Thursday, 05 March 2015

Under pressure

From: Inside edge

The government’s arguments for the bedroom tax are continuing to unravel under intense media and political scrutiny. Will the pressure finally tell?

For the first time in years that I can remember, a social housing issue led prime minister’s questions yesterday as Labour leader Ed Miliband used the plight of people facing the tax to put David Cameron on the spot.

‘This is not a tax; it is a benefit,’ said the prime minister. Strictly speaking, of course, he’s right – the under-occupation penalty is a reduction in benefit. However, that’s not stopped the bedroom tax becoming such common parlance in the media that even ministers and government press offices have begun to use it. Cameron was committing cardinal error number one at PMQs of repeating his opponent’s attack line.

His main argument in favour was that it’s only fair to people in the private rented sector. Cameron repeated this ‘basic argument of fairness’ several times, pointing out that Labour presided over size criteria for private tenants. He said: ‘If someone is in private rented housing and receives no housing benefit, they do not get money for an extra room, and if someone is in private housing and do get housing benefit, they do not get money for an extra room, so there is a basic argument of fairness. Why should we be doing more for people in social housing on housing benefit than for people in private housing on housing benefit?’

It’s true that private tenants have faced a similar bedroom tax before and after the introduction of the local housing allowance in 2008. However, the justification put forward by Labour ministers at the time was that the government had to act because ‘unlike social housing, the deregulated private rented sector is not subject to any internal rent controls’.

As Hilary Burkitt points out, the size criteria may be pretty much the same but the impact on private and social tenants will be very different. Cameron’s ‘fairness’ argument also raises the prospect of what many social landlords fear after the next election: the introduction of an LHA-style allowance for social tenants that becomes increasingly detached from actual rents.

Finally, there is another group of people who are far more likely to under-occupy their homes than either private or social tenants: home owners. However, there are no size criteria in the support for mortgage interest scheme. And, far from cutting it back, the government has just extended a temporary concession that makes mortgages up to £200,0000 eligible for support.

Next Cameron tried the argument that the government is making extra support available on a case by case basis. This was rather undermined by the fact that he put the total of discretionary housing payments at £50 million rather than the actual £30 million.

When he attacked Labour for opposing all the government’s attempts to cut benefits and reduce the deficit, Miliband responded that the bedroom tax could end up costing more if victims are forced into smaller private rented homes with higher rents. ‘How can it possibly make sense to force people into a situation where they cost the state more, not less, by moving into the private rented sector?’

Cameron did not exactly answer the question. ‘What this Government are doing is building more homes,’ he said. ‘If the right hon. Gentleman supports that, will he now support our changes to the planning system and the new homes bonus?

That enabled Miliband to come back with: ‘So today we discover that the Prime Minister has not even got a clue about his own policy, which he is introducing in April.’

There was just time for Cameron to accuse Miliband of coming up with ‘totally pathetic, pre-scripted rubbish’ and respond to some of his own before it was time for other MPs to ask their questions. Happily, there were three more on the bedroom tax and there was still time for Cameron to repeat his cardinal error as he told Labour’s Greg McClymont: ‘I do not accept that the bedroom tax is a tax.’ As Homer Simpson might put it: ‘Doh!’

Later the same day, the bedroom tax and the prospect of it costing more not less featured on Channel 4 News report featuring Wigan & Leigh Housing. Labour showed its determination to maintain the pressure by putting up shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne. His opponent was not Iain Duncan Smith or a DWP minister but Tory work and pensions committee member Nigel Mills, who wriggled uncomfortably when asked why a tenant should be forced to move and cost the taxpayer more.

The government did at least field work and pensions minister Steve Webb on the Today programme this morning (listen from about 8.30). Its report quoted the case of 60 year old John who cares for his wife Diane, who has MS. ‘It looks like govt has it in for people who are disabled through no fault of their own,’ she said. ‘We’re not scroungers.’ They had two spare bedrooms but it sounded like one was taken up with a through-floor lift and Diane said John needs the other ‘for some respite from me’. Webb argued that discretionary housing payments were specifically intended for cases like theirs but it emerged that they had already been turned down by their local authority.

On the bedroom tax in general he said that it was not fair to pay for a million spare rooms while other tenants were overcrowded. However, questioned about the plight of separated fathers who have their kids to stay at weekends, he pointed out that over 100,000 of the people affected are in work. ‘They could, for example, work a bit more and simply pay the shortfall,’ he said. ‘We’re talking an average of £14-£15 a week, so three hours at the minimum wage would pay the shortfall then he can keep the spare bedroom and have someone to stay.’

If only things were so simple as working an extra shift or a bit of overtime. In fact, as Hilary Burkitt (again) points out, the rate at which people’s benefits are withdrawn as they earn more money makes it far harder to make up the shortfall than Webb made out. A divorced father who works full time and has his 10-year old son and 16-year-old daughter to stay at weekends in his three-bed home would actually have to work 76 hours a week – the equivalent of two full-time jobs – to escape the bedroom tax. 

That minister as knowledgeable as Steve Webb can get his own benefits system so completely wrong is a measure of how fast the policy is unravelling. The more that ministers are confronted with the effects of the bedroom tax on real people the harder it is to defend it and resist calls for extra concessions.

However, with just 53 days to go until tenants’ housing benefit is cut, is it unravelling fast enough?

Readers' comments (15)

  • Welfare Cap - uturn

    Bedroom tax - uturn

    Universal Credit delayed until further notice

    Anyone want to give me odds on an accumulator bet ?

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  • Colin Mcculloch


    I don't see a U-turn on any of the above - more likely is to see watered down versions of them all. UC in particular is looking disastrous.

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  • The con dems want 670,000 council tenants
    to suffer a £ 1Billion per annum penalty for
    living in their existing homes, as they are
    cutting both housing benefit and council tax benefit.
    They also want this figure to increase by
    £80 Million per annum ontop of the starting figure
    which means that these tenants will have to
    face having to pay a shortfall of £11 Billion over
    the next decade just to stay in their existing homes.

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  • The point also needs to be made about single occupancy council tax benefit. Plenty of people are awarded this benefit, even in work, for underoccupying their home. So one lot are penalised for having spare rooms and the other lot are rewarded. Oh except sometimes they're the same household, penalised and rewarded simultaneously! What an unholy mess.

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  • Georgina Goldsmith

    Please read this article

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  • Georgina Goldsmith

    See other so please read this article

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  • Chris

    Let's be honest - the changes will come into effect, the human disaster will occur. The media will not cover such stories as they will be too busy reporting the latest shiny object floating in front of them. So public opinion will remain as it has been formed, believing that it is all the fault of those ‘others’ and the cuts are justified. Even that nice Mr Milliband agreed to the welfare cuts, in order to protect all those hard working people.

    This is ignoring the fact that these hard working people are just the people who will face the cuts. Yet it is also these hard working people who have called for the cuts believing them to be aimed at those ‘others' mentioned before!

    In a way, for some, it would be justice for such people to suffer their own decision, but they will still not understand that they are the problem. They will still blame 'others' for their own plight. They will still look at their reduced income and believe their own propaganda that ‘others’ are getting more than they so the answer should be more cuts!

    Then there will be those who were not so blinkered yet are suffering because others decided that they were not deserving. For these there is not even a Socialist party represented in Parliament to argue their cause and present alternatives to the madness that infests both sides of the Commons, without even embarrassment nor apology from those who profess to be standing up for the majority.

    Hard working ancestors who worked hard to end such injustice have discovered from their grandchildren that their work did not pay, because those who inherited far better social conditions failed to value them and have thrown them away. Unless this generation finds its will to fight so much blood and tears will have been wasted as to require many generations to recover the loss.

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  • Great Chris. So we should all lie down and take it? I think you're underestimating this. It isn't just an attack on the poor it's a total desecration of the safeguards meant to be in place to protect all of us. There is no safety net here. No right of appeal. No transitional protection. No right to appeal if you don't get a DHP. No matter what your situation, no matter if you are part of a 'protected' group. It is retrogressive; it makes people's living standards worse than before. I understand your cynicism but please don't think the fight is lost just yet. There are ways to challenge this evil policy.

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  • Patricia Cross

    I was listening to my local radio station yesterday, radio merseyside.
    A elderly woman phoned in and said that her 42 year old neighbour from Huyton would of been affected by the bedroom tax by one bedroom, she had lived in her home all her life and was very distressed over the BT, she had told her elderly neighbour the only way she was moving out of her home was in a box, and thats what exactly what happened, SHE COMMITED SUICIDE

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  • as quoted by Lord Freud who come up with idea of a bedroom TAX,
    'it is estimated that approximately on in five tenants will be affected by the change. The purpose of the policy is not to force people to move, but for them to make realistic choices about how they will meet the rent on a property that is larger than they need. We expect most people will choose to remain in their existing property even if the option for a smaller one is available and find ways of meeting the shortfall. They will have time to consider ways of doing that and appropriate advice will be made available to them as part of our implementation strategy' Unquote.

    Anyone free to pick that apart please do.

    1. There are people who have still not officially been notified of this by the authorities. So have not been given much time to realistically find the shortfall.

    2. By his own admission this is nothing to do with freeing up social housing to deal with over crowding.

    3. He still thinks that those affected can just find the money from somewhere?

    Mean while he has 11 spare bedrooms he can rent out to lodgers.

    Getting more hours of work is not possible and the employers not the employees need to be approached surely.

    Better education for the one in five people who still cannot read or write properly, making them find jobs fairly impossible in the first place. So the education system is not working very well either is it.

    3% of the welfare budget goes on jobseekers. The rest goes to people already in work or cannot work. So how are they going to find the shortfall LEGALLY?

    The government also made subletting in social housing illegal last year too, so getting a lodger will only be if you have permission from the landlord. Will they give it?

    Private housing prices have not gone down making this an impossible substitute for those looking for smaller properties. Most private landlords do not accept DSS, kids or pets anyway.

    Build more social houses, when and with what money?

    This government is far from the truth of reality in this country. UK is three times more densely populated than any other country in the world by the way.

    Flaws in their own policy, Yes I would say that is definitely true. I did not get an Eton education to know this either.


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  • Chris

    suzieq11 - that is not what I am saying at all. I am pointing out that we have been complacent and complicit in the attacks against us. I am saying that we have stood by and seen right after right removed. I am saying that we have collectively called for benefit cuts - all because we believed it would only effect someone else.

    I am agreeing with you, that this effects us all. I am pointing out that these changes will go through like all those we have let go previously unless the will to fight as our ancestors did is recovered.

    To date, other than a few glib tweets and angry words there has been no resistance, no opposition. In truth, it is pathetic.

    People get the government that they deserve, it is said. If people feel that they deserve a better government then they better get on and do something to earn it.

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  • The tories said before the general election
    that they would not interfere with council tenants
    and would not diminish security of tenure.......
    however , they have been attacking council tenants
    non stop ever since , and it seems they are
    carrying out these benefit cuts because New Labour
    started their 13 years in power with a £5 Billion
    raid on pension funds to pay for the "New Deal !!!

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  • Chris; and I agree that we are sleepwalking into disaster. I'm as guilty as the next person of venting my anger in comments sections and saying something must be done and not actually doing it myself. But then again I'm beginning to feel that any opposition is pointless. And that in itself is a dangerous place to be.

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  • Chris

    Suzieq11 - I would not be surprised if there are many who feel as we do, but if offered leadership would gladly add wait to any standing to oppose the extremism running our country.

    Some feel such a sentiment as extreme and baseless, but honestly, was there such division, such hatred directed at the poor, such appalling cuts in living standards for all but the rich 30 or so years ago. Labour has turned blue, and the Unions have forgotten why they were invented.

    It worries me because in such a vacuum leadership can come from any quarter, including some that history should warn us against.

    I am weary and worried.

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  • Joe Halewood


    Can I firstly ask you to listen again to the Steve Webb R4 debacle. He said HB pays for a million spare BEDROOMS and this isnt fair as we have 250,000 HOUSEHOLDS overcrowdws. My emphasis reveals his subtle sophistry - a bedroom and a household are not the same thing

    Secondly, Cameron has said the bedroom tax is FAIR and so has the rest of the cabinet. I and thousands of others say it is UNFAIR.

    However how can anyone say? Go to the DWPs purported 'Equality Impact Assessment' on the bedroom tax and re-read the final page (p21) which I did an hour ago. You will find the government admit no assessment of the impact on gender, ethnicity and disability has in fact been done; rather the government say they will monitor the impact during the first two years of the bedroom tax itself.

    Now that means NO IMPACT ASSESSMENT has been done.

    How can ANY government introduce ANY policy and NOT KNOW what the impacts of that policy are?

    Finally, Cameron in his bedroom tax is fair strategy at PMQs asked "Why should we be doing more for people in social housing on housing benefit than for people in private housing on housing benefit?’"

    In fact the reverse is true. We, the taxpayer spend £2.2bn per year more in Housing Benefit for private tenants than we do for the same number of social tenants. Briefly the HB figures show we pay £25.20pw more for private tenants and there are 1,653,860 private tenants in receipt of HB or LHA. Crunch the numbers and we pay from the public purse / taxpayer pocket £2.2bn more for the same amount of properties.

    Is that fair Mr Cameron? No. Does that show we do more for private tenants than for social tenants? Yes - Hence your fairness argument has been demolished in much the same way that Hilary Burkitt demolished the work 3 hours a week extra nonsense from Steve Webb.

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