Waking Up On The Wrong Side Of The Bedroom Tax

Natasha Holcroft-Emmess - 7th October 2013

To politicians and lawyers, the ‘bedroom tax’ is just media shorthand for statutory rules relating to housing benefit reductions for under-occupancy of housing association property, ushered in by the Welfare Reform Act 2012. To the many individuals affected by the policy, however, it represents a loss of security which is much more personal and tangible.

In her blog post for the Oxford Human Rights Hub, Dr. Jessie Hohmann lucidly explains and substantiates concerns raised by a UN Special Rapporteur about the adequacy of the UK’s social housing policy. This post outlines my experience on the front line with the Citizens Advice Service, dealing with many people who have found themselves on the wrong side of the bedroom tax.

For three months, I have been volunteering in a Citizens Advice Bureau in North West England, where reportedly more people are affected by the recent welfare reforms than anywhere else. Even in that short time, the inequitable impact of the bedroom tax on the livelihoods of many people has become vividly, uncomfortably apparent.

Two ‘types’ of client are particularly memorable. Firstly, there are the clients who are forced to leave their family home, often after decades of quiet residence, and despite their wish to remain, for smaller lodgings because they cannot afford to bear the reduction in their housing benefit, especially when other expenses (e.g. utilities, food and prior debts) are already stretching any disposable income. Secondly, there are clients who similarly cannot afford to bear the reduction, but who are happy to move and have requested a transfer to a smaller property, only to be told by their housing authority that none is available.

It is difficult to convey on paper the real sense of powerlessness and despondency which these clients so clearly experience. For the former, the feeling of helplessness results from the loss of security due to their coerced displacement, whereas the latter develop a deep distrust of government policy and doubt the efficacy of local councils. The frequency with which such clients are coming through bureaux doors is increasingly concerning.

Thankfully, the unfair impact of the bedroom tax on some of the most vulnerable in society has not gone entirely unnoticed. In a recent case, blind barrister Surinder Lall succeeded in arguing that a room in his flat used to store equipment essential to assist him to lead a normal life should not be classified as a second bedroom for the purpose of the under-occupancy rules. A further case has been granted permission to go to the Court of Appeal, to examine whether the current rules unlawfully discriminate against disabled persons. Commenting on this issue in a public statement, the Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, Gillian Guy, notes that for some a little extra storage space is a real necessity, but it is those people who continue to be penalised by the present policy.

So controversial has the bedroom tax become, that it is now a divisive issue in electoral campaign politics in the UK, with current Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband pledging to scrap the policy. For those on the wrong side of the current rules, repeal cannot come soon enough. Because of its inequitably overbroad scope, and potential for unfair and discriminatory application, the bedroom tax must go.

Natasha Holcroft-Emmess is a volunteer gateway assessor for Citizens Advice. She has recently completed the BCL with distinction and is a frequent contributor to the Oxford Human Rights Hub Blog.

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