Room to grow
According to Shelter Scotland, the bedroom tax has created a monster for 82,500 Scots. The charity reports a sharp increase in calls to its helplines from people in tears, who report sleepless nights and days filled with worry. Graeme Brown, director of Shelter Scotland, told Holyrood the charity has been struck by the sheer desperation of the people who are calling for help and advice. “I don’t want to be accused of over-dramatising but often people are genuinely in tears when they’re phoning us and you can tell they’re very much on the edge,” he said.
Just last week the UK Government revealed an independent review of the bedroom tax is under way, as the controversial policy featured in talks between the Prime Minister and devolved government leaders. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said research was needed into the policy to see whether tenants could opt to take a smaller house or flat to avoid a deduction in their benefits. Clegg told the House of Commons he suspected the problem varied across the UK and revealed a review was now under way to determine the impact of the government policy. In the joint ministerial council at Downing Street last week, Alex Salmond demanded the UK Government reverses the controversial policy.
He said: “The Scottish Government rejects the bedroom tax which penalises the poor and vulnerable in our communities. Over 82,000 households in Scotland are seeing housing benefit payments cut under the UK Government’s under occupancy rules and around 80 per cent of those are homes to disabled adults. Over 15,000 of those affected are families with children. Scotland has been short-changed on the only support available to us to help mitigate the impacts of the bedroom tax. Despite being home to 12 per cent of those affected, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has allocated less than nine per cent of Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP) here.”
Shelter Scotland is also calling for the rule to be repealed. The charity’s campaign, ‘Banish the Bedroom Tax Monster’ is urging the public to support a call to action on this and other welfare changes. Brown added: “We want the bedroom tax scrapped and the responsibility for the tax lies fairly and squarely with the UK Government. That’s our position but in the meantime, our role is to do what we can to help the 82,500 people who are going to be impacted and are already being impacted by these changes to welfare. You’ll notice I don’t call it ‘welfare reform’, to be quite honest, to grace policy changes like these with that description would be to suggest a lot more rationale and logic behind them than actually exists.”
Since April, working age social tenants deemed to have too many rooms have had benefit payments cut. The DWP said housing benefit will provide support for the number of bedrooms a household needs. It added that this type of support is currently in place for renters in the private sector claiming housing benefit, and social renters will now be subject to the same size criteria.
Speaking about the new rule at the start of October, Lord Freud, Parliamentary Under Secretary for Welfare Reform, said: “As you will all be aware, we have also introduced the removal of the spare room subsidy this year. I recognise the hard work that all local authorities are undertaking to deliver this important policy. As with all our reforms, we are gathering evidence, learning and sharing best practice. We recently responded to concerns from the sector by increasing in-year funding for local authorities by £35 million to help support those affected to navigate the transition to the new arrangements.”
The Scottish Government’s position is firm, with Housing Minister Margaret Burgess repeatedly calling for the rule to be abandoned. She said recently: “The bedroom tax is unfair, ill-conceived and risks pushing people to the edge and we have made clear that following a vote for independence this policy will be scrapped.”
The Scottish Government recently allocated £20m of extra funding to individual local authorities to add to their DHP budget, in the hopes it will allay the impact of the bedroom tax. The money will top up the payments in each local authority to the maximum permitted under UK legislation. People on housing benefit who are in financial difficulty can apply to their local council for emergency funding towards their ongoing housing costs, such as rent shortages. The extra funding will increase the total DHP budget in Scotland from £15m to £35m. Burgess added: “We are determined to do everything we can to help mitigate welfare cuts, including the bedroom tax. We also recognise the huge financial pressures that have been placed upon authorities by welfare reform, this is why we have made available an additional £20 million to be distributed across every local authority.”
In Clackmannanshire, the council’s housing committee convener Les Sharp said the council is thinking innovatively to address the problems people are suffering. However, not in the way recently reported. Over the summer, concerns were raised following reports the council was allegedly boarding up spare rooms in a bid to get round the new rule. However, Sharp said the story is not true and it originated from an idea of potentially providing shared accommodation in a two-bedroom property as temporary accommodation for the homeless. He told Holyrood: “Nothing has been boarded up. We had a look to see if it would be feasible to use two or three bedroom properties as shared properties with different tenants. It was purely a ‘testing the water on paper’ exercise to see if it would work, including the logistics and the costs, and it was then commonly bandied about that we were putting someone in one room and boarding up the rest.”
