THE BEDROOM TAX – IS IT FAIR?
Mention the words “bedroom tax” in conversation and the responses range from firsthand accounts of people being evicted from their homes to newly bereaved pensioners faced with the prospect of losing their homes because they can’t afford the rent. You can’t fail to have heard horror stories of desperate pensioners such as Stephanie Bottrill feeling suicide to be the only way out (DAILY MAIL, 2013) or a middle aged man “sick of all this shit...” slitting his throat in a benefit advice office. (DAILY MAIL JULY 2013) Is it fair to persecute the most vulnerable members of society? That all depends on how you define fair.
The bedroom tax, or under-occupancy charge as the government prefers it to be known, was designed to bring tenants in receipt of Housing Benefit (HB) in social housing into line with those living in private rented accommodation. From 1 April 2013, if you are a social housing tenant of working age receiving HB, and renting a home with more bedrooms than you need, your HB is reduced by 14% for one “spare” bedroom and 25% for two or more. (NORTHUMBERLAND COUNTY COUNCIL, 2013) The power to reduce HB in this way is contained in the Welfare Reform Act 2012 - quite possibly one of the most unpopular and controversial pieces of legislation introduced by the Conservative led coalition government.
It should be noted that the regulations do not define what a bedroom is, nor its size. Rumours abounded on various social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter that rooms under 70 square feet didn’t constitute a bedroom but this was a misconception based on an incorrect interpretation of overcrowding under the HOUSING ACT 1985.
The government says the bedroom tax is all about fairness; the aims of the welfare reforms being to reduce HB expenditure, encourage the unemployed to find work, and make better use of social housing stock. (CHANNEL 4 NEWS, 2013) Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions on 30 January 2013, David Cameron said "we are now spending as a country £23bn on housing benefit and we have to get that budget under control." (HANSARD, 2013)
The Government states the bedroom tax will reduce the welfare bill by £465m a year although research carried out by Professor Rebecca Tunstall, Director at the Centre of Housing Policy University of York suggests this figure to be “exaggerated” and based on a “flawed” DWP model for calculating savings. Unsurprisingly, this figure is also hotly disputed by Rachel Reeves, Shadow Secretary for Work and Pensions who said “This research is another nail in the coffin for David Cameron’s crumbling case for the bedroom tax. Labour has repeatedly warned it could end up costing more than it saves.” (THE INDEPENDENT, 2013)
What is fair about forcing older people from homes where they have lived and raised a family for decades because their children may have flown the nest? Is it fair to reduce the benefits of a disabled person who is unable to find a smaller home...