The Bedroom Tax: A perfectly mad system?

housesSharing a room with her four year old disabled son, Brenda (not her real name), a single mother from Ladywood, is just one among the 37,000 households in Birmingham living in congested conditions, making the West Midlands accountable for almost half of families living in overcrowded accommodation across the country.

Images from http://www.taxfix.co.uk

With an increasing demand for properties, combined with an acute shortage of social housing, the idea of taxing council tenants who maintain a spare room seems reasonable, but a closer investigation into the matter reveals that this taxation may be affecting societies most vulnerable whilst only adding to a worsening housing situation. John Cotton, Labour councillor and cabinet member for social cohesion and equalities in Birmingham regarded the policy as “flawed” when expressing his concerns with the new welfare reform and the repercussions it will have upon social housing tenants in Birmingham.

 “This has been foisted on us by the central government who clearly do not understand the full implications of their own policies.”

What is the Bedroom Tax?

The under occupancy sanction, more commonly known as the Bedroom Tax, takes effect on April 1st 2013, as part of a larger reform of the traditional benefit system. The policy is an attempt by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to encourage households to downsize if they have spare rooms, freeing up properties for larger families. This will see social housing tenants pay the price for maintaining a spare bedroom. However, what is deemed as a spare bedroom has become a controversial issue for many tenants and a talking point surrounding the policy, as many believe the guidelines to be unfair and dismissive towards certain groups within society.

With 10,000 council tenants estimated to be affected in Birmingham and a further 5,000 tenants from registered landlords, the West Midlands will make up 9% of Great Britain’s affected claimants. Taking into account carers, children, spouses etc. it is estimated that around 60,000 people will be affected in total.

The government have highlighted the terms and conditions of the sharing requirements which gives disabled tenants needing a non-resident overnight carer to be allocated the rights to an extra room, whilst children under the age of 16 of the same gender and children under 10 years of age, regardless of gender  are expected to share. This means that those not complying with the new guidelines may be unknowingly maintaining a spare bedroom – a spare room needed by individuals such as Brenda; but what about those who are in need of that extra bedroom but are no longer entitled?

One woman who is finding coming to terms with the policy difficult is a 59 year old scoliosis sufferer who after living under social housing within Birmingham for the past 31 years feels devastated to locate from her once family home.

 “This is my home, my safe place. Words cannot express how upset I am and how this decision is affecting my illnesses.”

The affect on foster carers

UK charity, The Fostering Network, have revealed the strain the Bedroom Tax is placing on foster carers as the policy originally failed to acknowledge the occupation of a room for a foster child, leaving carers vulnerable to the ‘spare’ bedroom tax.

A spokesperson for The Fostering Network appeared extremely concerned about the implications of the upcoming policy,

“These changes are causing some foster carers considerable anxiety and to wonder if they will be able to continue to foster.”

According to Birmingham City Council approximately 2,000 children are in care within the city with 60% in foster care, housed across a number of in-house homes and private sector accommodation.

Emma, a Birmingham based foster carer said,

“My local authority required me to have a ‘spare room’ before I could even be considered for fostering. Now that very same authority wants to penalise me for having a ‘spare room’, even though it is not spare as there is a child in it! To me this makes no sense and is in fact very unjust.”

However, work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, has recently announced that approved foster carers will now be exempt from the policy, a policy which once classed foster carers liable to the housing benefit taxation. As part of an introduction of new regulations surrounding the policy, Mr Duncan Smith aims to support “priority groups” giving concessions both to foster families and armed forces. Although little or no consideration is still been given to many other individual in particular, separated families.

Foster families were not the only group estimated to be affected by the policy, with little or no consideration originally being given to individual cases and exceptional circumstances of separated families, armed forces and the disabled.

Local housing authority statistics suggest that 1 in 5 council tenants work full time and it will be this demographic who will be most affected  by the Bedroom Tax in the UK as over 22% of council tenants are looking for work whilst more than 20% of council tenants in the UK have a full time job.

The estimated impact of the policy has become a cause for concern among many registered charities, MP’s, Councillors and campaign groups who have hit against the policy, with Birmingham Councillor John Cotton stating,

“This is exactly what happens when government makes policy to chase headlines, rather than to deal with the actual issue…they are avoiding the thorny issues around welfare reform.”

