The bedroom tax and disabled tenants
Following Lord Freud's appearance at Housing 2013, Sue McCafferty, of campaign group We are Spartacus, details the impact of welfare reform on sick and disabled people.
When we asked for tenants affected by the bedroom tax to come forward to take part in our research into its impact, nothing could have prepared us for the harrowing tales that flooded in.
We always knew that the effects of the bedroom tax would be felt particularly badly by sick and disabled tenants – they make up two thirds of those affected (420,000 people), and the costs of disability are often very high and barely met by existing disability benefits.
But the stories we were hearing made us ask if it was simply a matter of poor implementation of the bedroom tax or a deeper problem with the concept and design of the policy.
Many members of the public and even, shockingly, many MPs seem to believe that disabled tenants are either exempt from the bedroom tax or generously protected via the discretionary housing payment (DHP) system. This is not true.
The only significant exemption on grounds of disability is for a room for an overnight carer for either the named tenant or spouse. A disabled child, or any other member of the household, is not entitled to a room for overnight carers no matter how severe the need or disability.
Moreover, disabled children are still not automatically exempt if all they need is their own bedroom. Despite the Government abandoning its appeal against a High Court judgment on this issue, the legislation has not been altered and it is up to local authorities, guided by no more than a DWP circular, to decide whether the child is disabled ‘enough’ to warrant such comfort.
The lack of clear general exemptions is leaving too much to chance, to the vagaries of local decision-making that seems to vary worryingly widely from one local authority to another. Local housing officers admit, off the record, that they don’t feel qualified to judge disability or the needs arising from it and tenants are finding that the promised protection of the locally-decided DHP fund is not being allocated to those in most need.
This is no surprise as the DHP pot was only ever meant to assist 35,000 households nationally. The Government arrived at this figure by taking the approximate number of tenants with significant adaptations who would be affected by the bedroom tax and allowing for DHP for one extra room for each of these households. So the money, trumpeted as loaves and fishes for all, could only ever help the smallest number of households, leaving 385,000 chronically sick or disabled tenants with no protection whatsoever against potential rent arrears.
Tenants turned down for DHP are being told to use their disability living allowance (DLA) instead to cover the bedroom tax, despite DLA being meant for the costs of care and mobility. This is causing great distress to tenants up and down the UK.
Of course, no tenant, sick or disabled or otherwise, would have to justify the space they take up if they could afford the bedroom tax. No disabled person would have to worry about leaving an area where they have a support network, costly adaptations would not have to be abandoned and reapplied for, care packages renegotiated with a new local authority, doctors and hospitals changed, if they had the money for the shortfall. It is only the poorest tenants who have this burden, only those too ill to work or disabled, only those so poor already that they are dependent on housing benefit to pay part or all of their rent.
But this is not all just some unfortunate consequence of the policy. The Government, in 2010, discussed granting wide exemptions for those who were not expected to work, recognising that a policy which was to be partly promoted as instigating behavioural change to get people back to work, could not, in fairness, be applied to sick and disabled tenants unable to make such changes.
They assumed that this would be a relatively small group and that exempting such tenants would only incur minimal losses to the saving. However, once the data came back, revealing that far from being a small minority, sick and disabled tenants were actually the majority affected by the bedroom tax, the plan for exemptions was quietly abandoned. It would not be expedient to exempt so many; the projected saving would not be met.
But saving money like this is not like choosing to cut back on something, economising, getting used to less so that any initial problems are just teething troubles. Removing a basic security like housing and setting people on the track to greater poverty has dire consequences. It creates more problems than it solves.
The hardship we are seeing is not a temporary problem with the implementation; it is factored in to the very design of the policy – the basis of the saving depends upon it.
And that saving cannot be met if sick and disabled tenants are exempt.
Freeing up, or reallocating, social housing doesn’t depend on the existence of the bedroom tax. It never did. Nor will it make huge numbers seek work as initially envisaged by the Government.
But the success of the £400 million saving does depend on hundreds of thousands of sick and disabled tenants being pushed to the limits of their endurance by a financial penalty they cannot afford.
So, if even safeguards against homelessness for tenants with, for example, terminal cancer are being abandoned as too costly then where do we go from here? What bigger thing are we sacrificing for the sake of what will be, at the most, a meagre two per cent saving of the total housing benefit bill?
It was encouraging to hear the support for tenants coming from the delegates at Housing 2013 last month: we need more people to realise that the bedroom tax is a false economy, to lobby their MPs, to tell people about the real hardship it is causing, and to condemn its appalling consequences as a price not worth paying.