A week tomorrow, 95,000 people will be plunged into poverty as a result of the government’s new Bedroom Tax, and this ill thought out, heavy-handed piece of housing policy will hit the most vulnerable in our society the hardest. Disabled people, foster carers, and those with – or caring for people with – mental health problems, are set to lose out by an average of £15 a week, money that most of the people affected by the tax cannot afford to do without – they have already suffered enough under this government’s austerity agenda.
The idea behind the tax sounds good in principle: there is a housing shortage, there are plenty of people living in houses with extra rooms, get everyone to move to smaller houses, problem solved. Except that it just does not work in practice, and in actual fact the problem is far from solved.
For a start, if everyone affected by the bedroom tax were to move into what the government would deem ‘appropriate’ accommodation, then 600,000 one bed flats would be needed. In actual fact, there are only half this number available. And because of the shortage of one-bed properties available in social housing, many will be forced to move to private lets, which will perversely cost the tax payer more in housing benefit bills, whilst causing upheaval for thousands of desperate families.
Secondly, most of the people in receipt of housing benefit who over-occupy their properties are pensioners. But the government has helpfully exempted those born before 5th October 1951 from the tax, because for the Tories, who depend heavily on the grey vote, to do otherwise would be electoral suicide.
And the policy was designed to save the government money from the welfare bill, but actually in many cases the levy will end up costing the state more. For example, one woman who currently cares for her mentally ill brother will no longer be able to do so – his room will be classed as ‘spare’ under the terms of the tax as apparently a sibling does not count as ‘family’. Her brother will have to move out of her house, and the bill for his care will instead be picked up by social services.
Others losers under the tax include disabled people who have paid for adaptations to their homes; one woman who has had adaptations made to her home by her local authority is faced with a terrible predicament. She signed a contract at the time the work was carried out to say that she would stay in the property for at least three years or repay the cost of the adaptations. Now she is faced with the choice between paying the Bedroom Tax, or moving to a smaller property and paying for the cost of the adaptations on the home that she is being forced to leave.
And those caring for a spouse or partner with physical disabilities or mental health problems will also suffer. If they each currently sleep in separate bedrooms they will be forced to either pay up, or downsize and share. Anecdotal evidence suggests that sharing a bedroom with someone with chronic lung disease or paranoid schizophrenia is far from easy, but many will be left with no other option.
The tax also has implications for the youngest and most vulnerable in our society. The government has already started back-tracking, with Iain Duncan-Smith announcing exemptions for families with adult children serving in the military, disabled children, and foster carers, but for many these simply do not go far enough.
Foster carers initially welcomed the announcement that families who foster children would be exempted, but it later transpired that only one ‘spare’ room would be exempted from the tax, which means that vulnerable children in foster care are likely to be separated from their siblings as the Bedroom Tax will make it more difficult for them to be placed together.
Calculations also suggest that as many as half a million children will be pushed further into poverty as a result of the tax. Furthermore, children whose parents share custody will be also affected by the policy. Parents who do not have primary custody, but keep a room for their children to stay in at weekends will be yet another group to be hit by the Bedroom Tax.
Figures released by the National Housing Federation show that the tax will have the biggest impact on those living in some of the poorest areas of the UK. Of the worst hit areas, the top ten are all in the north of the country, and all already suffer from high levels of unemployment and crime.
The top six areas are all in the North-West, where 43 per cent of housing tenants on benefits will be affected. The top six are all in either Manchester or Liverpool, and the top three of these are in Greater Manchester.
The statistics – broken down to parliamentary constituency level – show that whilst 4,160 households will be affected by the tax in Manchester Central, a relatively small number of 566 households will be hit by the levy in Prime Minister David Cameron’s wealthy home constituency of Witney, in Oxfordshire. And if these figures themselves are not evidence enough that David Cameron and his government are once again looking after their own, the Bedroom Tax is being introduced in the same week that 13,000 millionaires are set to receive a tax cut of £100,000.
This country does not need a Bedroom Tax, and we do not a tax cut for millionaires. What we do need is more affordable homes of all sizes. We need the right kind of houses, in the right places, with the right infrastructure. We need family-sized accommodation, and we need homes for single people and couples. But what we most certainly do not need is for this government to keep on penalising those who can least afford it.