Axe the bedroom tax Can’t pay – won’t pay!

After months of prevarication, the Labour Party finally agreed at its September conference to repeal the bedroom tax if it is elected in 2015. Labour had held back for two reasons: first, because it wants to be seen as financially responsible, and second, because it needs to win back the electoral support of the middle class and better-off sections of the working class, the majority of whom think that welfare benefits are too generous. However, the bedroom tax is now completely discredited, with constant revelations about the appalling impact it has on the poorest sections of the working class, and especially on disabled people. This was underlined by opinion polls which in mid-September showed 60% support for abolition. Labour had no excuse for further delay. Robert Clough reports.

There was no real principle involved for Labour: leader Ed Miliband tied the repeal of the bedroom tax to raising money by scrapping a tax break for hedge funds and a scheme for trading employment rights for company shares. And Miliband’s pledge has not changed the position on the ground: there is no sign, for instance, that Labour councils are prepared to use their existing powers to alleviate the tax’s appalling impact on tenants, despite a series of important benefit tribunal judgments.

Waiting until 2015 and a possible Labour victory is not an option for the 660,000 tenants generally estimated to be liable to pay the bedroom tax. A survey by The Independent (19 September) shows that 50,000 council and 30,000 housing association tenants are already in significant rent arrears, and that this is probably an underestimate. The pressures on tenants paying the bedroom tax are enormous: they also have to pay up to 22% of their council tax which means that they have 50-60% less money to spend on food, clothes and household items. The government’s argument that tenants need to downsize has been confounded by the fact that there are few one- or two-bedroom properties available for tenants prepared to move. An earlier Independent survey (5 August) covering 38 councils showed that for 99,079 families affected by the tax there were only 3,803 smaller properties for them to move to. This meant that 95% of tenants are trapped with no possibility of downsizing even if they are prepared to. For many this is not a consideration: it is not just a case of bricks and mortar, but a home where they may have lived for 20 or 30 years.

Despite the absence of any significant movement against the bedroom tax, the ConDem coalition has been forced on to the back foot in justifying it. It is increasing expenditure on housing benefit, rather than reducing it, as the only downsizing option for social housing tenants is to move into the private sector. Wherever you are in the country, a single person on benefit will get more in local housing allowance (LHA) for renting privately than a family of six will get in housing benefit for renting a three-bedroom property in the social housing sector.

In 2010, the government said that the housing benefit reforms it planned would reduce housing benefit expenditure by £2bn. In fact it has increased from £20.8bn to £23.8bn this year. The reasons for this are clear: it is because more and more people are having to claim the far greater LHA for renting in the private sector. Between May 2010 and February 2013, the number of housing benefit claimants rose by 100,000 from 3.30 million to 3.40 million. The number claiming LHA rose at twice the rate – from 1.45 million to 1.67 million, or by 220,000. The average weekly award for housing benefit at this time in the social housing sector was £81.36; for LHA it was more than 25% greater, £105.26. As the bedroom tax forces tenants into the private sector, so the overall expenditure on housing benefit will continue to rise. The government persists in describing the bedroom tax as the ‘spare room subsidy’. The real subsidy is the extra amount paid in LHA to private landlords over and above what would be spent on social housing: £2.1bn per annum

The financial case for the bedroom tax was always nonsense. However, this was a smokescreen for the government’s real intention: to force the pace on privatising the remaining stock of social housing. Throughout the country, three-bedroom properties are being emptied out and ‘tinned up’. Typical of the trend is on Wirral, where the number of empty three-bedroom properties run by housing association Magenta Living has risen more than five-fold from 30 to 160. The combination of lost rent from these houses and unpaid bedroom tax is running at millions a year: housing association finances are being destabilised. They have responded with threats of court action if tenants do not pay: yet no amount of court action can force tenants to pay what they have not got.

The government’s position was discredited further by its hysterical attack on Raquel Rolnik, the UN special rapporteur on housing. After touring the country in early September and meeting tenants affected by the bedroom tax, Rolnik called for it to be suspended pending a full re-evaluation of its ‘impact on the right to adequate housing and general well-being of many vulnerable individuals’. Tory Party chair Grant Shapps called her report ‘an absolute disgrace’ and said the government would write to UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon complaining about Rolnik’s bias. His claim that she had not met any minister to discuss the bedroom tax was later revealed to be without foundation: she met with two from the Department of Communities and Local Government. Rolnik observed that in all the 11 countries she had visited as a special rapporteur she had never met with such an aggressive response, and apologised only for not calling the bedroom tax a ‘spare room subsidy’. The UN has rejected the complaint.

