Cover Story: Guilty As Charged?

With malice aforethought: the makings of a political crime

The bedroom tax doesn’t have to make sense, not even to its creators, because when all is said and done it’s a policy designed to punish people for a politically manufactured crime

By Mark Cantrell

From Housing Magazine, December 2013/January 2014

WHEN you stop to think about it, there is something actually quite ominous about a minister of state who simply decides one day that thousands of hitherto law-abiding citizens are guilty of wrongdoing – and so duly punishes them. That, in essence, is the bedroom tax.

Some might protest that’s a gross over-simplification, and they’d have a point, but it’s no gross caricature. Iain Duncan Smith did not invoke the bedroom tax into existence by decree alone, after all; no, the legislative process was required to enact the measure as part of the Welfare Reform Act 2012. Nonetheless, the bedroom tax remains a draconian and autocratic device.

To emphasise the point, recall that it has been expressly designed to target a very specific segment of the UK population, and that its criteria of judgement was deliberately placed backwards in time. With the flourish of a Royal Assent, many thousands of people woke up one April morning to suddenly discover they were, well, crooks. Unfortunately, it wasn’t an April Fool joke, but deadly serious.

Talk about shifting the goalposts. David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation (NHF), certainly did so in a blog he wrote to mark the first six months of this “nasty, pernicious, and economically disastrous” policy. He introduced the fictional family – mischievously named the Freuds – who through no fault of their own had found themselves subject to Government retribution.

“Without any consultation, Iain Duncan Smith and the DWP decided that any family like the Freuds, with two children under 16 of the same sex, or a boy and a girl under 10, had become a public enemy, under-occupying [their three-bed home] and subject to a penalty if they are claiming housing benefit,” he wrote. “Just to be completely clear, this is a family that signed a tenancy contract in good faith, in accordance with Government rules, now being penalised purely because the Government changed the rules. That, in a nutshell, is the bedroom tax.”

The kernel, however, is another matter; it has a bitter taste to say the least.

Ministers tend to take umbrage at the use of the term ‘bedroom tax’, but the terminology they prefer reveals a distinct lack of clarity in their minds as to its precise nature and purpose. Indeed, it’s all rather ‘Jekyll and Hyde’. At times, they go for the ‘disinterested administrator’ – that’s the removal of a “spare room subsidy” – at others government chooses to present the face of a ‘stern enforcer’, with its hardline talk of an “under-occupation penalty”.

This confusion of terms, along with that insidious (not to mention invidious) shift in the position of the goalposts, does nothing other than reveal the toxic flavour of the nut. The whole thing stinks of politics, but the peculiar political signature doesn’t end there.

More telling is the Government’s ongoing refusal to listen. Before the bedroom tax went live earlier this year, housing sector bodies were expressing their concerns about the impact of the policy. Sure enough, ministers pressed on regardless. Since then, the sector has presented hard evidence about the devastating consequences of the penalty; suffice to say, it’s been ignored. Meanwhile, the bedroom tax has taken its toll.

By November, 523,000 households had been hit with the penalty, losing on average at least £14.50 a week from their housing benefit, according to DWP figures. A lack of suitable smaller properties means that the vast majority are stuck; they face an impossible choice – eat or heat or pay the rent. Many are falling into arrears – paving the way for eviction further down the line.

The impact of the bedroom tax is proving a double whammy for social landlords, hitting their rental income courtesy of arrears, but also increasing their costs, whether that’s from legal bills around evictions, or outlay on projects and schemes to help mitigate the impact of this punitive housing benefit cut. In turn, this loss of financial capacity threatens their ability to invest in the delivery of new homes.

Perversely, social landlords are also reporting difficulties in letting out two- and three-bedroom homes; a policy allegedly intended to free up family sized homes is instead leaving them empty. You have to admit, that’s a nice touch; the bedroom tax is certainly an artful piece of work.

By its own proclaimed measures, the bedroom tax cannot succeed, but as a piece of malignant political machination, it’s clearly working a treat. If there’s any lingering doubt that underneath the mantra of “fairness” there lurks sinister ulterior motives, then consider the plight of the disabled.

For a supposedly exempted group, they are being hit particularly hard by the bedroom tax. A study by Habinteg Housing found that, as with other aspects of welfare reform, it was having a disproportionate impact; two thirds of its affected tenants had a disability.

Meanwhile, a consortium of over 50 disability charities – the Disability Benefits Consortium (DBC) – has written to Iain Duncan Smith to challenge Government claims that the disabled have nothing to fear: “We have been deeply frustrated at reports that disabled people and their families are protected from this policy. The stark evidence since the policy was implemented in April clearly shows they are not,” said the letter.

