Lord German writes… Monitoring the removal of the spare room subsidy

Like many people reading the front page of the Guardian this morning, I was worried by the headline on the pronouncements by the UN special rapporteur on the removal of the spare room subsidy. But it is important to look behind the headline to see that these comments were based on a very brief visit from this adviser, who did not have the time for a detailed discussion with the Department for Work and Pensions to understand the policy. If she had done she would have been able to understand that this policy brings the rules for the social housing sector into line with those which Labour already introduced for private rented accommodation. Perhaps then she may have recognised that the policy is designed to tackle long council waiting lists and help those families stuck in overcrowded one bedroom flats – to find somewhere decent to live.

Most importantly, the rapporteur ignored the achievements of the Lib Dems in the coalition in arguing for extra Discretionary Housing Payments to ensure vulnerable people do not have to face extra costs. Because everyone’s situation is so different it is right that we have given local councils control over how this funding is best spent. We have also successfully argued for exemptions for groups such as foster carers. Finally, we have ensured that local authorities in particular need, can bid for extra funding over the course of this year. I will also be making sure that the Coalition sticks to its promise of monitoring the impact of this policy carefully over the coming months.

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33 Comments

  • The bedroom tax ignores the fact that housing supply in many areas does not match the need. Not for the large houses for families that you always trumpet, but the one bedroom properties that are in such short supply in many places, such as here in the Highlands. To overcome that shortage the council has single people and couples that are entitled to a one bed property in two bed properties. In many instances there is no alternative accommodation in the area and so this is nothing but a bedroom tax for those people. It is a manifestly unfair tax levied on people who have no choice. Talk it up as much as you like but this is a disgusting attack on people at the poorer end of society living in housing provided to them by the state, and now being taxed because the state is failing to provide housing of the correct size where it is required. Your defending of this policy makes me sick.

  • Tony Greaves 12th Sep '13 - 4:50pm

    I do think that MNF protests too much. I was not worried by the Guardian story, I was delighted that the nonsense of this policy is being exposed yet again.

    Yes a lot of us are monitoring the position in our local area, and I can say that so far it is not good news.

    Fortunately the conference next week has the chance to express a strong view on the bedroom tax (who ever calls it the spare room subsidy except government apologists and who ever called it that before the new policy was implemented?)

    Why doesn’t Mike answer the criticisms made? For instance…

    “If she had done she would have been able to understand that this policy brings the rules for the social housing sector into line with those which Labour already introduced for private rented accommodation”. Not so. The new policy is retrospective affecting existing tenants with “nowhere to go”.

    “extra Discretionary Housing Payments to ensure vulnerable people do not have to face extra costs.” The DHPs are merely a temporary stop-gap for a few months to give people more time to get out. They are also at the arbitrary whim of bueaucrats with no proper right of appeal written into the system, hardly a Liberal arrangement.

    The policy is a disgrace and we should say so.

    Tony Greaves

  • I agree completely with Tony Greaves..
    Even if we ignore other failings of this policy, the simple fact that people lose money without suitable alternative accommodation being offered means it is a disgrace.
    Also, being as bad as Labour was not what we were offered at the last election….

  • David Allen 12th Sep '13 - 5:12pm

    “it is important to look behind the headline to see that these comments were based on a very brief visit from this adviser, who did not have the time for a detailed discussion with the Department for Work and Pensions to understand the policy.”

    Funny, nobody who disagrees with government policy ever does their basic homework….

  • Tony Greaves: ‘Fortunately the conference next week has the chance to express a strong view on the bedroom tax (who ever calls it the spare room subsidy except government apologists and who ever called it that before the new policy was implemented?)….. They are also at the arbitrary whim of bueaucrats with no proper right of appeal written into the system, hardly a Liberal arrangement…….The policy is a disgrace and we should say so.’

    It is so good to read Tony Greaves’ missives – proof that there are still Liberals in the LibDems – this tax is a terrible attack on the poor and vulnerable especially up here in Rotherham & South Yorkshire . So disappointing that the LibDems should give their support to this terrible piece of legislation – the Tories are so desperately out of touch with ordinary working people in this country who are suffering from their dreadful new social welfare laws and worse that the LibDems are either supporting them or trying to defend them – Jo Grimond now turning in his grave!!

  • The payments haven’t helped everyone who are having problems with the Bedroom Tax though have they ?

