Yesterday’s defeat of the Government in the House of Lords on the ‘Bedroom Tax’ – the punitive proposal to remove benefit from social tenants deemed to be underoccupying their homes (on very strict definitions) even when they have no possibility of being able to move to a smaller home – gives the Coalition a decision to make. They can either accept the amendment agreed by the Lords or seek to overturn it when it goes back to the Commons.
The electoral arithmetic is such that the Government will not be able to get this nasty little proposal though the Commons if all Lib Dems MPs oppose it and threaten to join Labour in the voting lobby. This is what should happen because there is nothing in Lib Dem policy or in the coalition agreement that would suggest they are required to support the Government on this. Given that Cameron’s favourite game, no doubt learned at his educational institutions, seems to be the ritual humiliation of his fag, it is time for Clegg to make a stand on a matter of principle.
The amendment means that the bedroom tax – loss of £13 per week on average for some 670,000 working age social tenants on housing benefit – would not apply to social tenants with only one bedroom additional to their needs and would not apply unless they had been made an offer of suitable alternative accommodation.
The bedroom tax proposal aims to save some £500m a year on the housing benefit bill, a figure that seems unachievable given that a proportion of households would inevitably become unintentionally homeless at considerable expense to the public purse and a proportion of those having to pay the tax would move into private rented accommodation at higher rents and higher benefit costs. It has also been argued that it would be counterproductive in tackling underoccupation because it excludes older tenants who are more likely to underoccupy.
Many examples were given during the debate of households that require additional space for entirely justifiable reasons. Lords also quoted the work done by the National Housing Federation which showed that the number of hosueholds needing to move to one bedroom accommodation to escape the tax would far exceed the total supply of one bedroom properties available to meet all needs.
The whole debate can be found in the House of Lords Hansard .
The amendment was moved in the Lords by Lord Best. He said:
Under the fierce new test, a family would be counted as underoccupying if, for example, two teenage girls were not sharing the same room, or if an older couple, one of whom is below pension age, have a two-bedroom flat. All those deemed to be underoccupying will have to move and downsize to somewhere smaller. If they do not, even if there is simply nowhere smaller for them to move to, then they must pay the new penalty.
Six hundred and seventy thousand households receiving housing benefit will be caught in this trap, rising to some 740,000 in the years ahead. If they do not move out, they will be charged an average of £13 per week, which will have to come out of their low earnings or their other benefits, which are meant to cover food, fuel, clothing, and specifically not housing. These areby definition very poor households, and the new tax will represent a significant reduction in their living standards.
Speaking in support, Lord McKenzie of Luton said
No one doubts that underoccupation is a problem. We have a chronic shortage of housing stock and a huge demand for affordable housing. Yet the Government’s policy is the wrong way to go about tackling the problem, as it punishes people for housing choices over which they have little control rather than enabling the best fit between the available properties and the needs of households.
Also speaking in support, Baroness Hollis of Heigham said
Grant Shapps said that we should not bully people out of their homes. He is right. Yet in this Bill we are saying to people who have lived in their homes all their lives, done what was asked of them and behaved responsibly-two-thirds of them having some disability-that their benefit is being cut from underneath them through no fault of their own but just because we in Westminster are changing the rules. We tell them to downsize while knowing that they cannot do so, so we fine them instead for what is not their fault and for what they cannot change. It is morally wrong to punish people for something that is not their fault and to punish them when they are innocent. That is not decent, it is profoundly unfair, and we should not do it.