He added: “The people who are really suffering are the people we can’t accommodate moving downwards. We are trying to address that, as we speak, we’re building new housing for the first time in many years and using some of the funds we have to buy ‘off the shelf’ housing to try and accommodate people when we need to get them moved into one or two-bedroom accommodation. In the last two months, we’ve passed through planning upwards of 90 homes. We’re working hard to accommodate people in smaller houses but traditionally in Scotland, it was never the policy to build smaller accommodation. I think every council has been stuck with that.
“There’s been no policy to build for 10-15 years and what we’re now doing is using some quite innovative ways to provide housing stock. One is ‘off the shelf’, we find them and then bring them up to the Scottish housing quality standard. We’re not just buying a cheap house and moving someone into it. This is all to try and take the pressure from the bedroom situation.”
Councils are often on the front line in dealing with this policy. However, in March, councillors from Scotland’s SNP-led local authorities, including Clacks, signed a declaration which read: “We, the representatives of SNP-led local authorities, resolve that where tenants who are subject to the bedroom tax and are doing all they reasonably can to avoid falling into arrears, we will use all legitimate means to collect rent due, except eviction.”
Local Government Minister Derek Mackay said: “Our councillors are making this pledge to protect the most vulnerable people in our society from the bedroom tax and shows that the SNP will stand up for the people of Scotland.”
According to the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations (SFHA), the bedroom tax remains a “profoundly unfair” policy. The organisation is the national representative body for Scotland’s housing associations and co-operatives. It has 119 members providing affordable housing and wider community services in Scotland, as well as a further 200 commercial members.
David Ogilvie, policy manager with SFHA, said: “Our position on this issue has been consistent from the very start. We have been opposed to the under-occupation restrictions since they were first proposed. The policy struck us as being profoundly unfair. We have been consistent in our condemnation of this and our position now is that we want to see this cruel and iniquitous policy repealed. That is our starting point. We have had considerable success in getting the message out about why it is so unfair. Also, by all indications, it looks like this measure is actually going to cost the taxpayer more because it is going to force a number of people to look for smaller property in the private rented sector. This will only serve to increase the private sector housing benefit bill.
“When you look at the impact it has in places like Scotland where we have a lot of rural areas, there often isn’t the option of moving to a smaller private rented sector property. The UK Government has shown itself to be intractable on this. It is determined to drive this policy through, in the face of arguments about how it’s impacting disproportionately on many different groups of people. DHPs have been promoted as the remedy but they are insufficient to provide a cushion to those who are going to be impacted. In any case, they are only intended to be temporary. Our own evidence published earlier this year, showed that DHPs are not the solution. Tenants are finding it very difficult to access the payments and those who have been successful have no idea how long they will continue to receive them. We saw from figures published recently by the Scottish Housing Regulator evidencing that rent arrears were on an upward trend before the changes to housing benefit came in. We are living in tough times, tenants have a range of challenges, the employment market is far more cruel and unsympathetic than it was and people are struggling to balance budgets. Introduce the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ into this and people’s lives and the job of housing officers become very hard indeed.”
Last month, Scottish Labour’s social justice spokesperson Jackie Baillie lodged a proposed bill which would ensure that anyone who falls into arrears as a result of the bedroom tax will not be evicted from their home. Baillie said: “The bedroom tax is unfair and unworkable, it doesn’t make financial sense and is targeting some of the most vulnerable tenants in our communities. David Cameron should end this unjust policy right now. We know that a Labour government would repeal the bedroom tax should it get into power in 2015 but Scottish tenants shouldn’t have to wait that long. Devolution means we can do things differently in Scotland and we must take action.
“While Labour and SNP councils have agreed to protect tenants from the bedroom tax and our pressure has forced the Scottish Government to allocate some money for this, it is still not enough. We have an opportunity to make it clear that all victims of the bedroom tax, whether council or housing association tenants, will be protected from eviction from their homes.”
The planned legislation has been backed by the Church of Scotland, the STUC and the Poverty Alliance, among others. However, SFHA expressed concerns about the bill. Chief executive Mary Taylor said: “Evictions are only ever a last resort. However, rent arrears fundamentally threaten the financial position of housing associations. Since associations are not for profit and charitable social businesses with a responsibility to a wide range of tenants, preventing landlords from evicting will ultimately affect more tenants than the ‘bedroom tax’. Evictions are a sparingly used but necessary ultimate sanction.
“The real problem is the unjust ‘bedroom tax’ which unfairly penalises people on low incomes and threatens the financial stability of social landlords. Tenants are already protected by the test of reasonableness and proportionality applied by sheriffs to repossession actions. Unless the Scottish Government can provide financial support which would protect the viability of social landlords, we cannot support this bill.”