Before we condemn the government for the imposition of the “bedroom tax” on some of the poorest families in Britain, it is worth setting out why they did it.
The most common reason given is fairness. When tenants of a privately owned property turn to the Department of Work and Pensions seeking help in paying the rent, they are means-tested to see if they qualify for what is called the Local Housing Allowance, which is replacing the old system of housing benefit. It may come as a shock when they learn that the allowance is not designed, necessarily, to cover the rent. It is calculated by assessing what size accommodation the applicant needs.
In the case of a childless couple, a one-bedroom flat is deemed sufficient, and they are given what is reckoned to be the normal rent for a one-bedroom flat in that area, regardless of what rent they are actually paying.
The Conservative argument is that fairness requires that there be equivalent rules for council tenants. This is why couples living in social housing whose children have grown up and moved out have undergone the shock of having their housing benefit cut by 14p in the pound, or more.
Naturally there are other factors at work here, besides the Conservative idea of fair play. The Chancellor, George Osborne, is on a mission to remove £12bn from the social security budget. Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Security, firmly believes that allowing people to live off benefits traps them in a dependency culture. Part of the official advice to tenants hit by the withdrawal of housing benefit is to find a job or work longer hours, to make up the difference.
Another part of the official advice is that tenants who cannot pay should apply to be transferred to a one-bedroom property, which would free up their property for a family with young children.
But to answer the last point first, the government introduced this measure at short notice, without making sure that couples who wanted to “downsize” had somewhere to go. If they had prepared for the change with a building programme that ensured there were enough one-bedroom homes ready to meet the increased demand, much hardship could have been avoided. But as the Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski points out, in his part of the country, Shropshire, there are people who cannot move into smaller properties through no fault of their own. There are no smaller properties. The same is true all over the country.
In answer to the Conservatives’ main argument, concerning fairness, there is no record that private tenants were crying out for this alleged unfairness to be put right. Generally, people do not feel the loss of what they have never had. But as another Tory, Lucy Allan, points out, council tenants who have been hit by the “bedroom tax” may be forced out of the family home to a place where they have no community ties.
The reality of the “bedroom tax” was brought home to Conservative MPs as they went knocking on doors during the election campaign. They found many suffering under its inflexible provisions, which is why there is unease in Tory ranks. Now that they control Parliament, no one outside the Conservative Party can force them to think again. But it is a cruel policy. The money saved is not worth the impact it has on those affected. Here is a chance for the government to demonstrate that it truly is a “One Nation” government, by scrapping this cruel measure.Reuse content