Opinion: Why the bedroom tax is not political
Published by Max Salsbury for 24dash.com in Housing and also in Central Government, Regulation
Opinion: Why the bedroom tax is not politicalImage: Housing via Shutterstock
By Rob Gershon, a housing association tenant known in the Twittersphere as @Simplicitly, takes a deeper look at the government’s under-occupancy policy.
Despite all the evidence about how badly the bedroom tax is failing tenants and failing to meet any of its own policy objectives, the government seems intent on proceeding with it.
I've always believed that politics is a personal thing - that a person's vote is private and that the strength of some conviction some people feel about them can make politics an unwise topic for dinner parties, and other polite conversation.
I was brought up in a staunchly Conservative home, with all the mantra and prejudice that that brings, but before my Father passed away, even he had decided that he couldn't support the party he'd voted for again at the next general election. I'd have preferred him to have made this choice next year, rather than dying last year, but this rather awkward introduction illustrates that when I've had a chance to talk to people about the policy, the inherent unfairness of it has crossed all political lines. Just ask Douglas Carswell.
I don't quite remember when I first sat to write this blog. I remember settling on the idea after I'd spoken to Jules Birch on Twitter. We'd been talking about contrasts between the bedroom tax and measures in the private rented sector (that Jules later blogged about here) which would mean it was probably about a year ago. Constantly shifting sands around the policy means I've not been able to settle and write it until now. The political landscape it exists in has rarely been settled.
I've engaged in this rambling introduction because over the course of the time that I've been blogging, tweeting and occasionally writing to MPs and Parliamentary Select Committees about the bedroom tax, I like to think I've taken a relatively impartial approach when trying to explain what is wrong with it.
I've debated with Conservative councillors about just how different the policy is when compared with the Local Housing Allowance, and about the commonly held misconception that Labour introduced it for the private sector in 2008.
I've debated with Labour councillors and the odd MP about the finer details of the policy - it wasn't until September 2013 that the party collectively decided it'd oppose the policy, and nearly six months of damage had been done by that point.
I remember Chris Bryant explaining prior to this on Twitter that the housing benefit bill couldn't just be left to rise uncontested and that something had to be done. I've even tried to highlight cases where Labour local authorities have persecuted implementation of the policy to the point of taking court action against tenants where simply reading the policy guidance would have allowed them to avoid such drastic measures.
I ended up talking to lots of people on Twitter affected by the policy directly. Sometimes I was just reaching out to offer a bit of virtual support, sometimes reaching out myself to lean on people who I now hope realise how much they helped me through 2013.
Despite being granted an exemption through needing regular overnight carers for my wife, this didn't happen until I'd been forced into action after receiving a Notice for Seeking Possession.
Let's put my lack of keen engagement down to not wanting to talk to people who were apparently trying to remove me from my home. I suppose the underlying message of the blogs, tweets and letters I've written stem from that simple feeling of being warm, safe and secure in your home, or the place that you consider to be your home, and then having all of those feelings replaced with a cold, resolute fear because somebody at the DWP has decided, without taking your personal circumstances into account, that you have too many rooms, and to remind you in the most direct way possible that your home is not, after all, really yours.
Over the course of the last year and a half, I've also had a lot of online conversations with Liberal Democrat party members, councillors and MPs. At their 2013 party conference, they voted to review the effects the bedroom tax was having. Much noise was made about the commissioning of the interim report being a party victory, but the truth is that the review had been ordered by the Secretary of State for the DWP as the policy was introduced, so no real concessions had been made for the Liberal Democrats.
The party has anyway not been represented by its MPs, who have variously kept the policy and all of its worst aspects securely in place over the course of a number of votes - predominantly during opposition day debates, which are good platforms for publicly pitching political tents, but don't necessarily carry the authority necessary to reform or repeal legislation.
As has been reported previously, the first signs of the Liberal Democrats changed stance on the bedroom tax have now arrived in the form of a Private Members Bill from one of their MPs - Andrew George. Originally, the Bill was to cover a number of different policy elements relating to 'affordable' housing, but it has been cut down to address issues around promoting intermediate housing options like shared housing, and to try and mitigate some areas of the bedroom tax.
