There are less than three weeks until controversial proposals to cut housing benefit come into effect. Yet the Government’s so-called “bedroom tax” policy is in disarray. Ministers are making panicked, last-minute concessions, a challenge is before the High Court, and any number of questions about further exemptions remain unanswered.
This is no call to scrap altogether a plan that would reduce housing benefit by around £14 per week for each of a household’s spare bedrooms. A measure that is worth in the region of £500m to the cash-strapped Exchequer cannot lightly be abandoned. And at least some of the many people living in accommodation that is not fully occupied might choose to find the extra money so as to retain their breathing space.
It is untenable, however, for the policy to be in such chaos at so late a stage as this. Families with severely disabled children who cannot share with their siblings have already been exempted (albeit reluctantly). And, as of this week, foster carers and those with children serving in the armed forces will also be excluded. But questions remain over other crucial groups – parents with secondary custody who need a “spare” room for when their children come to stay, for example, and couples where one partner has disabilities that make sharing a bedroom impractical. Meanwhile, the High Court has given the Work and Pensions Secretary until 18 March to explain why the entire proposal should not be subject to a judicial review.
Amid such confusion, the deadline for the changes to come into force must be postponed. Not only does the Government need more time to get the details of the policy right. Both the local authorities who will administrate it, and the individuals affected by it, also need longer to prepare.