The Court of Appeal today ruled that the Bedroom Tax unlawfully discriminates against women feeling domestic violence, and severely disabled children who need overnight care. It’s a significant blow for a justly maligned government policy. But the government refuse to back-down.
The Bedroom Tax was introduced by the government in April 2013 in an attempt to reduce the housing benefit bill and make better use of social housing stock by penalising low income households who were deemed to be ‘under occupying’ their home. To enforce this, households who were under occupying had part of their housing benefit award taken away from them – 14% for people with one ‘spare bedroom’, and 25% for two or more.
A handful of exemptions were included in the policy – for example, for people with children away on armed service, or for foster carers – however many groups have been perversely affected, including those with disabilities. And for all people hit by the Bedroom Tax it can mean moving out of the place you have called home for years; the home where you raised your children, that is close to your friends, family, work or support networks.
Today’s Court of Appeal ruling involved two cases. The first case – known as Case A – was brought by a woman fleeing domestic violence. The case stated that the bedroom tax discriminates against survivors of domestic violence who are living in accommodation specifically equipped to meet their needs. Case A’s accommodation was equipped with a panic room, designed to provide sanctuary in the event of a break-in and attack. This panic room had been classed as a ‘spare bedroom’ and subject to the bedroom tax, which means that Case A sees money taken from her housing benefit.
The second case involves the Rutherfords, grandparents of Warren. Due a rare genetic disorder Warren requires 24 hour care. The family live in a 3 bedroom property, with the third room used by an overnight carer. The grandparents themselves both have a disability, and without this vital overnight support they would not be able to care for Warren. Instead of being supported by the government through their hardship, the Rutherfords are instead seeing money taken away from them through the bedroom used by the carer, which in turn could put them at risk of eviction.
At Shelter we hear from vulnerable people all the time (we were involved in ‘A’s’ case early on) who are put at risk of homelessness because of the Bedroom Tax. We recently heard from Steve, who told us:
“I am a paraplegic and I am in an adapted property too small to have furniture and get about in my wheelchair. The extra bedroom is too small for me to use as my main bedroom and I cannot get around the bed to make it because of the size. With the bedroom tax how am I going to find the extra £50 plus pounds per month for this? I have asked to be rehoused, but the housing association said it’s difficult to find a suitable property for my medical condition being a permanent wheelchair user. I’m worried that if I fall behind on my rent they will not find me a place but evict me.”
We also heard from Sarah, who is a full time carer for her severely disabled 18 year old son. They live in a 3 bed council property and they need the third room for an overnight carer who stays three nights a week. This is the only way she can get any sleep as her son is quite active in the night. Yet under the rules of the Bedroom Tax Sarah is not entitled to the extra room. This is leaving a £100 a month shortfall between Sarah’s rent and her housing benefit, which puts her at risk of eviction.
Research released by the government last month showed that the Bedroom Tax is failing as a policy. On average only 0.5% of those affected by the Bedroom Tax have moved from their home each year since the policy was introduced. Reasons given for not moving include proximity to family, schools and work, but also the shortage in the right size of social housing for people to move into. Moves into the private rented sector among this group are also low, largely because that sector is unaffordable to low income families in many parts of the country. Losing a home in the private rented sector is now the main reason for homelessness, so this sector doesn’t provide the security that families need.
The government has often batted away criticism of the Bedroom Tax by pointing to the availability of Discretionary Housing Payments (DHPs), which can be used by councils to support households at risk of homelessness. But with such extensive reforms to welfare, a shortage of affordable housing, and drastically rising rents in the Private Rented Sector, there’s only so much that DHPs can cover. This is proven by the fact that over half of those affected by the Bedroom Tax have been unable to pay all of their rent, and could face eviction from their home. The judge in today’s Court of Appeal decision was also critical of the extent that DHPs can be used to mitigate against the worst impacts of welfare reform.
Instead of listening to the evidence and learning from its mistake, the government has chosen to ignore the pleas of Case A and the Rutherfords and lodge an appeal against the Court’s decision. We urge the government to take note of the shortcomings of its policy – both its harsh effects on households and its failure to make better use of the social rented sector – and take action by exempting vulnerable groups.