Wednesday, 25 November 2015

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. 

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