    Wales and Scotland, both thankfully under better governments than Westminster have had to put £20,000,000 they can ill afford towards sorting out the problem.

    In rural areas in Wales very few single bedroom properties exist.

    In Scotland a blind woman had to go to court over the Bedroom Tax.

    Why make some of the lowest income people and disadvantaged people in the country pay ”spare room subsidy’ ?
    It’s a diabolical policy and if Labour promise to scrap it then hopefully it’ll be a vote winner for them.
    It’s a shameful policy.

  • I know we need to balance the budget, but surely penalising everyone across the country who has a spare room isn’t right. A much more delicate and selective approach needs to be followed, not every town has enough specialised housing to cater for it’s diverse population. Instead of simply taxing them into oblivion, we should have whomever manages social housing find smaller houses for those who don’t need the larger houses they currently find themselves in. That way we can tackle the spare room problem AND have the poorest elements in society not penalised for countless governments housing incompetence.

  • I was annoyed watching that documentary, how to get a council house.

    A single man had previously been housed by his local council in.a 2 bedroom flat in a tower block. When the changes to the rules and the bedroom tax came in he had to seek alternative accommodation or face a reduction in his Housing Benefit.
    He was one of the fortunate ones that managed to successfully bid on a single bedroom flat.

    The 2 bedroom flat that he was forced to vacate, sat empty for weeks because, the council had a policy not to house children in tower blocks.
    Eventually however the flat was leased to a single gentleman in work who was not in receipt of any benefits and therefore obviously not subjected the bedroom tax.

    To me that seems like simple discrimination as far as I am concerned.

  • daft ha'p'orth 12th Sep '13 - 9:00pm

    ‘Spare room subsidy’, again. I know Cameron tried to push the term back in March or so but it did not catch on. Check for yourself: across UK domains there are 27 million uses of the term ‘bedroom tax’ against 92,000 uses of ‘spare room subsidy’. Even on libdemvoice Google finds 2,360 mentions of ‘bedroom tax’ against 62 mentions of ‘spare room subsidy’, despite the fact that the Lib Dems are generally credited with originating this bit of spin in the first place. Like it or lump it, it’s a bedroom tax now, so it may be time to stop flogging this particular dead horse.

    I am surprised by the good Lord’s view that the UN’s work is best done by asking the Department for Work and Pensions what to think, given that the government’s view is already well and extensively documented. I’m also a little surprised by the apparent belief that the UN gives a flying monkey’s about whether a policy is ‘in line with Labour’, what sort of noises the Lib Dems may or may not have been making, or any other other cherished party-political point. The intended result of a given policy is scarcely relevant when monitoring the effect of a legislative thalidomide: the question is what it does, not what it was supposed to achieve.

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th Sep '13 - 9:22pm

    daft ha’p’orth

    Like it or lump it, it’s a bedroom tax now, so it may be time to stop flogging this particular dead horse.

    Sorry, withdrawal of a subsidy is NOT a tax. Serious debate on these subjects is harmed by misleading wording. Remember the “granny tax”? This was actually a perfectly sensible reform, since the effect of withdrawing a special tax allowance for the elderly and using the budget space instead for all-round pension increases is surely better than having a tax allowance which means this support for the elderly applies only to those with enough income to pay tax. However, because it got called “granny tax”, what it actually was about got lost, and people felt it to be a terribly bad thing, I think some actually thought it was a special tax to be imposed on everyone who was a grandmother.

    It should be recalled that for everyone forced to vacate a social housing property which is bigger than their needs due to this withdrawal of rent subsidy, another family with MORE needs will be allocated the property. This factor has been missing in the debate – what about all those families in DESPERATE need of three and four bedroom properties who are told they will never get them because they hardly ever become available to re-let. Under these circumstances, I don’t find it quite so easy to be sympathetic to just a mother and a daughter hogging a four-bedroom council house (one of the examples given in the Guardian).

    However, quite obviously, the way it has been done is cruel and heartless, and typical of the way of thinking of the people at the top of this government – nearly all people who have lived lives of wealth and privilege and so just do not know what it is like if you don’t have the lack of worry that means. What SHOULD have been done is to have a planned programme to get people to move from properties who size is above their needs, treating them very generously for giving them up and making sure they did not have to move until alternative good quality smaller accommodation was available for them.

