Sheila Gilmore: Bedroom tax doesn’t just hit ‘skivers and scroungers’

Sheila Gilmore. Picture: Kenny Smith

Sheila Gilmore. Picture: Kenny Smith

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‘I’ve just had a letter telling me to pay £50 a month more towards my rent from April, or move.”

I’ve had hundreds of people contact me with the same story. From April, working-age tenants who rent from the council or a housing association and have a spare bedroom will lose some of their housing benefit. If they can’t make up the difference to pay their rent, they’ll be forced to try to move. This is the Government’s “bedroom tax”, and across Edinburgh over 5000 households will be affected.

This formed part of the coalition’s Welfare Reform Act passed last year. Although my Labour colleagues and I voted against it in parliament, Tory and Lib Dem MPs forced it through.

It’s clear that this is just a crude cost-cutting measure – the savings are set out in the budget book. Ministers claim that by forcing out people who are in their view “under-occupying”, this will allow families in overcrowded accommodation to move in. But if everyone successfully reshuffled into the “right” size of house, they wouldn’t save a penny. No – the Government knows that most 
people will just have to take the financial hit.

Even those who want to move will struggle to do so because there just isn’t enough social housing out there, especially in Edinburgh. Many will end up in the private rented sector where rents are a lot higher. Ironically, this could wipe out the Government’s savings, despite all the misery endured by families forced to move.

This Government says that its welfare reforms are hitting “skivers and scroungers”. But the bedroom tax hits many people who are in work or are disabled.

Last week I met a couple who, after six years of waiting in 
unsuitable accommodation for somewhere that was wheelchair accessible, had finally been able to move to a two-bedroomed adapted ground-floor flat with space to move around and store equipment. The husband is his wife’s full-time carer, so making up the money by working more hours isn’t an option. As a result they’ll struggle to afford the extra £50 per month as a result of the bedroom tax, and could have to move again.

When confronted with cases like this, the Government points to a hardship fund given to councils to dish out to those affected. Edinburgh City Council has been allocated £1.5 million for these “Discretionary Housing Payments”, and council leaders have taken the positive step of topping this up with an extra £2m. That’s a lot to you and me, but it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the total shortfall.

The SNP’s response to this is to say “wait for independence” when they claim we would enjoy a more generous welfare system. But it’s far from clear that this would be affordable, and it’s all “jam tomorrow” rather than helping people now. The Scottish Government could use its existing budget to boost Discretionary Housing Payments further, but hasn’t. Instead, it has reduced funding for building new affordable homes, with new starts in Scotland down from 7900 two years ago to 3400 this year.

Sadly, building more homes is one of the best ways to tackle the Housing Benefit bill, as it would bring down spiralling rents. The coalition is aiming at the wrong target, and the SNP needs to take action now.

• Sheila Gilmore is MP for Edinburgh East

Blanket bomb

THE National Housing Federation has issued advice to those worried by the implications of the “bedroom tax”.

What do the changes mean?

Housing benefit will be restricted to allow for one bedroom for each person or couple living as part of the household, with the following exceptions:

• Children under 16 of same gender expected to share.

• Children under ten expected to share regardless of gender.

• Disabled tenant or partner who needs non-resident overnight carer will be allowed an extra bedroom.

Who will be affected?

All claimants who are deemed to have at least one spare bedroom will be affected. This includes:

• Separated parents who share the care of their children and who may have been allocated an extra bedroom to reflect this. Benefit rules mean that there must be a designated “main carer” for children (who receives the extra benefit).

• Couples who use their “spare” bedroom when recovering from an illness or operation.

• Foster carers, because foster children are not counted as part of the household for benefit purposes.

• Parents whose children visit but are not part of the household.

• Families with disabled children.

• Disabled people including people living in adapted or specially designed properties.

How much will people lose?

The cut will be a fixed percentage of the Housing Benefit eligible rent. The UK Government has said that this will be set at 14 per cent for one extra bedroom and 25 per cent for two or more extra bedrooms.

The Government’s impact assessment shows that those affected will lose an average of £14 a week. Housing association tenants are expected to lose £16 a week on average.

How many people will see their benefit cut?

The proposal will affect an estimated 660,000 working-age social tenants – 31 per cent of existing working-age housing benefit claimants in the social sector. The majority of these people have only one extra bedroom.

Do the regulations define a bedroom?

No. The Government’s view is that it is for landlords to specify the size of the property and this ought to match what is on any tenancy agreement and reflect the level of rent charged. The bedroom tax will not take account of whether a room is a single or a double bedroom. A room either is a bedroom or is not a bedroom.

For answers to many more questions, see the National Housing Federation’s website at www.housing.org.uk