Conservatives defeated over harsh bedroom tax

By Savi Hensman
September 6, 2014

The Conservative-led UK government was defeated in the House of Commons yesterday (5 September) after their Coalition partners broke ranks over the controversial bedroom tax. Several Liberal Democrats joined forces with Labour MPs on an Affordable Home Bill.

This private member’s bill, brought by Liberal Democrat MP Andrew George, was passed at second reading by 306 votes to 231. It will now be considered in detail at committee stage.

The so-called ‘spare-room subsidy’, widely known as the bedroom tax, was introduced in April 2013. It slashes housing benefit for social housing tenants of working age by 14 per cent if they are deemed to have one extra room and by 25 per cent for two or more surplus rooms.

But, with narrow exceptions, this takes no account of the particular needs of disabled people and their families or the importance of support networks. It is estimated that two-thirds of households affected by the bedroom tax have disabled members.

If Parliament passes the new bill, people unable to find a smaller home would be exempt, as well as disabled people needing an extra room (for instance for equipment) or with an adapted home.

Work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith claimed it would cost the Treasury £1 billion to reverse the changes. Yet evidence suggests that the bedroom tax overall probably costs more than it saves financially in the short to medium term, in addition to the human cost.

Longer-term financial costs may push the price up higher still, since the bedroom tax targets people when they are at their most vulnerable. For instance, if a single parent loses her job and cannot get another instantly, so that she is reliant on housing benefit, she may be expected to move to another area, so that nearby relatives can no longer offer free childcare.

If a bereaved child struggling to cope with the death of a sibling is then relocated many miles away, far from friends and teachers who would have provided emotional support and companionship, the resulting psychological damage may be serious.

Many people on middle incomes have backed harsh measures against their poorer neighbours because they have believed the government’s claims that such people are ‘scroungers’ living well at their expense. Yet these ‘strivers’ have seen the super-rich enjoy huge gains while their own standard of living has fallen.

The programme of cuts in social security and public services has been presented as a prudent response to an economic crisis. Yet money has been found for tax cuts for millionaires, keeping tax loopholes open, and for vast expenditure on weaponry.

Austerity is mainly about ideology, including breaking bonds of mutuality and undermining human rights for all. While the willingness of some Coalition members to support a softening of the bedroom tax may seem a small move, it may turn out to be part of a wider shift.

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© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector

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