  • Agree with Nick, Tony, Kyle and Matthew Huntbach’s last paragraph.
    This has been handled as crude, populist, scrounger-bashing of the worst sort, and I’m sorry Mike German, but you should be ashamed of it, not agreeing to be wheeled out to support it.

  • Malcolm Todd 12th Sep '13 - 9:50pm

    Matthew

    I don’t think it’s true that the needs of overcrowded, poorly housed families have “been missing in the debate” — this is exactly the argument that the government have tried persistently to push. What makes it unconvincing is that (1) as matt points out above, forcing a single person out of a two-bedroom flat doesn’t really do anything to improve family accommodation; and (2) there is no connection between availability of smaller properties and penalising of those who are “over-housed”.
    You’re right about how it should have been done, however. In fact, I could even live with a more draconian version — where there is a penalty if someone refuses to move when a suitable alternative property has been found; but that’s a long way from what we’ve got.

  • Malcolm Todd 12th Sep '13 - 9:55pm

    Incidentally, I also objected to the term “bedroom tax” but I’m beginning to come round to it. It is, after all, a financial contribution demanded by the state from people based on their housing and household circumstances, and as such hardly distinguishable from, say, Council Tax. This is money that people have to hand over to the state out of their own resources. “Tax” may not be strictly accurate, but it’s not an outrageous word for it.

  • daft ha'p'orth 12th Sep '13 - 10:06pm

    @Matthew Huntbach
    You know the other threads on here about why young people can’t be bothered with politics? Stupid spin is one of those factors. Spin is always annoying, but outdated, ineffectual spin is profoundly irritating and counterproductive. The linguistic duel between these two terms has been fought and won by the bedroom taxers. If the wish is to gain control over the representation of the issue in the media, to counteract the effect of the bedroom tax meme as it were, then it is necessary to supersede it with something that catches on (which this one did not) and works better.

    We have established that ‘spare room subsidy’ is a dead horse, and so it should be; it’s clunky (‘removal of the spare room subsidy’, sheesh, that’s headline catnip all right), counterproductive (smells like Whitehall bovine excrement) and counterfactual in that there is no suggestion that the ‘spare room subsidy’ was previously a known, publicly itemised quantity. A cannier government would’ve itemised it for three years and then withdrawn it in a proportion of cases, but it seems this government has never heard the one about how to boil a frog.

    You are making a good case for the existence of alternative nomenclature that better describes the intent, so let’em coin it and use it. A cannier government could probably even now roll out a new, kind, compassionately achieved programme along the lines you describe and do very well out of publicising how, in response to justified criticism, they have been enlightened and are now better people.

  • what would have been a totally acceptable move would have been to require people to move to a more appropriate property as soon as one became available, or face the bedroom tax,but the same as any retrospective legislation this is both bad and wrong.

  • I am also sick and tired of Liberal Democrats saying that the removal of the “spare room subsidy” is the same as the Local Housing Allowance Rate which sets maximum rates for private tenants and that it is a way of freeing up under occupied rented property. I assume that those in social housing already pay rent below the LHAR and that is why it hasn’t been applied to the social housing sector.

    If the policy was to get people to move from houses that are too big for their needs then a bedroom tax that applies to all tenants would be fairer if it was only applied (to those in work and not in work) where there are smaller properties to move into and once there are no spare properties it is withdrawn in that area. However Matthew Huntbach’s suggestion for a planned programme to move people with carrots is a good idea.

    The “spare room subsidy” is just a way of cutting housing benefit payments.

    The idea that the discretionary payments is a solution also seems to be untrue if it is only a short-term solution and not a long-tern solution for those in special circumstances and where there is a lack of smaller properties.

    I hope that Lord German will not only read these comments but respond in a meaningful way.

  • Matthew Huntbach 13th Sep '13 - 1:45am

    daft ha’p’orth

    You know the other threads on here about why young people can’t be bothered with politics? Stupid spin is one of those factors. Spin is always annoying, but outdated, ineffectual spin is profoundly irritating and counterproductive. The linguistic duel between these two terms has been fought and won by the bedroom taxers.

    Sorry, why is using an accurate description of something “stupid spin”? Do you think I was saying this because I am the sort of person who would use “stupid spin” in favour of this government?

  • If the policy was about freeing up larger homes then pensioners would not have been excluded. Many single OAPs rattle around in 3-bed council homes they have lived in for years.

    For absolute clarity, I am not saying that OAPs should be forced out of their family homes but if the plan was really all about freeing up properties, they would have been included.

