Billed as a way to reduce under-occupation and encourage people back into work, the ‘bedroom tax’ has not met the goals set out by policymakers, writes Insa Koch. Instead it is creating hardship for many of the over 500,000 households affected by the tax, forcing many into a situation where they are forcibly evicted from their homes. Moreover, the vast majority of households which are under-occupying their dwellings are not within the social housing sector: they are privately owned properties.
The bedroom tax recently came under attack as Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs joined forces to defeat Conservatives in a Commons vote in favour of the Affordable Homes Bill. The bill aims to partly overturn the government’s bedroom tax seventeen months after its implementation. While it remains to be seen if the bill will be enacted as law, the Commons vote serves as a powerful reminder of how controversial the bedroom tax has been.
The bedroom tax is the name commonly given to the coalition government’s policy relating to housing benefits that came into force on 1 April 2013 alongside a host of other welfare reforms. The policy works by reducing housing benefit payments to working age tenants in social housing who are considered to under-occupy their dwellings: tenants get 14 per cent of their housing benefits reduced for one spare bedroom and 25 per cent for two or more.
The government’s justification for the bedroom tax has been that it will reduce expenditure and under-occupation in the social housing sector. Another stated objective is to encourage people to get back to work. However, it is increasingly evident that these goals are not being met. So far savings have fallen short of the government’s initial estimate. Vacated properties remain empty as local authorities and housing associations struggle to fill them with families large enough to meet the size criteria. And as for driving up employment figures, there simply are not enough decent and well-paid jobs for the poor.
Those affected by the policy have been hit hard. Take the case of fifty-nine year old resident Pat Williams [her name has been changed] who lives alone in a two bedroom council flat in Oxford. Williams’ partner died a few years ago and she herself has been signed off work since she suffered a brain haemorrhage the day after her partner’s death. Because of the bedroom tax, she now has to pay 60 pounds a month extra for her spare bedroom. Never mind that for her the bedroom is anything but spare. One of her grandson has autism and Williams helps with the care work by having him and his brother stay over frequently.
“Fourteen per cent of very little is a lot” Williams comments. She explains: she has about 85 pounds a week to spend on electricity, water, and phone bills, a small pension for her death costs, and, of course, food. At the end of every month, very little is left for any extras, such as for new clothes, furniture, stamps, or even just a bus pass to get into town. Williams is dreading the winter when her bills will go up due to heating. “It just leaves you with no flexibility what so ever. There’s no safety net left”.
Williams’ case is not exceptional. Over 500,000 households have been affected by the tax. Of these, nearly three-fifths are households where at least one member has a registered disability. The government has argued that the most vulnerable members are protected, including pensions who are exempt from the tax. However, this still leaves people like Williams without protection. As the suicide case of fifty-two year old Stephanie Bottrill showed, this can push people over the edge, leading some to conclude that it is a “policy that kills”.
Targeting for self-eviction
People like Williams have two options: they can either find ways of making up for the shortfall or they move to a different property. Many have opted for the former. People rely on informal means, borrowing money and even cutting back on essentials, such as meals and heating. Others have taken in lodgers and non-dependant family members, although this can have adverse effects on their benefit allowance. Finally the government also makes discretionary housing payments available that help cover shortfalls for a specified period of time. None of these options represent long-term solutions.
Even where people are willing to move, they may well be unable to do so. In theory, local councils and housing associations help affected tenants to down-size. The problem is that there are simply not enough smaller properties in the social housing sector. Moreover, most people are understandably reluctant to move out of their neighbourhood as this would mean leaving local support networks of friends and family behind. Finally, the private sector fails to provide suitable alternatives, not least because private landlords are often reluctant to accept people on benefits as tenants.
If enacted as law, the Affordable Housing Bill will go some way to meet these problems. The Bill would mean that people who cannot be found a smaller home would be exempt from the bedroom tax, as well as disabled people who need a spare bedroom or who have adapted their homes. In the meantime, however, it cannot stop the spiral of decline that the bedroom tax has already set off for many: with half of the affected households already being in rent arrears, it is likely that the policy will soon result in a substantial rise of evictions.
Undermining basic rights
The bedroom tax is one of the most controversial policies implemented by the Coalition government which came into power in 2010. Racquel Rolnik, the UN special rapporteur for housing, condemned it as contrary to the right to adequate housing as specified by international human rights law, including the Covenant on social, economic and political rights. On her visit to the UK in September last year, Rolnik spoke of a housing crisis that has hit the UK and that is affecting its most vulnerable citizens the harshest.
The housing crisis was not caused by the bedroom tax. It goes back to the 1980s when Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ policy began the process of privatisation that put an end to the project of social housing once so strongly endorsed by the post-war welfare state. Nevertheless it is safe to say that the bedroom tax has made a bad situation worse. It is pushing people in social housing into ever more precarious circumstances where they face material hardship and, in the absence of suitable alternatives, the very real risk of homelessness.
The vast majority of households which are under-occupying their dwellings according to the government’s size criteria are not within the social housing sector: they are privately owned properties. And yet, the bedroom tax is only applied to a minority of citizens who cannot afford to buy their own homes. Whether or not the bedroom tax will be abolished after next year’s general elections remains to be seen. One thing, however, seems clear: the bedroom tax undermines basic social rights that were once protected by the welfare state.
The research upon which this piece is based was carried out in collaboration with Sasha East, tutor at Ruskin College. She can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Featured image credit: Scott Wylie CC BY 2.0
Insa Koch is an Assistant Professor in Law and Anthropology at the LSE. Her research focuses on politics, social welfare and law and has involved extensive ethnographic fieldwork on council estates in England.