The real body blows to the bedroom tax however have come from a series of judgments by a First-tier Benefit Tribunal in Kirkcaldy, Fife and subsequently in Westminster which have completely undermined the justification offered by councils for the processes they adopted in deciding bedroom tax liability. Every council made its decision based on one line of spreadsheet data on bedroom numbers drawn exclusively from tenant agreements supplied by either council housing departments or housing associations. The judgments reject the use of tenant agreements as a reliable basis for any bedroom tax decision and say that such decisions require councils to find out the room purpose and usage as at the time it makes the decision, and that they must consider both room size and also usable floor space. The judge stated that under-occupancy has to be seen as the flip side of overcrowding legislation, and that statutory space standards set out for Scotland in a 1987 Housing Act (and in England in the 1985 Housing Act) are relevant for bedroom tax decisions. His conclusion was that to be classified as a bedroom for bedroom tax purposes, a room had to be large enough to be appropriate for use as a bedroom by an adult (a possible lodger) – or by two children. Under the 1985 Act, this means it has to be at least 70 sqft; rooms of 50 to 70 sqft are appropriate only for use as sleeping accommodation by a young child (up to the age of 10), and a room of less than 50 sqft is not a bedroom at all.

One estimate is that the decision on space standards alone would cut the number of those deemed liable for the bedroom tax by 30%. Yet only 16 councils have ruled that a room of less than 50 sqft cannot be liable for the bedroom tax; ironically one is Tory-run Welwyn and Hatfield council in Grant Shapps’ constituency. Fife council, which decided not to appeal against the Kirkcaldy judgments, has now ruled that it will rescind bedroom tax decisions on rooms of less than 70 sq ft.

The Fife decision about room purpose and usage would open up the way for successful appeals by those who use a room for storing disability equipment; disabled people make up about two-thirds of tenants forced to pay the bedroom tax. It has been complemented by a possibly even more important decision by Westminster Benefit Tribunal which ruled that a tenant should not be liable for bedroom tax on a room which he had used since the start of his tenancy as a store for disability equipment. Again, the fact that the tenancy agreement described the flat in question as a two-bedroom flat was irrelevant: in fact the day before the tribunal hearing the landlord declassified it down to a one-bedroom property. The government is now in a panic: it says it is seeking permission to appeal against two Fife judgments in a DWP circular (U6/ 2013) which, read literally, implies that a room is a bedroom if it is 15 sqft – the size of a single bed, and furthermore that the landlord rather than the council housing benefit team is responsible for bedroom tax decisions. To make matters worse for the government, the tenants who lost judicial reviews at the High Court at the end of July have been given permission to appeal to the Appeal Court.

While much campaigning to date has focused on getting councils to agree a no-evictions policy, the Kirkcaldy and Westminster judgments have shifted the terrain. Evictions for non-payment of the bedroom tax are unlikely to be a threat for months, and can be forestalled by tenants appealing. What is now at issue is whether Labour-run councils will accept that they have always had the legal basis for significantly undermining the appalling impact of the bedroom tax, and that these judgments confirm this. If they do not, then they make a mockery of Labour’s opposition to the tax.

Campaigns against the bedroom tax should be demanding that their councils take action now. A press statement by Merseyside Federation of anti-Bedroom Tax campaigns issued on 19 September said:

‘There are thousands of properties on Merseyside where tenants are paying bedroom tax for rooms less than 70 sqft ... Councils and housing associations will now have to face up to the prospect of undertaking individual surveys of tens of thousands of social housing properties across Merseyside to record individual room sizes, their purpose and the use that is made of them. It is expected that at least 30% of all bedroom tax decisions will have to be set aside as a result. [Federation Secretary] Ms Edgar comments: “This is an exercise that will take months. In the meantime, we demand that all existing bedroom tax decisions are set aside. Why should tenants continue to pay a tax for which they are not liable while councils do the job that they should have done at the outset?”.’

There is only a limited time for councils to act. With winter approaching, tenants will be faced with an enormous increase in their heating bills. There will be less and less to spend on food. The situation for hundreds of thousands will become more and more desperate. In these circumstances, tenant organisations and anti-bedroom tax groups will have to consider unilaterally implementing the Kirkcaldy and Westminster judgments, and taking the first steps towards a non-payment campaign.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 235 October/November 2013


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