All the wrong moves

JoyceQuin4x3.jpgJoyce Quin on the dire impact of the bedroom tax on individuals, families and communities

The bedroom tax, or ‘under-occupancy charge’ as the government insists on calling it (most of the time anyhow), has now been in existence for six months. And all the evidence shows that the fears about its effects on people already facing higher bills and living costs were fully justified. 

The tax, which came into force on April 1st this year, penalises those who are considered to have more bedrooms than they need and they end up, on average, having to pay an extra £728 each year if they wish to stay in their homes.  At our recent Party Conference I was delighted that Ed Miliband gave a firm commitment to scrap the tax. Today in the Lords I shall urge the government to follow suit.

Ministers claimed that the tax would help tackle the problem of overcrowded accommodation; and that moving tenants from where there are ‘spare’ bedrooms would  make suitable housing available for those in overcrowded conditions. The flaw in this argument however, is that the areas where there is overcrowding are not the same areas where rooms are empty. For example, according to the National Housing Federation’s statistics, in the North of England (ie, the North East, North West, and Yorkshire and Humberside) families affected by the bedroom tax outnumber overcrowded families by 3 to 1.

It is particularly unjust that people are forced to pay the tax even when they are willing to move to smaller properties but where they are unable to do so because no alternative accommodation is available. Large numbers are in this position. In Hull, for example, there are 6,000 people affected by the tax but only 70 suitable empty properties to move into!  Similar instances could be quoted from around the UK – from Aberdeenshire to Cornwall.

The bedroom tax affects many people who are in work. The government keeps saying it wants to help people into work and make work pay, but many working people are on low wages. Some are on zero-hours contracts. Yet they are still being hit by the tax and this can make the difference between being solvent and sinking into debt.

Since April large numbers of people have fallen into rent arrears for the first time, and the financial hardship and emotional stress for individuals and families is becoming more evident by the day.  There are many cases of people losing their homes, moving into emergency bed and breakfast accommodation and losing their links with communities and families where they have lived for many years.

Ministers wanted to raise money through this tax. The initial estimates however, are now undermined by recent research by the University of York. And in any case raising money by penalising some of the most vulnerable in society, who were in no way responsible for the financial or banking crisis, is surely unacceptable.  

John Major, the former Conservative Prime Minister, rightly said last week that the “silent have-nots” were being forced into a choice between eating or heating. In view of the bedroom tax he could have said “between eating, heating or keeping a roof over your head”.  This tax needs to be scrapped and the sooner the better.

Baroness Joyce Quin is a backbench Labour Peer

Published 31st October 2013

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