Bedroom Tax review raises serious questions – abolition or serious reform is now essential

Bedroom tax demo , all the photos taken with a iphone 5In amidst the excitement of the Cabinet reshuffle, the Government slipped out its first interim review of what is technically called the “Removal of the Spare Room Subsidy”. That’s the “Bedroom Tax” to you and me. The conclusions are pretty damning:

At the time of the research, four out of five claimants affected by the RSRS were reported by landlords to be paying some or all of their shortfall, although half of these had failed to pay in full. There was widespread concern about the impact of potential future evictions on local services, and on landlord finances as well as on the lives of vulnerable people.

At the time of writing, few tenants have found work or taken in lodgers. However, demand for downsizing has been greater than anticipated, although, in many areas, this demand has thus far been difficult to meet. At the time of this research, there had been very few evictions solely due to the RSRS.

The evaluation will continue to monitor this situation and any resultant impact on landlords, local authority services or on the lives of claimants themselves, in its next round of fieldwork later in 2014.

59% of people have accumulated arrears as a result of the increase in their weekly rent payments. Even if their social landlord has a non-eviction policy for arrears due solely to the Bedroom Tax, these people are still in increased debt for which they will be pursued. 57% of people said that they had to cut back on household essentials to make up the shortfall.

Only 5% of people had been able to downsize. Others who wanted to simply couldn’t because there were no suitable properties.

It’s become much more difficult if you’re single and homeless to get a property:

Voluntary sector agencies working with the single homeless reported difficulties in hostel move-on to social housing because of the shortage of one bedroom homes and reluctance of landlords to allocate single people to two bedroom homes where they would be affected by the RSRS. Moving single people to private rented housing had also become more difficult lately because those aged under 35 were now limited to LHA to cover only a single room, rather than a one bedroom flat

The report does say that local authorities are now building more smaller homes, but we know that we need many more homes than are actually being built so that will be little more than a drop in the ocean.

So, the stated aim of the policy was to free up larger houses for families in overcrowded accommodation. It isn’t working. It’s also causing hardship on the way. There haven’t been very many evictions, 45 in total,  but that’s because that process takes several months.

The main contribution of the Liberal Democrats was to massively increase the amount of Discretionary Housing Payments available to help the most vulnerable people. However, that hasn’t been particularly effective:

Discretionary housing payments have undoubtedly helped to alleviate the difficulties of some of the most vulnerable tenants, though this funding is by its nature short term and offers tenants little certainty over their future. Local authorities have found it hard to predict the demands on this fund, and most have therefore been cautious in allocating it thus far. There remain concerns that many tenants are not aware of DHPs, or do not manage to supply the correct evidence to support their application. There is wide variation in practice between areas, as might be expected from the discretionary nature of the funding.

All of this was predictable. What should happen now, though, in the face of such a damning report. Should the Government:

a) Wait for a second report next year, racking up more misery and hardship in the process

b) Reform the policy to ensure that only those who refuse reasonable offers of downsizing are affected

c) Just recognise it’s not the right way to deal with the problem of overcrowding and get rid.

You would think, given such a damning report, that b) or c) would be the appropriate response. Sadly, this is not the case. We’re going with a). Another report will be published after the General Election. I don’t think that is a sufficient response and I hope that Liberal Democrats within Government will be pushing much more meaningful reform.

The motion passed unanimously at Autumn Conference last year is copied below. It already seems outdated and a little cautious. In Scotland, with the support of Liberal Democrats in the Scottish Parliament, the effects of the Bedroom Tax are being fully mitigated by the Scottish Government at some cost. We need to show our value in Government by tackling the suffering this measure causes in the rest of the country. If we don’t, the only thing we’ll see different in the next report is an increase in the number of  people made homeless – and we’ve already seen that single homeless people are being stuck in hostels for extended periods because of a lack of suitable temporary accommodation.  Someone has to call time on this spiral of misery.

Conference calls for further action by Government, including:

1. An immediate evaluation of the impact of the policy, establishing the extent to which larger homes are freed up, money saved, costs of implementation, the impact on vulnerable tenants, and the impact on the private rented sector.

2. A redrafting of clear housing needs guidelines in association with those representing vulnerable groups including the disabled, elderly and children that are responsive to local circumstances.

3. Acceptance that some Councils and Housing Associations have calculated rent by reference to bed spaces (not bedrooms) as some rooms can and should only house one person: this should be reflected in the DWP calculation of housing benefit.

4. A review of the amount allocated to Local Authorities for the Discretionary Housing Payment Fund and guidelines on the use of these funds and appeal processes.

5. The development of practical strategies to encourage pensioners to downsize where a single person or couple lives in a three or more bedroom home.

6. In the context of new guidelines an assessment of the current and future demand for social housing and the use of this at local level to facilitate planning to get the right homes in the right place.

