The “bedroom tax” which is not actually a tax, but a cut in Housing Benefit if a tenant in social housing has more bedrooms than they are deemed to need, has caused much anxiety and disquiet in recent weeks. Its introduction in April means that tenants in social housing will need to find around £60 a month on already hard-pressed budgets. If they are unable to pay the extra, then they face eviction. Even ifsocial landlords decide not to evict and merely to pursue rent arrears, the stress of that debt and its impact on a family’s ability to keep fed and warm is potentially devastating.
The rules are inflexible. People with disabilities who need to sleep separately from their partners, or who need extra space for equipment, will be penalised by this measure. Much has been written about their plight. There is another group of people who will be badly affected, though. Separated or divorced parents who keep an extra bedroom for their children to sleep in will have to find the extra rent or move. This latter point appears inconsistent with another law that the Government is passing at the moment, the Children and Families Bill which applies to England and Wales. At the heart of its family justice provision is a presumption of shared parenting, the idea that both parents should be involved in children’s lives unless there is a very good reason for this not to happen. This surely has to include the ability to house children overnight.
There is a strong argument that these changes should be abandoned, or at the very least phased in with much greater flexibility, because there are simply not enough smaller properties in the social housing sector for people to move into. If they went across to the private sector, rents are likely to be pushed up if more people chase a similar supply of smaller properties. In any event, a lot of the new build one bedroom properties which have been so popular as buy to let options are out of the reach of someone on Housing Benefit. Because of earlier cuts, they can only get all of their rent paid if they take properties in lowest 30% of rent in the area. I do wonder, though, if there’s another way to mitigate the effects of this “bedroom tax” by more judicious use of the social housing stock?
There are a fair proportion of tenants who rent from social landlords who are in properties which are too big for them. At the same time, there are many families in accommodation that’s way too small for them. When I worked as an MP’s caseworker, nobody ever came to us to complain that their house was too big. However, several families every week would come and tell us that they had four children in a two bedroomed flat, for example. My question is whether social landlords have looked at over-occupancy as well as under-occupancy and could they do more to encourage and incentivise house swaps? That way, the older couple in a 3 bedroomed house can downsize while the overcrowded family can have the space they need. This doesn’t seek to justify the “bedroom tax” but is about mitigating its effects while also making sure that our social housing is meeting as many people’s needs as possible.
People who rent in the private sector often have to move at a couple of months’ notice if, for example, the landlord decides to sell the property. Once you get a council house, it’s yours for as long as you want it. Is there not at least an argument that when you sign up to a tenancy from a social landlord, you should be willing to move within a reasonable distance if the number of people you live with changes?
I would argue that the “Bedroom Tax” in its current form is too flawed. It needs reconsideration and its implementation should be delayed. A much more flexible approach to disabled people and separated parents is needed as a minimum. Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie has, as I said on my own blog the other week, been collecting evidence and is working with Liberal Democrat ministers in the UK Coalition to try to have some of the key issues addressed. Let’s hope that they listen to him.
* Caron Lindsay is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings