Bedroom tax: Two wrongs don’t make a right

Today’s High Court judgement against disabled people seeking to overturn the bedroom tax, on the grounds that it is discriminatory and contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights, is a depressing outcome for all the families involved.

Lawyers for the families have, however, already committed to appealing against the ruling, arguing that the discriminatory impact of the tax on people with disabilities cannot be justified and is unlawful. The statement by the families’ solicitors is an interesting summary of the case and can be found here. We wish the families well: they are fighting on behalf of hundreds of thousands of others.

It is now four months since the Tax was imposed. The evidence from around the country suggests that the impact has been even greater than was feared beforehand, as the National Housing Federation’s David Orr has argued, as detailed assessments from organisations like Aragon Housing have substantiated, and as gruesome case histories from all around the country have piled up (see for example the excellent @Welfare__Reform twitter feed).

Despite its steadfast defence of its ‘spare room subsidy’ policy, the Government has made several U turns on the details already, and it has become so complicated that even David Cameron appears not to know what the policy actually is, as Patrick Butler has documented for the Guardian. Even following this Court success for the Government, they have been embarrassed into making an extra £35 million available for discretionary payments – nowhere near enough, but a sign that the continuous pressure is having an impact.

Although the Court was highly critical of DWP on some aspects of the case, especially in relation to a previous judgement in relation to children, the department responded in the style of its boss, Iain Duncan Smith – never mind the facts, just repeat the same blithering nonsense.

The core of their argument is that applying the bedroom tax to the social rented sector is ‘fair’ because similar rules have applied to private tenants since around 1989. But this ignores two facts. First, since 1989 Governments of both persuasions have argued that the bedroom limits were not appropriate or needed in the social rented sector because housing allocations were subject to Government and landlord policies and procedures which did not apply to the private rented sector: there were levers other than benefits which could be used to ensure a proper size fit between households and accommodation. Secondly, the impact of the bedroom rules on disabled people in the private rented sector has been controversial since they were introduced. Indeed, the rules have been the subject of previous Government promises of remedial action to remove some of the unfairness. (Excellent background material on the policy can be found in this House of Commons Library briefing).

So, the summary position is this: 1) set unfair rules in the private sector; 2) spend 20 years arguing that these should not be extended to the social sector because the system of letting homes in the two sectors is so different; 3) suddenly decide to apply similar rules to the social sector; 4) argue that the rules in the social sector are fair because they are the same as the private sector.

The bedroom tax affects disabled people in a hugely disproportionate manner. In any normal parlance it is a discriminatory policy. The policy is not fair in either sector, and two wrongs do not make a right.

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