Questioning the “bedroom tax”

By Paula Keaveney

At the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference recently, I asked three questions about the so called “bedroom tax”. I got a range of answers , although the one that saddened me the most mainly focused on whether the words “bedroom tax” were right.

The argument about whether the “over occupancy reduction” is a tax or not is frankly not the point.

I despair when I hear our Parliamentarians begin an answer by talking about word definition.

I studied philosophy so can argue about what words mean for ever, but in the real world, when families face losing substantial parts of their weekly budget, starting off by talking about semantics not only looks cold hearted, it is cold hearted.

Not everyone wants to be in a house that’s too big for them. When I was a Parliamentary Candidate I used to get letters from people complaining about a lack of smaller properties to move into.

And there’s the problem. If there are no smaller properties, what do you do?

If you’ve just managed to get a part time job near home so you can also pick up the children from school, the option to move to another town isn’t there. Single people like me, with few obligations, are free to move for work reasons or financial reasons or just for a change of scene. But for families with children in school and all sorts of arrangements around work, and shifts, it’s simply not a real option.

People in social housing have either made decisions or had them made for them. They may have waited a long time for a home, or been housed very quickly. But however it happened, decisions were made. They were based on what was available, what was needed and what might be needed in future.

The bedroom tax however creates a situation in which the Government asks people to make a decision that they can’t make and then penalises them for not making it. If there are no smaller homes available in my area I simply can’t decide to move into one of them.

So, it’s not possible to move. What other options does the Government want me to explore?

I could get a lodger. Yes for some people that will be a good idea. I have had lodgers when I have been short of money and it can work. But it’s not the answer for everyone and most families will have reasons not to do this.

I could earn a bit more money. This is certainly what Steve Webb expects people to do. And logically if I need to spend more I need to earn more.I have certainly had second jobs when I had financial problems. But the people hit hardest by the bedroom tax are the very group for whom this will be most difficult. I doubt any of our MPs have actually tried getting extra paid hours from an employer on a regular basis. It’s actually extremely difficult unless you have no other restrictions in your life.

So at the end of the day the only option left is simply to have less money.

You can’t downsize because there’s nowhere to go, you can’t earn more because the jobs are not there.

And this is the sense in which it’s fair to say the bedroom tax is not a tax. In fact it’s a fine, a fine for being poor.

Now obviously when there is a housing shortage under occupancy is not something that can be ignored. And a scheme which came in very slowly and which had real incentives and real choices could well have worked.

But what we have here is a sudden (and it is sudden) pulling of the rug out from under people’s feet.

And the Government sort of knows it’s not going to work because otherwise why is there a fund to deal with problems and why are there (welcome) exemptions at the 11 th hour

I believe the Liberal Democrats in Government should have stopped this. I may be being unfair. We don’t always hear about the behind the scenes arguments and it may well be that this was a row we lost.

But even if we did fight and lose, it is not our job to defend this piece of retrospective punishment.

Nick Clegg has done well on some issues to distinguish what we believe as Lib Dems from what the Government is doing. Surely he needs to come out and do the same for this.

After all we exist to build a fair, free and open society in which no one is…. enslaved by poverty.

Paula Keaveney is a member of the Social Liberal Forum Council and a former Leader of the Lib Dem Group on Liverpool City Council.

 

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11 comments on “Questioning the “bedroom tax”
  1. Mary says:

    Dear Paula,

    I am sorry for your predicament. The root cause of all this mess is a shortage of housing. Sadly, until we solve that, we do have to try to allocate this scarce resource more fairly. There are many families in very overcrowded conditions, and they need your spare room more than you do.

    From another angle, I am a private tenant, and a taxpayer, therefore I am the person currently being forced to pay for your spare room. Why do I have to pay for your spare room? (BTW, misnaming the reduction of your benefit as a “tax” inverts the reality of who is paying what. That is the problem with this misnaming.)

    And there are thousands of smaller properties around, many of which overcrowded now. This policy will promote a gradual swap of properties.

    I do understand the disruption of having to move (I am a private tenant, remember?), but families living in overcrowded housing have a greater need than you.

    Besides, you even have the option of staying in your current location, but paying for the spare room yourself. This is self-evidently quite fair. I find £14/week very cheap for a room.

    A “fine”?! No, it is not a fine. It’s limiting your benefit to what you really need. Besides, I thought you said names are not important?

    • charles says:

      Well said Mary. These scroungers have had it far too easy for too long. Basic rations, that’s their lot. If I had my way they wouldn’t even get that. I know I’m not alone in believing you get what you deserve in this life and these lazy freeloaders are about to get theirs.

  2. Kevin White says:

    Brilliant Paula ! A clear and well reasoned case. I wish you were Leader. Give me some more leaflets to deliver for you !

