The last year has seen the coalition force British people to tighten their belts through austerity measures and has attacked the social security system from all angles in an attempt to ‘save’ money and clear the deficit.  Their approach involved the introduction of the Welfare reform Act 2012 – a ruthless shake up of the British welfare system. Through this one of the most controversial proposals was introduced – the spare room subsidy.

What has become commonly referred to as ‘the bedroom tax’, has brought in new rules for people claiming benefits for their council or housing association homes – placing a limit on the number of bedrooms housing benefit will now help to pay for. This came into full force on April 1st, but unfortunately it was no April fool’s joke. Now, if social tenants are considered to have spare bedrooms, their housing benefit is to be slashed.

Many have likened this policy to the Thatcher lead “poll tax” idea – and it is certainly as unpopular. Under new regulations, the amount of benefits paid to claimants is reduced if they are deemed to have ‘too much’ living space. If the property they’re renting is larger than their household size requires, they now face cuts of 14% for one extra bedroom and 25% for two or more. Obviously unlike Thatcher’s “poll tax”, this is not actually a form of taxation like its popular name suggests. However, although Thatcher wanted to tax per head, the cruel reality of this policy is, basically, if you have more bedrooms than the rules say you need, you get less of your rent paid for by housing benefit. Therefore effectively you have two choices – pay rent for these extra rooms yourself, or move to somewhere smaller!

According to the Department of Work and Pensions, this ensures people receive help towards their housing costs based on the needs of the household. This is supposed to bring both stability to the housing market and create an incentive to work. Apparently it also reduces welfare dependency (a phrase the Con-Dem government loves to reiterate to get people on board).  These new rules hover have numerous and far-reaching effects.

According to the National Housing Federation, it was estimated that 660,000 working-age social tenants would be affected by the new policy. Originally concerns were largely raised in relation to parents of adult children in the armed forces and foster parents – tenants who would require their ‘spare’ bedrooms – before the government ratified its rules later in March 2013. Disabled people still fall short on this new policy. Although it acceptable for disabled tenants to have an extra bedroom for overnight care, it is not acceptable for them to have a spare bedroom if used to store medical equipment. Also couples who use separate bedrooms because of illness or disability, and separated and divorced parents who share the care of their children, are also denied an extra bedroom – unless of course they pay.

There are obviously a number of possible reasons for spare bedrooms, but the bottom line is people on housing benefit are of course unlikely to be in a position to pay the extra. So why not move? A legitimate question one could ask. Well, this is the most harrowing part of the bedroom tax policy – those hit have nowhere to move to. According to figures provided by councils in response to Freedom of information requests by the Labour party, 19 out of 20 families hit are confined in their larger properties because there is nowhere smaller within the local social housing supply to re-house them. Therefore, even those willing to move – willing to give up their spare bedrooms rather than pay for them – have nowhere to go and end up paying for them anyway.  This is where the spare room subsidy grants its more popular name; the bedroom tax. This policy was built on the apparent belief that under-occupiers would simply move to smaller homes, when in reality, what is actually doing is forcing vulnerable people to pay money they don’t have. This ruthless policy is leading people into debt, homelessness, and pushing already poor people into deeper poverty.

Personally, I believe the bedroom tax is just another all too familiar attack on benefits. It is another way to penalise the poor as Thatcher did, as the coalition government has been effectively doing since day one through its welfare programme. It’s promoting a culture of self –reliance rather than welfare (one of the Conservative party’s favourite past times) at a time when welfare is needed most.

BY: Rachael Davey

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