As we release our report which shows the bedroom tax will fail to solve overcrowding, it is clear this policy is incompetent, unfair and should be repealed.
One way and another, I’ve been involved in negotiations about social policy with governments for most of my working life. Governments come and go, ministers come and go and decisions are made. Some of these decisions I agree with, others I disagree with – but that’s life. It’s the way the world works and the way of politics. That’s as true now as it has ever been.
Very occasionally, though, something comes along that is different. These are huge changes that affect the lives of millions and that you know are just wrong. The bedroom tax is one of these once in a generation decisions that is wrong in every respect. It’s bad policy, it’s bad economics, it’s bad for hundreds of thousands of ordinary people whose lives will be made difficult for no benefit – and I think it’s about to become profoundly bad politics.
The Government argues that the bedroom tax will do two things. It will save money from the housing benefit bill and will encourage more efficient use of our present social housing. There is, of course, an inherent contradiction here. It can’t save money if people move and stop ‘under occupying’, because then there would be no penalty and therefore no saving. At best, it can do one or the other. And as there is a saving assumed of £465m, we have to conclude that this is about cutting the benefit bill, not using the homes more efficiently. That money can’t be saved unless people stay put – so let’s nail the idea that there is a generous social policy motivation.
The frustrating thing is that some people will feel forced to move. The family with a 7 year old son and a 9 year old daughter in a small three bedroom home will pay the penalty as two children of different sexes under the age of 10 will be required to share a room. They move, perhaps to a different part of town, or even to a different town, with consequent disruption to schooling, to a cramped 2 bedroom flat. In a year, when the daughter is 10, the rules say the two children should have separate rooms. So either they stay where they are, overcrowded according to the size-criteria, or they move again with all the disruption that entails. This from a government that believes education is key to a successful future and wants to support family life.
Many will choose to stay, or will have to stay. The government may say that a couple, one of whom has muscular dystrophy and has to sleep in her own room, should only have one bedroom and sleep together, presumably at whatever cost to her health (and the health of her husband). What will this end up costing these two people – and the NHS? If they stay in their two bedroom home, they will struggle to make ends meet. And the carer, who costs the state nothing and does it because he loves his wife, might need help and will buy in expensive care – at the cost of the state.
I’ve read hundreds of emails from people who are terrified at the prospect of the bedroom tax. One woman with COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) believes that moving will kill her and that the worry is already putting her on the verge of a hospital admission. Then there’s the granny in a two bedroom bungalow who helps out her single parent daughter by having the kids to stay most weekends.
If you’ve read some of the more lurid reports in the tabloids, you might believe that there are thousands of people living on their own in five bedroom mansions. The truth is that 80% of all those affected are regarded as having one ‘spare’ room. Spare. That’s an interesting idea. These rooms are not lying empty. They are where the kids do their homework and sleep. That’s a bedroom, not a spare room. They are where the equipment is stored for the family with a multi handicapped son. They are where kids stay when they visit the father who is separated from their mother. They are rooms where the messy business of living goes on in an ordinary way.
These are ordinary people striving to lead ordinary lives. They are poor or disabled or vulnerable and are now being vilified and penalised for their poverty, disability and vulnerability. They are our neighbours, our friends, our family. They are us.
The bedroom tax will cause huge personal distress. It will cost the nation money and will undermine our view of ourselves as a caring society. It is mean spirited and malign. It attacks family life and is the enemy of aspiration. It will fail to improve the use of our housing and it may not even save money. It is incompetent and unfair and should be repealed.