The 'bedroom tax', or spare room subsidy, has been brought in to try and tackle the rising housing benefits bill and address the issue of overcrowding. The government believes this measure could save the taxpayer £465m per year.
However, research carried out by the National Housing Federation estimates that there are 180,000 households under occupying two bedroom social homes, yet only 85,000 one bedroom properties are available in a given year. This is before considering the 970,000 people on waiting lists for one bed properties.
This would mean that many people would need to move into considerably more expensive privately rented accommodation, with a one bed flat costing an average of £1,500 more per year than a two bed social housing property. The National Housing Federation suggests this could lead to an increase in benefit claims of £143m a year.
Two thirds of those affected by the bedroom tax are disabled people. The government has said that an extra £25m will be available in the form of Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP) to try and address this. However, this would only amount to £2.09 each per week going to those receiving DLA. This problem is compounded by recent research which suggests 3 in 10 disabled people who applied for DHP were turned down. The same research found that of those disabled people refused DHPs "nine out of ten are cutting back on food or bills, nearly four out of ten are cutting back on specialist mobility transport, and more than a quarter are cutting back on medical expenses such as medication, therapies and monitoring health conditions". What’s more, DHP by its very nature is discretionary and is a finite pot of money. No public official has been able to answer our concern about what would happen if the pot runs dry.
Research commissioned by Aspire found that twenty per cent of spinal cord injured people are being placed in care homes after leaving hospital due to a lack of accessible housing. This is problematic on several levels. Firstly, most newly spinal cord injured people are considerably younger than the majority of people that live in care homes. Secondly, the staff in care homes are not used to caring for people with spinal cord injuries and this can lead to health problem and complications. Thirdly, living in a care home often results in a lack of independent living. Under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities CRPD - to which the UK government is a signatory - independent living should be a human right for all disabled people.
Matt has a spinal cord injury and is just one of many people who have been affected by the bedroom tax. Matt had to live in a care home when he first left hospital, with a lack of accessible accommodation in his area leaving him little option but to put up with life in this totally unsuitable environment. After lengthy delays, the council provided him with a purpose built three-bedroom property, with a room for him, one for his live-in personal assistant, and one for his daughter who he has joint custody of. Since his daughter doesn’t live with Matt full time, her room is considered to be ‘under-occupied’ and Matt was told he would now have to pay an extra £668.20 a year. Matt would move to a smaller place, but that’s not possible; the time he spent in a care home was brought about because suitable properties do not exist. And moving back into a care home, a situation that robs people of their independence and would devastate the family relationship, is hardly viable. What makes this situation so perverse is that the council were the ones that provided this three-bedroom property in the first place, recognising that it was the only way to meet Matt’s needs.
Fortunately, this particular story has a happy ending. Matt’s mum, Sue, wasn’t prepared to accept the ruling and from the moment it first came up she has made a point of fighting the decision. Yesterday, she got a letter from the Local Government Ombudsman in response to her complaint, ruling in her favour and therefore ensuring that Matt isn’t liable for the extra payments. She’s delighted with the news, but knows it’s not actually the end of the fight:
“We applied for discretionary funding right from the start, and the council said no. So we appealed and they said no again. So we went to the Ombudsman. If you don’t challenge these decisions, they’ll get away with them. It’s so stupid as they know that to get Matt a two-bedroom place adapted will cost them far more than they’ll get from making him pay this extra amount. But for Matt to pay £12.85 would be a huge drain. We’re not done yet, we’ve still got to challenge the decision to hit him with extra council tax too, and we’ve been told that we’ll probably have to fight the bedroom-tax again next year. But for the time being it feels good. My advice to anyone in a similar decision would be to not just sit back and take it. I know it can be daunting to take the fight on, I know we shouldn’t have to do it, but you can’t let people get away with decisions that have such a big impact on people’s lives.”
So, here we have a policy that purports to be about a better use of public resources, but that was actually threatening to waste the resources that had been used to build Matt a property suitable for him as a disabled person and as a father. And a policy that research suggests is unworkable in any fair sense anyway. No one wants to see public money wasted, and having housing high up on the agenda is something we’re pleased to see. But until disabled people are not penalised – neither because they have specific needs requiring extra rooms, nor because suitable-sized accessible housing is not readily available – then we cannot support the implementation of the bedroom tax. Instead, we encourage everyone who has been unfairly treated to follow Sue’s advice and get those appeals and complaint letters in.
- Rosa Morris, Campaigns and Research