Even though it did not go far enough, I was happy to be in Parliament on Friday to back the ‘Affordable Housing Bill' which makes improvements to the hated ‘Bedroom Tax'. Better something than nothing, although I want to see this ineffective and unpleasant policy dumped once and for all.
The ‘Bedroom Tax' cuts housing support from low income households deemed to have a spare bedroom. For someone like Jean, a 60 year old constituent with severe mental health problems, she has to either leave her home of 30 years, close to relatives and support, or lose almost £30 a week from the £100 disability benefit from which she has to cover all her living costs. Andrew, who lived with his brother for decades until the brother's death, is crippled by agoraphobia and can no longer leave his 2 bed flat. His anxiety about being force to move is so severe he has contemplated ending his life. Unable to pay for all his heating, water, food and other costs, his arrears are now mounting and with it, his stress. Maria saw her housing support cut because her children, aged 8 and 9, were considered not to need separate bedrooms after their older brother went to university. Yet a few months later, and several hundred pounds poorer, the family became entitled to the extra room again as the 9 year old reached 10.
The bedroom tax undermines the right of those on lower incomes to security and stability in a modest but decent home. It ignores how long someone may have they have lived in their home and how strong their network of family and community. Helping to look after the grand-kids? Irrelevant. Being cared for by a neighbour or grown-up son or daughter? Doesn't matter.
Supporters do make an argument in defence of the bedroom tax. They say that over-crowding is a serious and growing challenge and we should make best use of the scarce resource of our housing stock.
Yet this analysis offers the wrong solution to this genuine problem- a fact of which the government were only too well aware when the policy was designed in 2011. Their own impact assessment admitted that " the highest rates are over-crowding are association with the parts of the country with the lowest rates of under-occupation. They admitted even in 2011 that there too few 1 bedroom homes to move people to- and that it is London where the biggest mismatch occurs. It is no good penalising people for not moving if you don't have anywhere to move them to! All that has happened since was both predictable and predicted: increasing debt, bigger arrears to landlords, a great deal of misery.
Even in somewhere like Westminster, where it should in theory be easy to swap people around, only 6 tenants have been able to move each month since the bedroom tax came in in April 2013, out of the 400 households affected. It will take years for everyone to be made an offer. 2 out of 3 are disabled. Many are in their 60s, but are affected until they reach pension age, when they become exempt. What are people supposed to do in the meantime?
If bedroom tax supporters were really so keen to relieve over-crowding, they wouldn't be so willing to allow developers off the hook when it comes to building affordable homes. They wouldn't stand by while Housing Associations sell off much needed properties at auction. They wouldn't be silent when ex-council flats are marketed as exciting Buy-to Let opportunities, with rents many times the previous level. They would support, as I do, incentives and practical assistance to encourage tenants of all ages to move to more appropriate homes.
Let's hope the defeat we inflicted on the government last week brings everyone to their senses, and if it doesn't' , a future Labour government will act. Housing need is a real and serious issue that deserve better than ill-thought out, unworkable and nasty policies like the bedroom tax.