In earlier versions of the Bill, people who had either been in their homes for more than three years, or had adaptations made to their home for a disability would be exempted from the bedroom tax. These modifications were straightforward in principle, but in the wake of a fluctuating position on the policy from the Liberal Democrat leadership, the Private Members Bill has been altered to include new caveats that are likely to scupper any realistic chance of reforming the policy.
I'm going to focus on a few key areas of the Bill to show why it's the wrong solution to the bedroom tax problem. While any mitigation might seem on the surface like a positive thing, the Bill is going to be problematic, and not just because it will have difficulty in garnering support.
Both Andrew George and Rachel Reeves have highlighted in blogs this week that many MPs will be distracted by issues around the Scottish Independence Referendum and with constituency business. The full text of the Bill can be viewed at Andrew George's blog - http://www.andrewgeorge.org.uk/mp-hopes-cut-bedroom-tax/ but here I'll just focus on the details that doom it either to failure, or at the very least to make no difference to tenants any time this side of a general election.
The problems are not so much what is written in the Bill, but what is missing from it. The first major fault appears in Section 1.2.(1)(a) iii. This is what it says about qualifying exemptions for homes where adaptations have been made for the needs of disability:
- "(iii) that the cost of the adaptation is not less than an amount prescribed in regulations made by the Secretary of State;"
This bogs down the disability adaptations element by setting a 'minimum cost' of the adaptations that have been made being a requirement for a bedroom tax exemption to be made. Not only will this ignore the needs of the disabled person in favour of looking at the cost of the adaptations, but it will also require further work to ascertain what these costs are, or were.
Adaptations may have been made before the current tenants arrived; they may have been allocated the property based on these requirements. It also makes no allowance for individual adaptations being of varying costs in different parts of the country, or incurring different costs depending on when they were installed. This approach also requires a coherent regulation from the Secretary of State, something the policy has not seen so far in any other area.
Finalising these regulations could take months, and require repeat visits of the Bill to the House of Commons to get them approved at each stage. With both George and Labour MPs already making noises about 'beefing up' the Bill as it progresses, and the costs arising from any regulatory alterations expected to be met by the DWP, it quickly becomes clear that any meaningful reform before the general election is extremely unlikely.
The other sticking point is a new section in the Bill, presumably added as a result of the still incoherent outline plans made by Danny Alexander on Channel 4 News recently.
It's a clause - 1.2.(1)(c) which exempts people from paying bedroom tax where they haven't been made a reasonable offer of an alternative property:
- "c) Neither the claimant’s landlord nor a local authority, where it is not the landlord, has made a reasonable offer of alternative accommodation."
This reasonable offer is then fleshed out in Section 1.2.(2)
- "(2) Regulations made under this section may define ‘reasonable offer of alternative accommodation’ for the purposes of sub-section (1)(c) above."
The text of these regulations literally takes the form of "x marks the spot", with a letter X in place of any actual definition of the intent to define what a reasonable offer of alternative accommodation is.
There seems little point in going into too much detail about the implications of this omission.
One of the key findings from both the Work and Pensions Committee Inquiry into reforms for the support provided for housing costs, and the more recent data from the DWP's own interim report on the policy was that in the vast majority of cases, the supply of housing alternatives is so short that even where people want to downsize they cannot.
The implications of this Bill are therefore likely to be zero for tenants affected by the policy.
While it is warming to discover that Liberal Democrat MPs have finally listened to what everyone has been saying since 2012, this Bill is no solution for people like Renleigh Anderson of Derby, who now sits within a 28-day notice period awaiting Eviction for arrears accrued solely for bedroom tax, in a case where it's apparent her landlord has deemed her inability to successfully apply for a Discretionary Housing Payment as some kind of personal failing for which she is shortly to receive the ultimate sanction - the loss of the place that she used to think of as her home.