Saturday, 16 March 2013

Spare room for thought?

It's a letter from  Duncan Smith.  Apparently one has too many 
bedrooms and will have to dinesize or they'll cut one’s Civil list!
A number of suggestions have been put forward since 2010 as to who might win the title ‘brainiest member of the coalition government’: David “two brains” Willetts, Michael Gove (I know…), Francis Maude, and even, believe it or not, Chris Huhne.  Iain Duncan Smith’s name however, is one that nobody has ever proposed.   And this week, if we were ever in doubt, with the revelations about the bedroom tax, we can see why.
The media over the last few weeks have been full of truly heart-breaking stories about individuals whose lives will be devastated by the introduction of the tax (or under-occupation penalty as the Tories call it).  For all social housing tenants with ‘spare rooms’, their housing benefit will be cut by 14% for one extra bedroom and 25% for two or more extra bedrooms.
For example:
  • ·            The woman who looks after her severely mentally ill brother, but would have to leave him to social services as his room will be "spare" because a brother doesn't count as family.
  •            A disabled man with a chronic lung disease, who shares a home but not a bedroom with his partner/carer as his coughing and vomiting at night keeps her awake.
  •            A father who cares for his severely disabled son three nights a week in a ground-floor flat adapted for his wheelchair, but is told one bedroom is enough.

These individual cases – of which there are thousands – suffice to make the bedroom tax unacceptable.  But Duncan Smith still justifies the policy because of the ‘spiralling’ costs of housing benefit.  It doesn't take long to see however that, never mind the hardship, the tax won’t actually work, in either of its apparent objectives. 

  1.      “It'll free up under-occupied space in social housing.”  On the face of it there’s nothing wrong with this as a policy aspiration.  The last government was keen to promote ‘mixed communities’ that among other things, provided a sufficient mix of tenancies in the same community to cater for the changes that occur for all of us during our ‘housing careers’.  And of course many owner occupiers choose to down-size as they get older.  But it’s not clear how much space the policy will free up.   The example of Hull has been widely quoted.  It’s been estimated that the city has 4,700 tenants that will be affected – and just 73 smaller properties available for them to move to.  Nationally, the main group of tenants likely to have spare rooms is the elderly – but pensioners are (more or less) excluded from the tax.
  2.       It'll save money.”  Where tenants choose to stay, there will of course be a saving to the housing benefit budget: an average of £14 a week for each tenant affected (or £16 a week for housing association tenants).  That’s £14 a week that tenants will have to find from elsewhere: that’s 20% of unemployment benefit.  So what choices are there for tenants who decide they have to move?

  • ·          For the ‘lucky’ few, their landlords will find them alternative accommodation    locally.  But Hull isn’t alone in having few smaller properties available.
  •           Move into private rented accommodation:  but everywhere this is more expensive than social housing – thus leading to an increase in housing benefit.
  •           Move to a cheaper part of the country.  As social housing tenants everywhere will be affected (see the Hull example) it’s unlikely that large quantities of smaller accommodation will be available anywhere.  And in many cases those caught by the new rules are people with disabilities: the government’s own estimates suggest 420,000 of the 660,000 they believe will be affected.    What’s more, according to the National Housing Federation, at least 100,000 of these live in specially adapted accommodation. If these people move there will be additional costs altering their old accommodation and adapting the new – both of which fall to local councils, so no savings there.

There has been no shortage of instances over the last few months that show this government to be not only heartless but incompetent, and among stiff competition, Duncan Smith is coming out top on both counts.  The recently announced climb downs (‘rule clarifications’ according to Duncan Smith) over (some) disabled children, (some) foster parents and service personnel are clear signs of a policy drawn up in haste. The rules are complicated – with those introduced from April 1 due to be changed again (in some cases substantially) when another of Duncan Smith’s ‘brain’ waves, Universal Credit finally crawls into effect later this year. It’s no wonder that Cameron, defending the tax in the House of Commons, got a number of basic aspects of the tax wrong.  (see Channel 4: FactCheck: Cameron slips up on ‘bedroom tax’ | The FactCheck Blog).

We’re told the new Pope is determined to place tackling poverty at the heart of his ministry.  Apparently Duncan Smith is a devout Catholic.  Maybe this will lead IDS to abandon his systematic attacks on the poor and vulnerable – but I wouldn't hold my breath.