Labour caught napping over bedroom tax

This article was published in the Morning Star Features page on February 21st.

Labour has been tackling the government over the bedroom tax.

Ed Miliband has raised it at Prime Minister’s Question Time. He and other MPs have exposed the iniquities of the new legislation.

However, comments from the shadow employment minister pose the question as to whether Labour is opposed to it in principle or merely to the way it has been implemented.

Stephen Timms told Radio 4: “We have argued for the last two years that it would be fine to apply the penalty where people have refused to take smaller accommodation, but to penalise people when there’s nowhere smaller to move is perverse.”

In fact under the legislation a council or housing association will only offer a tenant smaller accommodation if they ask to move.

They are not obliged to move. They will be put under an economic “incentive” to do so – that is a significant cut in the paltry amount of money they live on.

For instance if they are on jobseeker’s allowance they are expected to live on £71 a week. Some tenants with two “spare” bedrooms will have to pay an extra £20 a week from this paltry sum.

It is perverse to penalise people for not moving into smaller accommodation when there is none available, but it is also perverse to have introduced legislation which attempts to impoverish already poor people to drive them into smaller accommodation.

Saying that it’s “fine” to penalise people for refusing to move to smaller accommodation implies support for the government’s idea that people should only be given housing benefit for the number of bedrooms they supposedly need.

Judging “need” is based on the “bedroom standard” which originates from 1935, when overcrowding was commonplace and a bedroom for a couple would have been a step forward.

The bedroom standard, however, takes no account of real-life experience. The number of bedrooms you qualify for will vary through the life cycle.

Let’s take one example, a single mother with two girls, living in a three-bedroom house.

To avoid paying the bedroom tax the family will have to move into a two-bed property. However, when one of the daughters turns 16 they would qualify for a three-bed house again.

Then when the first girl leaves home, it’s back to a two-bed property. When the remaining daughter leaves home the mother would be deemed to be under-occupying and would have to move to a one-bed flat to avoid paying.

So in a few years they would go from three to two bedrooms, back to three, back to two and then to one. The mother would need to move house four times.

With more children the number of moves could be higher still.

How does this make sense? It’s disruptive. It costs money to move. You cannot develop a stable life under such conditions.

In practice the shortage of homes of the “right” size means that there would not often be a property available, in which case even if a tenant had asked to move they’d still get stung by the tax.

In its own impact assessment the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) admitted that there aren’t enough one-bedroom properties available.

In my own town of Swindon there are more than 5,000 households – existing tenants who face the bedroom tax and those on the waiting list – who only qualify for a one-bed property.

Given the number of one-bed properties the council lets at the moment it would take it 50 years to accomodate these people – and then only if it shuts down the waiting list to new applicants.

The DWP’s suggestion is that people leave the social sector and move to the private sector, where housing benefit is higher because of the much higher private rents. This would add to the benefit bill rather than cut it.

What tenants want from Labour is not for it to go along with the warped principles of the coalition government but a commitment to repeal the bedroom tax when elected.

This iniquitous piece of legislation is not directed at making the best use of existing stock.

Both pensioners and those tenants who do not qualify for housing benefit are not subject to the bedroom tax even if they have “spare” bedrooms.

The legislation is directed at penalising housing benefit recipients and forcing them into smaller homes or better paid work, even though the smaller homes and jobs of any kind are few and far between.

You cannot resolve the housing crisis by policing existing tenants as if they can be moved around like pawns from house to house.

You can only address the shortage by building council housing on a scale large enough to put the rise in the numbers on the waiting list in reverse.

Labour needs to commit to doing so.

Martin Wicks is secretary of the Swindon Tenants Campaign Group.

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