 David Barrie, Conservative Councillor for Social Cohesion and Community Safety in Birmingham, believes the Bedroom Tax is in the interests of the tax payer,

 “As a hard working tax payer would you be happy to pay for someone else to live in expensive housing that you could not afford?”

The affect on the housing situation

Despite affecting a large proportion of society and causing distress to many, whether the implementation of the taxation will actually improve the social housing shortage within Birmingham is questionable. George Marshall, a research systems officer at the National Housing Federation, feels the housing crisis will make downsizing due to the taxation an issue for tenants as the need for two bedroom houses and single person flats increases while there is limited stock available, and this shortfall is unlikely to be met by the private sector as there is clear evidence where that private landlords are reluctant to take tenants from the social housing sector.

A spokesperson from Andrews in Great Barr said:

“We don’t accept people receiving housing benefits. It’s our policy because the DSS department will only correspond with the tenant, not the landlord or letting agency meaning that if the tenant forgets to pay, we have no way of gaining access to the money.”

According to the National Housing Federation’s 2012 Home Truths report, there is an urgent need for the construction of new build houses within the West Midlands. With 16, 629 people currently on the housing waiting list, Birmingham maintains the second largest housing waiting list within the West Midlands, an issue which both John Pierce, campaign officer at the National Housing Federation, and Councillor John Cotton, feel needs addressing in order to boost the economy whilst solving issues of homelessness and overcrowding within the city.

In their housing strategy published in November 2011 both Nick Clegg and David Cameron outlined the importance of building quality new homes to support future generations,

“One of the most important things each generation can do for the next is to build high quality homes that will stand the test of time.”

However, David Orr, Chief Executive of the National Housing Federation, recently identified that although 390,000 new houses were built in the UK in 2011 only 110,000 were built in 2012, a decrease which David Orr finds distressing,

“One of the biggest constraints on growth is when businesses can’t expand because there are no homes for the people they want to employ.”

In an attempt to handle the housing crisis and frame a response to welfare reform in Birmingham, partnerships and campaigns such as ‘Yes to Homes’ and ‘WMBUS have been established within the region.  Yes to Homes, aims to create more land for house building and therefore more homes for the people who are suffering from overcrowded conditions. The campaign recently found available land in Birmingham equivalent to two cities the size of Wolverhampton.

John Pierce, the Campaigns Officer for ‘Yes to Homes’ feels the project will be a more suitable solution than the enforcement of the Bedroom Tax,

“The answer is not to force families out of homes, where they have lived for years…but to build more affordable decent homes quickly.”

Mike Sharpe, Labour councillor and chairman of Birmingham’s planning committee, recently praised a developer on his plans to build eight new homes and six new workshops in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter which offers six, four bedroom houses and two, two bedroom apartments. These smaller sized properties are what is needed to boost the economy and to solve the housing crisis; however, this is still a small proportion of a larger housing scheme which needs to take place within the city.

Councillor John Cotton identifies that the lack of new builds is something that only funding from central government will solve,

“We know what the issue is, we know what the solution is, but we need the resources.”

With the City Council’s limited resources and a lack of funding to finance these new builds, it appears that the Bedroom Tax will only be adding to a worsening housing situation as Councillor John Cotton states,

“You couldn’t have designed a more perfectly mad system for dealing with this, it really is iniquitous.”

Birmingham’s reaction to the Bedroom Tax under the new welfare reforms have encouraged numerous protests within the city around the Council House to demonstrate people’s dissatisfaction with the policy.

Stuart Richardson, Treasurer for the Trade Union Council, gave a speech outside Birmingham’s Council House voicing his opposition to the proposed welfare cuts, referring to the policy as,

“A programme of starvation.”

The Socialists Workers’ Party, were also among the protests as Andrew Howard, a member from the party demonstrated that the Bedroom Tax would only increase issues within society.

“It is actually going to cost more money to implement than they’re actually going to save.”

However, Mr Tom, a representative of the campaign group ‘Birmingham against the cuts’ felt the policy was unfair.

“The Bedroom Tax is not feasible for the poor, unemployed and disabled.”

The affect on the disabled

According to UK charity Scope, out of the 660,000 people estimated to be affected by the Bedroom Tax in Britain, 420,000 are disabled. Scope reveals this is due to individual cases with specialist needs who need a spare room for medical equipment or for when a carer stays, whilst some are simply too sick to move house and downsize.