    As for LibDem support, what would you have said if you had been in opposition ? I would bet that you would have been up in arms about it – rather like the support for secret courts & the gagging bill.

  • Is the bedroom tax likely to be on Conference agenda? If not, why not? Seems we know what LDs will vote for!

  • Once again, an article in LDV where the above the line offering is disgraceful, and the BTL comments rather more sensible.

    Jesus people – what’s it actually going to take for you guys to get rid of people like German, Laws, Clegg and Alexander from your once fine party?

  • Can we start with minimum requirements for a home, whether that is for a single person/couple or a family, understanding that and having that as a reference point is the starting point, forget the bedrooms, what is reasonable space.
    Kitchen/ dining room, bathroom and toilet, bedroom, sitting/main room, garden?

    Then look at space for each area, what is acceptable for the health and wellbeing of human beings who are going to spend a potential of half their life in such a property, is there a difference to what a single person may need to that of a couple, will there be allowances for visitors.
    Once you have decided what the minimum space should be then, it is a matter of one level or two that will determine space for bedrooms, flats are not suitable for children health and well being etc.

    Would we be happy housing our population in rabbit hutches or the equivalent of a prison cell with all the problems that will bring or do we want decent minimum standards, until the politicians ask the people all that is going to happen is a build up of bad feeling until it explodes, that is the real issue.

  • Matthew, you will remember that the Poll Tax was “officially” called the “Community Charge”. I think you are getting a little precious again about what is and is not a Tax! Taxes take money off people and the whole point should be whether a tax is “fair” or “unfair”. Our definition of that, within your compass, of radical liberals, is that it should be generally affordable, but, especially, it should be progressive, ie not confer a further disadvantage on those less well off. On that definition, both the Poll Tax and the Bedroom Tax were not progressive. We all know that the very idea that something is a Tax makes it instinctively unpopular, so you are bound to get many cases where the term is applied to measures that are not strictly “taxes”. So your fire should be, if you wish to defend this measure, that it is in some way fair. I thought most of us in the party agreed that bringing rents down by pressure on landlords, or outright rent control, or building more housing of necessary size, is more effective and fair than targeting people who are poor, often ill or disabled. This is a horrendous measure, and should have been killed at birth by alert Liberal Democrats.

  • What would be the point in voicing against the bedroom tax at conference,? Didn’t the Lib Dems vote against the NHS privatisation at conference last year, the leaders ignored them. Then they all fell in line.

  • “As for LibDem support, what would you have said if you had been in opposition ? I would bet that you would have been up in arms about it – rather like the support for secret courts & the gagging bill.”

    Perhaps it’s a little unfair to suggest there would have been knee-jerk opposition to these measures.

    I’m sure under Nick Clegg’s leadership, a careful calculation would have been made first – of whether opposition would gain the party a few votes.

  • I want simply to add support for what Tony Greaves said above. The policy is a disgrace.
    Before last Christmas, I heard about 6 named individuals aged 30 to 40 who have been made homeless as a direct result of that and other changes to housing benefit. Anecdotal evidence, but now clearly widespread around the country and in any case an indication that from a liberal point of view the policy is wrong. How can we say in the light of this that we are “enabling everyone to get on in life” ?

  • Andrew Noblet 13th Sep '13 - 11:10am

    Thank goodness Tony Greaves clearly expresses his views and has so many, including me, agreeing with him.

  • Martin Caffrey 13th Sep '13 - 1:03pm

    When are the government going to publish the results of the, ahem, ‘spare room subsidy’?

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Sep '13 - 1:01am

    Tim13

    Matthew, you will remember that the Poll Tax was “officially” called the “Community Charge”. I think you are getting a little precious again about what is and is not a Tax! Taxes take money off people and the whole point should be whether a tax is “fair” or “unfair”.

    Sorry, withdrawing a subsidy from someone is not a tax. That is regardless of whether it is fair or unfair. It is regardless of whether I wish to defend or not to defend this withdrawal of subsidy. You seem to be saying that I should accept a misuse of language because it helps bring down a bad policy, or that my non-acceptance of the misuse of language must be because I support this policy. Neither is true. I simply object to the misuse of language, whether that misuse favours or disfavours my position is irrelevant. daft ha’p’orth accused me of supporting silly spin, but this is the opposite. I’m objecting to this spin of using the word “tax” wrongly because it is felt this will help bring down this policy.

