The myths about who is protected from the ‘bedroom tax’
There has been a great deal of political back-and-forth about the Government’s changes to Housing Benefit variously known as the ‘spare room subsidy’ or ‘underoccupancy penalty’, but mostly as the ‘bedroom tax.’ Often the reporting on the politics does little to reflect the actual impact on families.
In short – if you are living in social housing, receive Housing Benefit and are considered to have a ‘spare’ room, your Housing Benefit will be cut leaving you with a shortfall in your rent. On average, those affected face a shortfall of over £700 a year, which if unpaid, could result in them losing their homes unless they cover the costs themselves or secure discretionary support from their council to do so.
Since the policy was implemented in April we have seen growing evidence that concerns were well founded about the availability of smaller properties for those affected to move to, the impact on the numbers of families facing debt and rent arrears and the extent to which disabled people and their families would be protected.
Disabled people and carers aren’t protected. They’re the hardest hit.
We have been particularly frustrated by media reports and statements in Parliament which imply that all disabled people and carers are protected. They aren’t. In fact, the Government’s own figures show that the majority of households affected include a disabled person.
Limited exemptions do exist which allow for extra rooms for disabled children unable to share with siblings or disabled people who need someone from outside the home to come and stay to provide care. However the majority aren’t exempt and will face a shortfall, including carers unable to share a room with disabled partners, parents of disabled children who need an extra bedroom for overnight care and families who need a room to store medical equipment like dialysis machines, disability lifts or other adaptations.
Rationed discretionary support
For these families, the only recourse is to ask their councils for ‘discretionary housing payments’ to cover the costs, and the Government has given a £25 million pot to local councils designed to protect disabled people affected who really do need the extra space.
But 30 seconds on a calculator shows you that this fund is woefully inadequate. The Government’s own figures show that 420,000 disabled people are affected by the policy. With an average shortfall of £14 a week, the £25 million is actually only enough for 40,000 people – 1 in 10 of the disabled people affected, and only for one year.
The Government talked about disabled people with significant adaptations to their home being protected. But the National Housing Federation puts the figure of disabled people with adaptations at nearer 100,000 – so the discretionary pot doesn’t even cover this group.
But this also shows a very narrow understanding of why disabled people and their families need additional space. What of the wife caring for her husband with dementia – he can wake up in the night, confused, and lash out at her, thinking she is a stranger. Their house hasn’t been adapted but no-one would dispute her need for her own room?
As a result, with far greater demand than the funds can meet, councils are having to severely ration support to cover the shortfall.
In the last two weeks, Carers UK interviewed 101 carers affected, and less than a quarter of carers had got any discretionary support at all. Only 1 in 10 had got a full year covered – the rest just receiving a few months of support, even though it was clear they needed to stay in their homes permanently.
The impact on carers not receiving discretionary support and having to cover the shortfall was severe. Three quarters were being forced to cut back on food and electricity to pay the shortfall in rent, and we spoke to carers eating just one meal a day to ensure that their disabled loved ones had enough to eat. One in six were in rent arrears and faced the risk of eviction.
Many were caught in an impossible situation. Unable to move to smaller accommodation because the additional room is essential or because it would mean moving away from friends and families who support them to care, they were also unable to pay the shortfall.
Even those receiving discretionary payments are left with deep feeling of insecurity – they face having to reapply each year, or even more frequently, for a support to keep them in their homes.
These are families already living with a great deal of fear and uncertainty. Many have been forced to give up work to care for loved ones and are coping with the financial impact of reduced earnings and the extra costs of disability and poor health. In the next few years their disability benefits will also be reassessed as a new system is implemented and stretched social care services also face cuts and increased charges.
We fear that the cumulative impact may leave some families unable to continue to care. Beyond the terrible personal costs for families, for a saving of £14 a week in Housing Benefit, councils and the NHS are going to end up bearing the much greater costs of replacing family care.
In the short term, with discretionary payments giving very limited and often only temporary support, and families facing financial crisis, we have urged the Government to instead exempt carers and disabled people – rather than leave them struggling to access insufficient and insecure discretionary relief.