The government has made a number of changes to benefits and the welfare system recently but the change that gives me the greatest cause for concern by far is the “under-occupancy charge”, more commonly known as the “bedroom tax”.
This tax came into force in April this year and according to the National Housing Federation will affect 660,000 households in social housing across the country who will have to pay, on average, an extra £728 each year if they wish to stay in their homes. The alternative is to move to smaller social housing accommodation, if any is available, or try to find rented accommodation in the private sector or take some other action, such as taking in a lodger so that the “spare” accommodation is used and money received for it.
In defence of this policy the government points out the contrast across the country which exists between people in overcrowded accommodation and those who are occupying housing with extra bedroom space. However unfortunately the areas where there is the greatest overcrowding are not the areas where there are large numbers of households with “spare” accommodation, so the national figures comparing overcrowding with underutilised accommodation are largely meaningless. Across the North families hit by the bedroom tax outnumber overcrowded families by three to one. In Hull alone 6000 people are affected with apparently only 70 or so flats available to be moved into. Furthermore the tax has to be paid even when occupiers of larger properties have declared their willingness to downsize but where, like Hull, alternative accommodation simply does not exist.
The problems with the tax are daily becoming more apparent. For example in the localities I know well – Sunderland, Newcastle, Gateshead and the rest of the Tyne and Wear conurbation – rent arrears have shot up since April because people cannot afford to pay the extra charge when they are already finding it difficult to make ends meet. As well as the sheer numbers now in rent arrears it is clear that many of those people now falling behind with their payments have never been in arrears before so it is not a question of bad payers reoffending but rather people with a previous good record as tenants simply being unable to find the money to pay up. Others are, I suppose, managing to find the money but no doubt having to cut back on other items to do so.
Local authorities are able to look at individual cases and in some instances make discretionary payments. However the amount of money available for such payments is much less than the amount that is being cut from Housing Benefit. It is clear too that because every household is different and therefore have different circumstances for the local authorities to consider, there will be a huge administrative cost incurred in dealing with all these different situations and adjudicating on them. Indeed there are concerns that the projected savings to the Exchequer through this measure will be simply wiped out by the extra administrative costs involved.
There is increasing evidence that the tax is causing not only financial but also emotional hardship and stress for individuals and families Indeed tragically at least one suicide has been linked to the imposition of the tax. Among the variety of problems that have surfaced have been those of foster parents who need extra accommodation for foster children from time to time, separated or divorced parents whose children come to stay frequently in a “spare” bedroom, or couples where one of the two may through illness or a disability need to have separate sleeping accommodation either temporarily or on a longer term basis.
Stress is caused even for those willing or able to move as there are concerns about what alternative accommodation will be offered and whether it will be in an area close enough to allow existing social networks of friends or support services to be maintained. Neither is the idea of taking in a lodger a stress-free option. For someone living on their own, perhaps after occupying the same home for a very long time, taking in a complete stranger to share that home can be a distressing prospect.
There are many more examples that I have come across and which could be quoted, affecting some of the most hard-pressed of our citizens. Sadly the government does not seem prepared to scrap this tax which is what I want to see. At the very least however it must look urgently at the evidence across the whole of the country and be prepared to introduce changes quickly to stop its severest effects.