    It is ALWAYS wrong to use language incorrectly in order to further an opinion. ALWAYS wrong. That is regardless of whether the opinion is a good one or a bad one.

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Sep '13 - 1:18am

    The situation here is that people who cannot afford to pay their rent are given a government subsidy to pay for it. There are some people who, for historical reasons, are living in property which has more rooms than they need. Currently they are still subsidised for this, but only if the property is social housing i.e. let out for the specific reason of proving housing at cost-price only. The question is whether this subsidy should be reduced to cover only the cost of rent for such a property which does not have more rooms than their need. I think it very much helps to get across a correct understanding of the issue here if we do use the correct terminology i.e. we are talking about a subsidy, not a tax.

    I think it clear that people who have been living long-term in a property would have emotional and social links to it, and therefore we should not force them out by withdrawing the subsidy that enables the to stay there. Even more so, we should not force them out if there is nowhere they can easily move to. However, measures to reward them if they agree to leave, thereby enabling the property to be let out to people in MORE need of it, should be considered. Such measures might include building very nice smaller accommodation for them to move to, and agreeing that as a reward for their kindness in agreeing to move out, they will be allowed to pay a lower rent for it than others in similar property.

  • daft ha'p'orth 14th Sep '13 - 3:53am

    @Matthew Huntbach
    “daft ha’p’orth accused me of supporting silly spin”
    I called it silly, yes. I make no apology for taking the view that poorly executed propaganda is ‘silly’. For the rest, you accused yourself.

    “It is ALWAYS wrong to use language incorrectly in order to further an opinion. ALWAYS wrong.”
    Yes indeed. And that is why it is wrong for the Lib Dems to invent the expression ‘spare room subsidy’ and then for Lib Dems to proclaim, as you do, that it has canonical status. I base this on the points below:

    First: ‘Spare room subsidy’ made its first appearance in late Feb 2013. Until early 2013 the government referred to an ‘underoccupation penalty’. ‘Bedroom tax’ has been kicking around since 2011 or so in its current form, when Lord Best coined it in reaction to discussion of ‘underoccupation penalties’, according to Hansard.

    Second: much of the situation regarding ‘underoccupation’ appears in the past to have suffered from lack of definition. I can find no evidence to suggest that historically those in this situation received any explicitly identified ‘spare bedroom subsidy’, ‘spare toilet subsidy’ or ‘spare coathook subsidy’. You may of course argue that a subsidy was implicitly provided, but why would that be canonically referred to as a ‘spare bedroom subsidy’, instead of a ‘compassionate fund’, a ‘community coherence allowance’ or a ‘council laziness payout’? In any case, as no explicitly named quantified subsidy appears to have been committed to paper, post-hoc attempts to clarify the intent behind the subsidy (as provision of ‘spare bedroom’) are merely guesswork.

    Reading around suggests that councils tended to request, either with incentives or demands, that inhabitants of underoccupied properties move, but there does not seem to have been any consistently applied policy. I find no evidence that the provision of a ‘spare bedroom subsidy’ was the cause of any decisions to permit underoccupation to continue. In many cases the arguments accepted by the council related to compassion (e.g. your kids grew up in this house, your husband/wife died here) or to community membership (you have long-term involvement with the area, you’re a pillar of the community) .

    Conclusion based on the above: unless you are able to demonstrate otherwise (a series of itemised statements from 2010 containing the phrase and an associated £ value would be a good start), ‘spare bedroom subsidy’ is nothing more than a recently coined governmental shibboleth. Unless you can demonstrate otherwise, ‘removal of the spare room subsidy’ is no more canonical as a representation of this activity than, say, ‘removal of the community coherence allowance’.

    I don’t care either way about the word ‘tax’, partly because I don’t really see the distinction but mostly because I am suggesting ceasing to use the damaging expression ‘spare room subsidy’, not pushing for the use of ‘bedroom tax’. There is a good argument for the use of the politically neutral term ‘underoccupation penalty’, since the concept of underoccupation of council properties is documented far prior to 2011 and it is a fairly factual description. However, claiming that this move constitutes the withdrawal of an existing, named subsidy is worse than silly: it’s severely counterfactual.

  • Spare room subsidy’ for the poor with one hand and HTB1 for the better off, with the other hand

    What perception will the poor make form that do you think?

  • very well put daft ha’p’orth

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