Among the signatories are the chief executives of Disability Rights UK, Carers UK, Scope, Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB), Child Poverty Action Group, the Terence Higgins Trust, and many more. Carers UK teamed up with 18 charities to write a follow up letter to the Prime Minister David Cameron, taking issue with his own claims in the House of Commons that the disabled are exempt.

“In that letter [to Duncan Smith], we expressed our frustration at repeated reports that ‘disabled people are exempt’. They are not,” the organisation said. “As we had warned, the Government’s discretionary fund of temporary support for disabled people is inadequate and completely inappropriate for those with long-term housing needs. Far from being exempt or protected, day after day we are seeing the evidence that disabled people and their families are amongst the hardest hit by this policy…

“You said on Wednesday [27 November] that this policy reflects a fundamental question of fairness. Surely, if disabled people, those with serious and terminal illnesses and carers caring for their loved ones need additional accommodation, they should not be told this space is ‘spare’ and forced to pay or apply again and again for insufficient, temporary support just to stay in their own homes.”

The sad truth is that the bedroom tax has nothing to do with “fairness”, nor is it concerned with promoting a more efficient use of social housing stock. The bedroom tax is a political device, with a political intent, and one that is demonstrably intended to be harmful to social landlords and their tenants. It is malignant of purpose in every respect.

You could consider it a form of political repression, but some might think that’s going too far; there is no escaping the conclusion, however, that the bedroom tax is a political punishment for a political crime, devised on a ministerial whim. And frankly, that is sinister.

# # #

Keeping score

North West
  • Almost 83,000 families hit by the bedroom tax in August
  • 66,839 families are under-occupying by one bedroom and 16,008 by two or more bedrooms
  • Region hit by an average reduction in housing benefit of £748 per year
  • Manchester hit hardest with 11,360 affected families, followed by Liverpool (10,705), and Salford (4,539)

  • More than 55,000 families were hit by the bedroom tax
  • 43,574 were deemed to be under-occupying by one bedroom and 11,552 were under-occupying by two or more
  • The average reduction in housing benefit was £1,052 per year
  • Lambeth was the borough hardest hit, with 4,308 families affected, followed by Southwark (4,080) and Hackney (3,664)

West Midlands
  • Over 52,000 families have been hit with the bedroom tax 42,975 families are deemed to be under-occupying by one bedroom and 9,032 by two or more
  • The average loss of benefit across the region amounts to £761 per year
  • Birmingham was hardest hit, with 12,449 families affected, followed by Sandwell (4,896) and Walsall (3,935)

Yorkshire & Humber
  • Nearly 51,000 families hit by the bedroom tax 42,029 families were under-occupying by one bedroom and 8,796 by two bedrooms or more
  • Average impact was a loss of £684 housing benefit per year
  • Leeds was the hardest hit (8,107) followed by Sheffield (6,217) and then Wakefield (5,294)

North East
  • Almost 39,000 families hit by the bedroom tax
  • 31,772 families were under-occupying by one bedroom and 6,773 by two or more bedrooms
  • On average, affected families are losing £687 per year
  • County Durham is the hardest hit (7,325), followed by Newcastle-upon-Tyne (5,668), and Sunderland (4,616)

South East (excluding London)
  • Almost 37,000 families were hit by the bedroom tax
  • 30,534 families were deemed to be under-occupying by one bedroom and 6,235 by two or more
  • The average cost to affected families was £905 per year Southampton was hit the hardest, with 1,772 families affected, followed by Portsmouth (1,696) and Milton Keynes (1,609)

East Midlands
  • Over 35,000 families were hit by the bedroom tax in August
  • 29,055 families were under-occupying by one bedroom and 6,010 by two bedrooms or more
  • Average cost to those affected was £718 per year
  • Nottingham was hit the hardest, with 5,288 families affected, followed by Leicester (3,402), and Derby (2,303)

East of England
  • Almost 34,000 families in this region were hit by the bedroom tax
  • 28,071 families were deemed to be under-occupying by one bedroom, while 5,551 by two bedrooms or more
  • Average reduction in benefit was £829 per year
  • Norwich was the hardest hit, with 2,908 affected families, followed by Basildon (1,630) and Peterborough (1,504)

South West
  • Over 27,000 families were hit by the bedroom tax
  • 22,976 were deemed to be under-occupying by one bedroom and 4,317 by two or more
  • The average cost to affected families was £782 per year
  • Bristol was the hardest hit, with 3,939 families affected, followed by Cornwall (2,826) and Wiltshire (2,670)
Source: National Housing Federation

This article first appeared in the December 2013/January 2014 print edition of Housing magazine. It was subsequently re-published on the Housing Excellence website, 31 March 2014. Main photo courtesy: Paul Bevan (creative commons)

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