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New bill seeks to exempt domestic violence victims from 'evil' bedroom tax

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New bill seeks to exempt domestic violence victims from 'evil' bedroom tax

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Published by Jon Land for 24dash.com in Housing and also in Central Government, Local Government

New bill seeks to exempt domestic violence victims from 'evil' bedroom tax New bill seeks to exempt domestic violence victims from 'evil' bedroom tax

Victims of domestic violence living in social housing fitted with 'sanctuary rooms' should be exempt from paying the 'evil' bedroom tax, according to a former shadow housing minister.

Introducing the Safe and Sanctuary Rooms (Exemption from Under-Occupancy Penalty) Bill to parliament yesterday, Alison Seabeck (pictured), Labour MP for Plymouth Moor View, said the provision of safe rooms and safe houses can mean the difference between life and death but those at risk should not be penalised for their provision.

Seabeck told the commons: "The bedroom tax, spare room subsidy—call it what you will—has had a significant number of serious and unexpected consequences. The bill would remove the penalty placed on a victim of domestic violence who has in their property a safe or sanctuary room, or whose property has been adapted to make it secure.

"One in four women will have been a victim of domestic abuse. It accounts for 17% of all crime, and two women a week are killed by their partner or a former partner. Safe rooms or safe houses can mean the difference between life and death, yet under current legislation, many women, and indeed some men, cannot afford to remain in the home because it is viewed as having a spare room.

"If they cannot pay their rent, they will be evicted, and so these victims of abuse not only lose their home, with a safe space within it, but become more vulnerable to further abuse. We are not just talking about a room, but about a place of safety for victims and their children.

The Labour MP said there were 6,092 abuse incidents in Plymouth during 2012-13 and a further 7,451 in Cornwall but "this is only the tip of the iceberg".

"The reduction in support for refuges across the country as government cuts start to bite is further adding to the problem," she added. "Without access to a safe room, there may well be nowhere else for the victims to go. Those victims are deemed to be at high risk, for whom the option of a sanctuary scheme can be a lifesaver, quite literally.

"The numbers involved are small and so the spending commitment, when set against the cost of hospitalisation, police time and the need to take children into care, has a cost benefit attached to it. In introducing the bill, I have consulted social housing providers and support groups such as Women’s Aid.

"What are we actually talking about? We are talking about properties, which may have a room with reinforced doors, an alarm installed and other safety equipment. Or we could be talking about a situation whereby the property has been upgraded to ensure that the whole site is secure, but that property has an extra bedroom, which causes it to fall foul of current legislation.

"The family may well have moved into the house many years previously, perhaps with children of different sexes and therefore needing three bedrooms. The scenario is that the relationship degenerates into one where one partner is abusive and violent, and the house is made safe to protect the victims, but when one of the children leaves, the remaining partner — the victim — is technically under-occupying.

"Moving that person and her family into another property will, of course, require a new and smaller property to be upgraded to keep her safe. The costs involved here would be significant. Making a new property safe could involve, as I have already suggested, windows being laminated and reinforced, external doors being strengthened, fire retardant letter boxes, smoke detectors, fire alarms, window alarms and so on. While all those changes come at a considerable cost to the taxpayer, that still does not take account of the distress caused to the family and children involved.

"They live in a home where violence is an issue and periods of calm are needed. Expecting them to move out, possibly find a new school and build new friendships is hugely destabilising."

Seabeck pointed to the case of a woman called 'Julia' to highlight reasons for bringing the bill. She explained: "Julia is a survivor of domestic violence who suffered rape, physical assault and harassment at the hands of her partner. Julia and her 10-year-old son live in a three-bedroom house that has been specifically adapted to enable them to live there safely in the light of the risk posed by her abuser.

"A sanctuary system has been installed in their home, which contains all the things that I have described: reinforced doors and windows and alarms, as well as a room to which Julia can go for safety, with a direct hotline to her local police station. Those measures are necessary to enable Julia and her son to live safely in their home.

"Under the bedroom tax rules, Julia is only entitled to receive housing benefit for a two-bedroom house. She either has to pay the extra rent and go without essentials, or move to a smaller property. If she cannot pay the extra rent she faces eviction, and with very few two-bedroom council houses available, and none with the safety features that she needs, she faces a grave risk from her abuser, who has threatened to kill them both.

"We have to protect women like Julia. The cost of exempting safe rooms in Plymouth is minimal. Only 39 such rooms have been installed in Plymouth in the past three years, and of the new homes built in the city by Plymouth Community Homes, 13 have full sanctuary rooms available.

"I applaud Plymouth, Cornwall and indeed Swindon councils for taking a stand on this issue, as they have agreed to use discretionary housing payments to support women living in sanctuary scheme properties, but the money that they have is finite.

"Why should a victim of violence be treated differently in Plymouth, Peterborough, Poole or Preston? What they face at present is a postcode lottery, which could mean the difference between life and death.

Seabeck highlighted research by the Women’s Aid Federation which identified about 1,300 households in England in 2012-13 which were part of a sanctuary scheme.

"In the 80 authorities surveyed, only about 280 properties in total were affected by the bedroom tax, so the minister can see that the numbers are very small. The opposition want to see the abolition of this evil piece of legislation. I am sure the minister will disagree, but I hope that she will at least consider the addition of this small exemption that will better protect victims of abuse.

"We have an opportunity to put a safety net in place that will have a positive impact in cost terms but, more importantly, could ensure that a victim remains safe. I urge the house to support the measure."

Opposing the bill, Conservative MP Thérèse Coffey said: "I recognise the issue’s importance and the serious matters that the hon. member for Plymouth, Moor View raises. However, the point that I would like to put across to her is that the bill is unnecessary. She may shake her head, but I have long believed that solving the problem is more about the actions that individuals can take rather than creating another law.

"I will make this a short speech. The hon. Lady referred to individual cases, and a sanctuary room is often principally the main bedroom and not necessarily a spare room. As the hon. lady mentioned, such rooms can feature additional security, including window locks, strengthened doors and panic alarms.

"Freedom of information requests to local authorities have shown that some 280 such houses around the country are currently subject to the spare room subsidy penalty. However, as a significant adaptation has been made to the house, any householder with a sanctuary room can automatically apply for the discretionary housing payment.

"The government have provided more than £300 million to ensure that local councils can do what they need to do for local residents. I understand that the 13 households in Plymouth have been granted discretionary housing payments, which is right. With less than one sanctuary room per council area, it is appropriate that we do not just create laws, but rather allow local councils to get on and do the right thing with the discretionary housing payment. The hon. lady also referred to the general policy of the spare room subsidy, and I point out to her that no such discretion was applied to the private rented sector for the local housing allowance.

"While I do not seek to divide the house today, I want to put on the record my concern that the bill is unnecessary and should be opposed at its later stages."

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