  3. Brian Robson says:

    Steve Webb’s flippant ‘work a few more hours’ reply is one of the most frustrating things about this. Someone as well-versed as he is with the benefits system surely knows that extra hours worked mean claw-backs in benefits, meaning the number of hours which must be worked to earn enough extra cash to cover the bedroom tax can actually be very high indeed (even assuming, as Paula points out, that such hours are readily available)

    Good blog here from a housing provider which makes clear what Steve Webb’s ‘solution’ would actually mean for some of their residents: http://www.affinitysutton.com/news_and_resources/public_affairs/policy_positions/our_opinions/bedroom_tax.aspx

  4. Paula says:

    Not sure where Mary got the impression I am affected by the bedroom tax. As it happens I have a job and a mortgage. The use of I is a common literary device when explaining something. I do however know that communities very near mine, including some people in my own streeet, are being hit by this charge which could have been phased in over a period of time but instead is being introduced in a sort of big bang. So Mary you are not paying for any room in my house and as I receive no benefit you are not paying for any aspect of my life.

  5. MAT says:

    I agree with Kevin White

  6. Chris Randall says:

    Nary your reply is typical of many but doesn’t take into account the real problem of having no where to move too. The fact is it took Labour 8 years to introduce this for the private sector I fought it all the way having a stand up argument with John Healey about it because it was just as wrong then as now. The fact is I was chair on Housing and Regeneration Scrutiny and can see what you are saying, but in Hull we were told to get rid of 5,500 council homes and we did nearly evryone of them a bedsit or a single bedroom. Why you ask to keep flexibility in the system because a single or a couple or a family with one child or two children of the same sex can live there. The alternative was to flatten what ever was empty 3, 4, or 2, bedrooms which might be needed in the future. So these people were asked to move and they did, Hull no longer has any 1 beds to put people in and here is the real cost not an stinking filthy government housing ministers guess. A lady I know in the last 12 months has lost her mental health sickness appeal, so get job seekers for £71.71 a week from 2 days time and because her son has finished unversity and found a job in London she had 1 spare room now her daughter has got married and left the Army and so she now as of the middle of February got another spare room, That means her housing association are asking for £20.50 from her and the council because of the 10% reduction in government grants wants another £6 So tell me how she will live on £45.21 a week the whole thing is a heartless con which is being tagged up by our parliamentary party as fair. Sop I will make a point of when this poor women is out on the streets and her mental health has suffered I of letting you all know when her funeral is because our party is responsible for this and I will not let them forget what they did in “fairness”,

  7. Meg Crosby says:

    The problem with this government’s approach is that it’s a punishment based system – do as we say otherwise you’ll lose your benefits – which is always going to fail in the end. If you really want to motivate people, then there should be rewards as well; the carrot as well as the stick. I would have given them extra money in their pockets if they followed the policy, perhaps by having rent payment holidays or similar incentives.

  8. Paul Hinge says:

    Having studied and researched Politics, worked on the inside and now as an elected politician. I find,in my considered opinion, that above the level of local government politics is wholly driven by self interest….a very sad thing to say….but true nonetheless!
    If we are true to the principles of our Party then how we can support the operational outcomes of the welfare benefit reductions in the manner our politicians have is beyond reasonable comprehension. Yes there are people out there who swing the lead, but don’t tar everyone with the same brush!
    The example of ‘bedroom tax’ is a case in point. We have a party who is ideologically driven to reduce the size of government to such an extent they are no better than a rabid dog in the zeal over this matter. We have a huge dearth of appropriate properties throughout the UK to undertake this ideologically driven piece of social engineering. IDS and his crew would have been far better employed in sorting the causal effects of the welfare bill increase not instigating a quick fix blanket approach to benefit bill reduction……but hey ho, they couldn’t do that because it would mean they would have a social conscience!
    I Chair a county wide Citizens Advice Bureau…..last year we had a 60% increase in enquiries over the previous year and if a similar pattern continues in this year (based on the figures on just the first 3 months of this year) w will see a 115% increase over last years figures…….and most of that is benefit and debt related enquiries so our Party is in bed with social engineers and history shows us the outcomes that these social engineers can achieve. Please L/D politicians at Westminster wake up and smell the coffee before it’s too late!!!!

  9. Liz Makinson says:

    Great article Paula. I have just listened to IDS talking about how benefits trap people in poverty. It is Orwelian and puts me in mind of the people who said in 1834 that outdoor relief created poverty and the answer was the workhouse. Almost speechless this evening at the sheer stupidity of this policy.

  10. sfk says:

    Good perspective

    I feel sorry for people whose kids move out and they need to make a transition/decisions quickly.

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