Perhaps the most contentious policy I've ever blogged on - but feel it should be done. Can't be ducked. Its taken me a while to feel completely comfortable backing this Government policy myself. The issue is changes to housing benefit, where there is some dispute about terminology. One man's ‘spare room subsidy’ is another man's ‘bedroom tax’. The gist of the change is that Housing Benefit will no longer be paid for bedrooms that are considered to be surplus to needs. But its not straightforward and I'll not pretend it is. I support the change - but I expect as many readers to disagree as agree.
Let me begin by setting out the context. Firstly, The incoming Gov't in 2010 faced a position where the outgoing Gov't had spent £150billion (that's £150,000,000,000) more in the previous year than it had coming in. There is not the slightest chance that Labour would not have been forced into making the same level of reductions in spending as the Coalition. And there are but two areas of major spending where these reductions could reasonably have been made - public sector pay and welfare (in a broad sense). Its highly questionable that enough reduction has yet been made. At current spending levels, the implications for future generations is horrific.
Secondly private sector tenants are already subject to similar legislation. The previous Gov't introduced a 'local housing allowance scheme' which meant no Housing Benefit would be available for private sector tenants. At the time there was a huge hoohah about evictions etc - which simply did not happen. There are over one million private sector tenants on housing benefit. Why is it 'fair' for tenants in the private sector, but not in the public sector?
And thirdly, what about the 250,000 households living in seriously overcrowded conditions - and the hundreds of thousands who are waiting for a home, and do not have a bedroom at all! Can this be fair when one third of working-age social housing tenants on Housing Benefit are in accommodation that is bigger than that which they actually need. There are nearly a million spare bedrooms, supported by the tax payer to the tune of £500 million per year. The main purpose of the change is to make more efficient use of our social housing stock.
The principles on which this change is based is entirely logical. Polling also shows that in general the public support the change - which is probably the reason behind some Labour spokespersons letting it be known that they are no longer opposed to the principle - and now fully support efficient use of social housing. Despite this, they still shout about the 'Bedroom Tax' at every opportunity, knowing that the reality is too complex for the media to report.
But as so often with a change of policy, there are difficulties at the 'individual' level. There are 'hard cases'. Always are. Which is why the legislation allows for 'exceptions'. It must, and always has excluded tenants who would find the change unacceptably difficult. The tactics of the 'Opposition' has spread great fear amongst tenants. Money is being given to local authorities so that they can help people on a case-by-case basis. I was particularly disgusted by the fears caused to foster families, which became so bad that the Gov't decided to make specific reference to them in the Bill. Some other 'exceptions' to the policy include disabled people requiring a non-resident overnight carer, as will pensioners and those in supported ‘exempt’ accommodation. Other exemptions allow a spare room where a child’s disability means they cannot share a bedroom. and will allow armed forces personnel to keep their bedrooms within their parent’s home when they are deployed on operations.
The new policy works so that each person (or couple) is allocated a bedroom. Only children under 16 of the same gender will have to share or children younger than 10 regardless of their gender. The reduction for having one spare bedroom will be 14% of the Housing Benefit, or 25% for two or more spare bedrooms. The coalition has calculated that the average reduction will be £14 per week - £2 per day.
This change is based on the principle of fairness. Fairness to those in overcrowded homes, fairness to those in the private rented sector who cannot have a spare bedroom under the current rules, and fairness to the taxpayer. As usual there are plenty of myths circulating these changes, many of which are completely unfounded. Of course, when policy makers initiate reform, they accept there will be tweaks to make before the reforms are introduced. Coalition Government is listening to the genuine concerns that have been expressed by we, MPs as well as the public. We are doing all we can seeking to make this reform one that is fair and workable. Its not a reform that MPs want to do, but Coalition MPs believe we have no choice.