7. Until any new guidelines are in place:

a) No withdrawal of housing benefit to those who are on the waiting list for social housing which fits the current guidelines within their local area.
b) No reduction in housing benefit from their projected housing need for those who, for a period of less than six months, temporarily have a smaller housing need due to a change in their circumstances, but whose need will predictably return to a higher level (e.g. whose children will pass the age limits for separate rooms within that period).

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 16th Jul '14 - 7:31pm

    You’re right, Caractacus. The report said that 57% were going without essentials and 35% on top of that were going without non-essentials to meet the payment. It may be reformable, but I’d be just as happy to see it binned.

  • Little Jackie Paper 16th Jul '14 - 7:37pm

    Well yes. But wouldn’t another alternative to be to find ways to severely reduce the amounts charged in rent across the board?

    Appreciate that will go down like a brick with those on the sweet end of the generational deal, but aren’t we really talking here about a problem with rents being too high rather than welfare being too low?

  • Eddie Sammon 16th Jul '14 - 7:43pm

    We need to restore a sense of fairness in housing policy. Why is cutting housing benefit seen to reduce the deficit, but cutting Help to Buy not? These are lethal arguments against voting Conservative and we should be using them.

    Just a passing comment.

  • stephen martin-hanle 16th Jul '14 - 8:16pm

    Bedroomtax really needs to go, most Councils are refusing DHP to disabled people who receive DLA. DLA was never intended to be assessed income as it was intended to meet the extra needs of disabled people in day to day lives.
    Also on a very serious issue Taintedblood Haemophiliac victims, who received contaminated blood through the NHS are being denied DHP by Councils due to the exgratia Government payments. These payments are meant to be exempt income. In the tainted blood disaster most of the haemophiliacs infected over 1,000 have died. Most were young children and fathers. It is a scandal that the remaining 310 very ill survivors are being put through this bedroom tax fiascal. Even more unjust that these people have never received compensation either for HIV and HEP C infections they got from american prisoners blood they recieved through the NHS. These victims should be immediately exempt from BEDROOMTAX. Lord Penrose enquiry is reporting soon in Scotland. It is meant to be a damning report. It would be nice if LIB Dems pushed for these people to be exempted.

  • Jonathan Pile 16th Jul '14 - 8:31pm

    Quite agree Caron, bedroom tax is the worst face of neo-Thatcherism.

  • Little Jackie Paper 16th Jul '14 - 8:52pm

    Linda Jack – With respect, and just to be clear here I do mean that. It IS a house, not a home. A tenancy is just that, no more no less. It is not the place of housing policy to pickle society in aspic.

    There are all sorts of problems here, the fundamental one being that rents are too high. Until we grapple with that problem then all of the issues you raise are going to come back time and again. Admittedly I don’t especially want to be the one to take it up with the BTL class.

  • Andrew Suffield 16th Jul '14 - 10:44pm

    Option (b) is obviously the right one – the policy “works”, in that the people who can downsize have done so, and that’s a good thing, we just need to fix it for the people who can’t – and that’s really easy to do.

    Annoyingly it looks like the political will isn’t there – I have no doubt that the Tories are simply unwilling to take further action until after the election.

  • Because of lack of suitable smaller properties (and despite being among the first local authorities to start building new social housing several years ago) Lib Dem led Stockport Council have done their best to “humanise” the policy. They will write off the arrears caused by this benefit change provided a tenant indicates a desire to downsize, applies for DHP and, if suitable properties do arise, takes one of two “reasonable” offers. Because their ALMO, Stockport Homes, has been collecting water rates from all tenants for over 5 years they are used to collecting small amounts from them and their level of arrears is tiny compared to elsewhere. Needless to say, no one has been evicted because of these arrears.

    All of that said, I really welcome the party at last realising that kicking the poorest is no answer to anything. House building is the answer, but Tories don’t want more social housing.

  • Hardly a new idea but not from LibDems it is UKIP idea

  • A Social Liberal 17th Jul '14 - 9:38am

    The policy does not work Andrew Suffield, because the policy was not that those who could move should. The policy was to force everyone in social housing with rooms they were not using , through pecuniary measures that those suffering it could not afford, to move out into smaller houses. It was not policy to force people into arrears and evictions – it’s just that this was a consequence of this immoral and illiberal law.

    Some of us had the foresight to see that it would happen – obviously those who forced MPs to vote in favour of the bill did not. It was wrong to bring this bill into law and for this and for other illiberal acts over the last four years there should be a recompense !

  • Politicians living in taxpayer funded second homes and numerous taxpayer subsidies to high officials governer of the bank of England royalty etc……
    Pensioners exempt etc……
    Sick disabled or unemployed no right to a secure home or a spare room lovely society we live in.
    We’d have more rights and security if tied cottages and workhouses were brought back.

  • and how many times has the libdems had the opportunity to vote against this policy isnt the new stance a little hypocritical
    abolish now people are starving and worse make as stand against this draconian policy buy unelected government now

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