extra hours on the minimum wage would cover this deduction. There are a range of options—going into work, taking in a lodger or sub-letting—and good housing associations are working with their tenants to achieve best outcomes.’

And Lib Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes pressed for an assurance that foster carers would not lose out financially. IDS responded: ‘We have laid aside £5 million specifically to help with foster carers in the situation he described. However, we are in discussions with local authorities, county councils and the Department for Education about how best the money can be used to ensure that it specifically helps foster carers in this area, so that they suffer no hardship whatever, but can continue, and we can encourage more people to become foster carers.’

That sounds to me as though the education department is arguing that discretionary payments will not be enough and carries just a hint of movement on that particular issue. How about on other aspects of the bedroom tax?

The DWP seems certain to resist any concessions. However, as Steve Hilditch argues at Red Brick, the government may just be politically vulnerable. In 61 days time, the non-answers from ministers about discretionary payments and the ‘other options’ open to tenants will start to be put to the test in the real world. 

Readers' comments (11)

  • It's worth pointing out that whilst the EIA clearly shows that sick and disabled tenants will be disproportionately affected the government advice for coping with the measure is all about labour market behaviour such as taking on extra hours which disabled people, in many cases, are supposed to be exempt from. They have consistently failed to address this glaring issue that the majority affected cannot just do a few extra hours at work. Even able-bodied people can't get work, how does someone who is on ESA (Support) and meant to be protected from such pressures mitigate the impact of this policy? The government have no answer and they are leaving themselves wide open to legal challenges on the basis of insufficient justification for a policy shown to have a disproportionate impact on a protected group which is therefore indirectly discriminatory and has a retrogressive effect as it makes disabled tenants' living standards measurably worse than before.

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  • Chris

    Maybe when the public see the total effect of the welfare cuts causing harm and destitution to their friends, relatives and neighbours, as opposed to the notional undeserving feckless claimants spread about by the cuts' supporters, there will be a shift in opinion.

    This will not be a unique occurrence of the public realising they've been conned into supporting a bad or mad idea, and it won't be the first time it will be too late to make a difference to the real suffering real people will experience at the hands of our own government.

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  • Colin McCulloch

    Chris,

    Maybe, maybe not. There still exists a real burning anger (fuelled by the pages of the Daily Mail et al) that benefits claimants (sic) are living a life of luxury at the expense of the taxpayer.

    I expect that the media will begin to churn out more stories of "feckless families" living extravagant lifestyles in big houses whilst your average Joe struggles by. In that context, I see little scope for mass resistance to the "bedroom tax" and the Government knows it.

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  • As much as certain media publications annoy me, I feel like writing to them pointing out that once decent hardworking tenants are forced to downsize due to the ‘bedroom tax’, the larger properties on estates up and down the country will be given to larger Asian families and immigrants who are willing to share a house.

    Is it wrong to use their prejudice to get this unjust policy reversed?

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  • As someone knocking on doors and telling people about the changes, I have met with little anger and even some support from people affected by this change. I don't feel a wave of mass resistance building.
    Maybe that's because here in the North East one large ALMO has 6,500 properties underoccupied by people claiming housing benefit ( some working, some not). Every one knows someone who is living in a property larger than they need funded by their taxes. When you constantly see newspaper and TV stories about the housing shortage for some peope this just doesn't add up.

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  • The con dems want the 670,000 poorest
    council tenants to pay a £1 Billion per annum
    penalty for living in their existing homes,
    They also want this figure to increase by
    an extra £80 Million per annum , meaning these
    tenants are facing having to pay a shortfall of
    £ 11 Billion over the next decade.
    Previously these tenants followed the correct
    procedure to obtain a council home by going onto
    a waiting list , then having their needs assessed by their local council and then being granted a home of the councils choice , only to now find
    that they are being punished for being in that home.

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  • "It was, alternatively, all Labour’s fault, only fair to private renters, only fair to overcrowded families or all covered by discretionary housing payments."

    Am I missing something, but as far as I know private renters are only given Local Housing Allowance if they move into a new tenancy or have a change of circumstances. The ‘bedroom tax’ applies to all RSL tenants, so isn’t only 'fair' that all tenants in the private sector are also penalised on the number of ‘spare’ bedrooms they have as this government seem so concerned about everyone being treated equally.

    Might I suggest that a standard size cardboard box is produced by those in power so anyone ending up on the streets homeless does not feel that other people have more space than they do.

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  • Joe Halewood

    Hi Jules

    My 7 blogs on the bedroom tax in the last 10 days highlight a much much bigger point than just questionning the lawfulness of the bedroom tax.

    Collectively they strongly state that the bedroom tax has not been fully considered....by landlords or tenants.

    The blogs discuss not just whether the bedroom tax itelf is unlawful, but reveal a private sector dimension not previously discussed; reveal that social landlords could be committing a criminal offence if they work with LAs on implementing the bedroom tax guidance - again never previously discussed; reveal that there is a minimum bedroom size already in law which the government seek to deny in large part; reveal that the bedroom tax will not save money but will cost more to the public purse; reveal that taking in a lodger could be a criminal offence for a tenant; how the bedroom tax can be avoided...and more aspects never previously discussed.

    What this shows is the bedroom tax has NOT been thought through by social landlords and social tenants despite the plethora of discussion the bedroom tax has had.

    Discussion has focused upon the impact or consequences of it to tenant and landlord and has been largely emotive. It hasn't to date focused on many or indeed any of the legal, financial or practical operational aspects of the bedroom taxand that is very remiss of the 'sector' and of the opposition Labour Party too.

    Its time for a full and proper consideration of the bedroom tax and the hugely irrational aspects it reveals. This is more than just a policy of political dogma alone from the coalition without much prethought or consideration in impact assessments as many of thewelfare reforms are, it is fundamentally perverse and irrational and contains so many aspects not discussed to date.

    That needs to change

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  • Time for action.

    The 'bedroom tax' will falter just like the Welfare Cap is faltering.

    My disappointment is that the tenants have been failed completely by HA heirarchy.

    This has all occorred because of the weakness of HA's

    HA's are worth billions and they don't seem to be able to 'man-up' and look the ministers in the eye like private companies do.

    Case in point - HB will be paid to tenants ------- SMI will be paid direct to lenders !!

    Why the difference in approach ----------------- lenders won't take no for an answer and HA's are too scared to ask the question - time for action not words.

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  • Don't forget the change to Council tax benefit, everyone to pay just a few pounds a week, the localisation of the social fund and emergency payments or as I call it Parish Relief. Councils faced with all this discretion over not very many pounds brings us to the postcode lottery.

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  • Perhaps when MPs are submitting their claims for housing expenses, there should be some parity?

    How many MPs live in houses too large for their actual 'needs'? A good number I imagine. And if they have grown-up children at home, shouldn't suffer a non-dependent charge to reflect that child's income to the overall household budget?

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