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Amongst the avalanche of changes coming from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) at the moment, one in particular gives rise to a terrible irony.
Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State responsible for pushing these changes through, is on record as blaming many of society’s ills on the breakup of families; in fact he practically invented and heavily promoted the whole idea of ‘Broken Britain’. In 2007 he wrote about, ‘strengthening the institution of marriage through the tax and benefit system so that children can grow up in stable families.’
He is now forcing through measures which will make broken families more likely.
From 1st April, people in social housing and in receipt of Housing Benefit, who are deemed by the authorities to have one or more spare bedrooms in their home, will face a cut to their benefit.
If they are deemed to have one spare bedroom, they will lose 14 per cent. Two spare bedrooms will result in a 25 per cent cut. The National Housing Federation says this will affect ‘an estimated 660,000 working-age social tenants’.
For many struggling on low incomes (working or unemployed), this will be unsustainable. They won’t be able to pay their rent and will either get into debt or move to find cheaper accommodation, with all the upheaval that entails.
But when is a bedroom a ‘spare’ bedroom? The rules are clear and inflexible, taking no account of the complexity of people’s lives. Numerous stories are emerging of how people will be affected, from the divorced father not allowed a bedroom for his children when they come to stay, to the parents no longer allowed to keep a room for their son or daughter in the Armed Forces, giving them nowhere to sleep when they return to the family home.
One rule seems to be particularly perverse. It states ‘foster children are not counted as part of the household for benefit purposes’. So, foster children, who may have had a traumatic start in life, are not allowed their own room. If younger than 10 they must share with another child of either gender, and if under 16 they must share with a child of the same gender. It takes very little imagination to think of the problems this might cause in such a fragile family structure. Two teenage boys, perhaps unrelated, perhaps troubled, forced to share a bedroom. Probably a small bedroom, because let’s face it, we’re not talking about mansions here.
But perhaps most egregious is the way these rules affect disabled people, and particularly families with disabled children. Even if a child is disabled, possibly needing medical equipment in the room, possibly sleeping badly and requiring attention in the night, they will still be expected to share with a sibling. If the sibling then suffers from broken sleep and has problems at school, so be it.
Being eligible for Housing Benefit, such families are by definition not wealthy. They may struggle with the extra expense of caring for a disabled child, and probably experience more stress and worry than many families. For the government to barge into a situation like this and dictate that they either move house or become poorer is simply cruel.
Last year the Court of Appeal held that these rules discriminated against disabled people. Undeterred, the DWP has been granted leave to appeal in the Supreme Court.
When families are placed under unbearable financial pressure, or forced to move house unwillingly, it will in some cases contribute to a relationship breakdown. Mr Duncan Smith will have helped bring about the very circumstances he has spent years deploring.
As realisation dawns and people become aware of what these new rules mean for them, a resistance is beginning. Perhaps the Bedroom Tax will become the new Poll Tax.
© Bernadette Meaden has written about religious, political and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor.