The story of Rivers Pound, which is detailed in The Independent today, is not only a deeply moving one. It should also stand as a cautionary tale to every local authority in Britain about the implementation of the under-occupancy penalty, or, to use its more common name, the “bedroom tax”.
Mr Pound has battled with kidney problems for most of his life. He has been on and off dialysis for nearly 40 years, and has a room in his flat to house the bulky equipment. Except that, because he was not on dialysis at the time that the welfare rules changed – his body was, in fact, rejecting its third transplanted organ – he was deemed to have an extra room, and charged an unaffordable £120 per month as a consequence.
Of this we should be clear. In principle, the Government’s determination that social housing should be provided appropriately to each family, determined by the circumstances – and the changing circumstances – of that family is not unreasonable. It is wrong, say, that a couple, who once needed a large property to house their many children, should automatically retain the same housing when the children have gone and they are alone.
Of course, there are those elderly couples who may be distressed at the prospect of moving from the home. It is therefore right that pensioners are exempt from the new rules. Equally, however, many in private and public sector housing also need to “downsize” to smaller, more manageable accommodation. Social housing is scarce enough, and it must be allocated efficiently.
The devil, as ever, is in the detail. No one should be forced to move far away from their families and everyone, at all times, should be treated with dignity and given the maximum possible notice of impending change. Indeed, it must be made clear at the start of a tenancy that circumstances may change. And nowhere should discretion be exercised more sensitively than with those who have serious health difficulties. The case of Mr Pound highlights what can go wrong. It should not take national attention to be put right.