Amisha Koria, Senior Media and PR Officer for Scope, expressed her concerns about the effects the Bedroom Tax will have on disabled people:

“Many families of disabled people tell us they are struggling to make ends meet. Multiple cuts to their benefits and services they rely upon have made things worse. Many have lost thousands of pounds in vital financial support.”

With the Department of Work and Pensions making concessions to the original policy, the disabled are being given increasing awareness within the policies exemptions due to  the press attention of individual cases. Richard Gorry father of five, appealed against the policy due to his concern about the discrimination the policy inflicted against the disabled as his two children were unable to share bedrooms due to their disabilities. Iain Duncan Smith has since gone on to highlight that those like Richard Gorry, whose children are severely disabled, will be exempt on loosing part of their housing benefit. 

The taxation on the spare bedroom relies upon the number of spare bedrooms and the price of the property rental, although according to the government’s impact assessment report the estimated average loss in benefits will be £14 a week.

With many unable to meet the financial demands of the taxation and with the limited housing stock availability to downsize, it is areas such as Ladywood that are most likely to feel the effects of the policy. Councillor John Cotton considers the Bedroom Tax to be “widening the gap of inequality” within the city effecting Birmingham’s most deprived areas as Birmingham City Council revealed that almost half of residents in Ladywood are either council tenants or live in a Housing Association. With only 29% of Ladywood council tenants using just one bedroom, a potential of 71% may be affected by the Bedroom Tax whilst ErdingtonNorthfield and Hodge Hill are also expected to be highly affected by the policy.

What’s being done?

In an attempt to support tenants and those estimated to be affected by the Bedroom Tax, Councillor John Cotton highlights the ways Birmingham City Council are attempting to handle the “consequences” of the policy. By setting up a multi-agency community with advice agencies, councils and housing associations, Councillor John Cotton attempts to frame a response to the welfare reform, where food banks, advice and support for social housing tenants can be accessed. Birmingham City Council also look to help tenants avoid the taxation by providing solutions to the policy through lodgers, downsizing and providing financial support with the help of  the Citizens’ Advice Bureau.

“We are trying to put all things we can in place to support tenants.”

The overall effect of the Bedroom Tax will only increase problems to society’s most vulnerable rather than solve and acknowledge the problem of overcrowding in the social housing sector. After recently receiving numerous letters of complaints surround the policy by registered charities, Iain Duncan Smith has ordered officials to look again at the policy and the implications it is causing upon society.

With recent concession made to the bedroom policy towards foster families, disabled and armed forces the enforcement of the policy clearly demonstrates the governments ill-thought out plans towards the policy. Whilst this review is progressing  Birmingham is doing its best to deal with the current situation and support those who will be affected by the Bedroom Tax with websites offering support and guidance.

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Bedroom Tax affects disabled persons

Living alone and suffering from Asperger, a 52 years disabled women residing in a three bedroom house at Birmingham has been affected by Bedroom tax. She has one son who is married and settled in life. Her husband has passed away six years ago and continues to live in the same house facing lots of problems.

She explains her difficulties that she faces in day today life:

“I am suffering from Asperger. It has a terrible Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). It takes me more than an hour to get out of my house. I am being helped by my friendly neighbour, whom i have known for the past 27 years, to reach the road from my house.

“Due to my weak health conditions, I could not make new trusted friends. I fear I will be housebound, if I could not get support of my friends.”

Being reminded of her husband, she says:

“I was with my husband for 30 years and felt terribly when I missed him 6 years back. I feel suicidal and need to have counseling and hypnosis. But my Asperger remains.

“My home is full of memories. I honestly don’t know how to cope up with the new financial constraints. I feel my husband around me all the time here. I don’t want to lose that.

“My late husband got the house as per our needs. He decked the garden and my son designed the drive way costing around 2,000 pounds. My house is not a council house to leave just like that.

“I can’t start again my life in another house/flat with decoration, carpet, and garden. And I am claustrophobic, so a flat would be out of question any way.”

Considering her family, she says:

“I have two wonderful grand kids who would like to stay overnight in my house. Due to my health problems, this shouldn’t affect the kids by not having rooms to stay over.”

The lady has approached the council and local AP expressing her problems and worries, whose response was that to stay and pay the taxes or move to a different place. According to her, The bedroom tax would cause destruction across the country.

Video: Interview with Councillor John Cotton

Councillor John Cotton from Birmingham City Council kindly gave an interview giving his opinion on the Bedroom Tax.

