- Created: Wednesday, 19 February 2014 12:02
- Written by Robert Clough
Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 237 February/March 2014
The revelation that possibly 15% of all tenants forced to pay the bedroom tax are in fact exempt because of a legal error must give hope to those fighting this vicious attack on the working class.
Described in the media as a ‘loophole’, it is in fact down to the criminal incompetence of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) who ignored clauses in housing benefit regulations set out in 2006. This error means that any tenant who has been on housing benefit since before 1 January 1996 and who has been occupying the same house over that period is exempt from paying the bedroom tax.
In an urgent bulletin issued on 8 January 2014 acknowledging the ‘mistake’, the DWP stated that only a ‘small number’ of tenants would be affected. DWP Secretary Iain Duncan Smith and DWP ministers have said between 3,000 and 5,000 tenants would have their bedroom tax payments refunded. These wretches had no basis for their estimates, and made them up to minimise the scale of the government’s incompetence. The true figure will be at least 40,000, and possibly many more. One Wirral housing association, Magenta Living, believes from its own records that 320 tenants out of 2,076 paying the tax are exempt. This figure does not include those who are in succession tenancies, or who have had to move through force majeure in the period since 1996 (because of fire or flooding, for instance), or who have downsized because they could not afford to pay the tax. Even so, at least 15.4% of its tenants have been unlawfully forced to pay the bedroom tax. This is not out of line with initial figures obtained for other housing authorities in the north, and would translate into a national figure of over 80,000 (15.4% of the 522,000 currently paying the tax).
What does this mean for the tenants involved and their families? They have had to make choices between heating and eating. Life, difficult enough beforehand, has been made intolerable by the worry of eviction for non-payment. It drove Stephanie Bottrill to suicide in May 2013 – we now know she was exempt. Thousands have been forced to abandon what had been their family home for decades. Their lives, and those of their families, have been wrecked – and we are talking here about up to 200,000 people living in the 80,000 affected households. To compound the cruelty, councils such as Wirral and St Helens have unlawfully demanded repayment of Discretionary Housing Payments made to those now recognised as exempt.
This cruelty will continue into a second year because there is no organised resistance despite judgments that benefit tribunals have made in favour of tenants. First Tier Tribunals have ruled that bedroom size is a factor that has to be taken into account in determining bedroom tax liability. They have also ruled that in making bedroom tax decisions, housing authorities have to consider room purpose and current usage; the rights of children to a family life where parents have separated; the specific needs of disabled people, and take into account the human rights of tenants. A real movement would be making hay with this.
Councils have argued that they cannot act on First Tier Tribunal decisions since they do not set legal precedents. However, Upper Tribunals do, and a Bolton Upper Tribunal has set a very important precedent, saying that a room can only be a bedroom if it has a bed in it and is used for sleeping in. In other words, if a room is not furnished with a bed and is not used for sleeping in, then it is not a bedroom (see speye.wordpress.com for greater detail). The importance of this lies in the way councils made their original bedroom tax decisions. Labour and Tory alike, they all uncritically accepted data submitted by social landlords which was no more than the number of bedrooms as recorded on tenancy agreements, and refused to inspect each home to determine how those rooms were being used. This blanket approach was unlawful, and with councils having to undertake annual reviews of housing benefit decisions in February and March, campaigns must up the ante by demanding that council officers inspect every social housing property before making housing benefit decisions for 2014/15.
The DWP has said that it will act to remove the 1996 exemption. While there is no limit to the vindictiveness of the ConDem coalition, this may not be straightforward. Coming in the wake of the continuing Universal Credit fiasco it will be a further exposé of governmental incompetence. The media will find it hard to stigmatise those affected as Benefit Street ‘scroungers’: the overwhelming majority of them are either disabled people or carers who have worked in the past but are unable to do so now. In the meantime up to 80,000 tenants can take out complaints of maladministration against the DWP with the Parliamentary Ombudsman and against their local council with the Local Government Ombudsman. They will also be able to sue both for the financial hardship and distress they have suffered. All of this shows that the bedroom tax can be beaten: it merely requires determined organisation.