He raised his serious doubts and concerns with the Bedroom Tax and how it is an

“iniquitous and unfair measure that’s been brought in by the coalition government that’s going to have a terrible impact on a large number of vulnerable people”

 He repeatedly referred to the policy as a “blunt instrument” used by the government to “chase headlines” which he admitted it has, only they may not be the headlines they desired. Below is the video.

After the interview John gave a final note, emphasizing the point that there are still a lot of people out there that do not know about or understand the Bedroom Tax and that awareness is key, finishing on that anyone wishing to know more about the Bedroom Tax can visit the councils dedicated web page.

Welfare secretary Iain Duncan orders officials to ‘look again’ at The Bedroom Tax

Mr. Duncan Smith  has asked for officials to look over The Bedroom Tax after finding out the extent on who will be affected.

He notified the public’s anger towards the tax after receiving an open letter written to himself and Chancellor George Osborne from seven different charities these were:  Carers UK, MS Society, Mencap, Macmillan Cancer Support, Disability Rights UK, Carers Trust and Contact a Family.

Helena Herklot, the Chief Executive of Carers UK explained how the extra bedroom that families currently have, are essential.

The government aimed to protect The Bedroom Tax by creating the ‘discretionary payment’ however this will only be protecting 10% of disabled occupants.

Libby Drake who will also be affected by the tax, states

“Taking money from those most in need is not the way forward, although it will certainly rat out those who cheat the system (those that do manage to pay and still live comfortably) those who genuinely need the help like the sick and disabled will be massively effected in a negative way.”

If a solution is found before April then The Bedroom Tax may not affect as many people to the extent it will be now. According to the governments ‘size criteria’ family members will be accessed on whether all of their rooms are necessary or whether they will be charged.

Lack of smaller properties will push people to private housing

The Bedroom Tax proposed by the government is “a further attack on our social security system and affordable housing” says Tom, a member of Birmingham Against the Cuts. The group, formed in 2010, has been opposing various cuts and austerity measures introduced by the government.

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He says:

“It is another ill-thought-through move on the part of the Tory coalition, with so many exceptional circumstances that make this benefit cut unfair and unworkable.

“When the rooms that foster children sleep in and the rooms separated parents keep for visiting children are considered spare, it is clear that this charge will penalize people who are not under-occupying.”

He also opposes the idea of charging disabled people to live in housing that has been specially adapted to their need.

Birmingham Against The Cuts is a group formed of trade unions, service groups, user groups and campaign groups in Birmingham to oppose the cuts being made by the conservative/liberal democrat coalitions both nationally and locally.

Tom says:

“If there were enough smaller properties available then getting people to move from larger properties they don’t need any more makes sense.

“But this should be done through financial encouragement to move and not by forcing people to move out of the communities they have lived and worked in for decades.

“Forcing people to move from social housing to more expensive private rentals to escape the bedroom tax will see the housing benefit bill rise, not fall.”

64% of people affected by Bedroom Tax are disabled

UK charity, Scope, say that out of the estimated 660,000 people to be affected by the Bedroom Tax, an astonishing 420,000 are disabled. The disability charity appear extremely shocked and dis-heartened by the upcoming policy change.

Scope pledge that:

“Disabled people and their families can have the same opportunities as everyone else.”

But the disabled make up more than the majority of people affected by the Bedroom Tax. This proportion is so high because of their specialist needs. Individuals with severe health problems may need a spare room for medical equipment. Other disabled people require an extra bedroom for when a carer stays. Some are simply too sick to move house and downsize.

After 50 years of helping the disabled, Scope appear very passionate about benefit cuts to vulnerable people:

“Many families of disabled people tell us they are struggling to make ends meet. Multiple cuts to their benefits and services they rely upon have made things worse. Many have lost thousands of pounds in vital financial support.”

Amisha Koria, Senior Media and PR Officer for Scope, expressed her concerns about the effects Bedroom Tax will have on disabled people:

“They will have to consider moving, which is challenging because of the lack of accessible housing, or look to see how they can meet the shortfall in their income.”

As the Bedroom Tax will not come into power until April 2013, the effects this will have on disabled people has not yet been witnessed. However, Ms Koria believes the impact will be devastating and a struggle for the disabled:

“As disabled people are being hit by so many changes to welfare support, the impact on finances after April will be significant.”