The coalition's support fund won't protect the disabled from the bedroom tax

The £30m fund promised by David Cameron will cover just £2.71 of the £14-a-week loss in housing benefit facing disabled claimants.

By far the most troubling aspect of the "bedroom tax", which comes into effect on 1 April, is the impact it will have on the disabled. The policy, which will see housing benefit reduced by 14 per cent for those deemed to have one spare room and by 25 per cent for those with two or more, currently takes no account of those families for whom this additional space is not a luxury but a necessity. For instance, a disabled person who suffers from disrupted sleep may be unable to share a room with their partner, likewise a disabled child with their brothers and sisters. The same applies to those recovering from an illness or an operation.

While those disabled tenants who receive overnight care from a non-residential carer will not be charged for an extra room, those who live with their carer (such as a family member) will have their housing benefit reduced. Of the 660,000 social housing tenants that will be affected, the DWP estimates that 420,000 are disabled. From April, they will be forced to pay an average of £14 a week more in rent or an extra £728 a year. As a result, many face the unpalatable choice of either falling into arrears or downsizing to a property unsuitable for their needs.

When challenged to defend the decision not to exempt the disabled from the measure, David Cameron has insisted that the most vulnerable tenants will be protected by the £50m Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP) fund. At last week's PMQs, he said:

This government always puts disabled people first and that is why we have protected disabled benefits. Specifically on the issue that he raises, there is the £50m fund to support people affected by the under-occupancy measure.

But new research published today by the National Housing Federation shows just how inadequate this support is. First, of the £50m referred to by Cameron, £20m comes from general DHP funding, which must cover a wide range of claimants struggling to pay their rent, not just those hit by the bedroom tax. Second, were the remaining £30m to be distributed equally among every claimant of Disability Living Allowance affected (229,803 in total), they would each receive just £2.51 per week, compared to the average weekly loss in housing benefit of £14. With the fund also intended to support foster families, whose children are not counted as part of the household for benefit purposes, the disabled may not even receive this paltry amount.

In a recent letter to George Osborne calling for the disabled to be exempt from the cut, the heads of seven charities, including Carers UK, Mencap and Macmillan Cancer support, cited two typical cases (see Frances Ryan's recent NS post for others).

Jean and Carl live in a two bedroom house. Carl has suffered from serious health complications for years and is now unable to work as a result of a series of operations and treatment. Jean juggles caring for her husband with a job at a local supermarket. They are unable to share a room because Carl’s condition causes very disrupted sleep and if they share Jean cannot sleep. Her shifts at work mean she frequently has to be up at 4am and she would simply be unable to do this if she could not get a good night’s sleep. They fear they will not be able to make up the shortfall in their Housing Benefit and if forced to downsize Jean is worried about her ability to do her job if she is unable to sleep properly (names changed to preserve anonymity).
 
Jodie has two sons Kian, aged eight and Ashton, aged seven who has Down’s Syndrome and Autism. Ashton does not sleep. He wakes through out the night and head butts the wall. Jodie has to get up and calm him several times a night. Jodie was going to be housed in a two bed house, but the social worker and the family doctor said that they needed an extra room, because of Ashton’s care needs. Ashton at times has difficult behaviour and Kian needs his own space for his health and wellbeing and for his performance at school.
It these personal stories that Labour believes could turn public opinion against the government on welfare reform. Shadow work and pensions minister Liam Byrne will launch a new party campaign against the bedroom tax in Hull today, where 4,700 tenants will be affected by the policy but where there are just 73 one and two bedroom properties available to let. Unsurprisingly, Byrne will remind voters that five days after the bedroom tax is introduced, the government will reduce the top rate of income tax from 50p to 45p, benefiting 8,000 millionaires by an average of £107,500 a year (see the recently-launched "Tory Millionaire's Day" campaign).
 
Coalition ministers remain confident that the public will accept the logic of the policy. Private sector tenants do not receive a "spare room subsidy" (as Tory chairman Grant Shapps has dubbed it), so why should those in social housing? In addition, they will challenge Labour to say how it would raise the £1.05bn the policy will save over the next two years (although housing experts have said savings could be limited or even non-existent as families are forced into the private sector, where rents are higher, leading to a consequent rise in the housing benefit bill). Would it cut spending on schools and hospitals instead? But the politically toxic decision to reduce taxes for the highest earners has made every spending cut that much harder to justify.
Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith outside Number 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The future of the left: The path ahead is full of challenges

Be in no doubt: the left faces a struggle for survival.

There are plenty of grounds for pessimism about the left’s prospects and they are well rehearsed.  Across Europe, social democrats are out of power and when they do manage to enter government, it is under the skirts of dominant centre-right parties or at the helm of fragile coalitions. Ageing western societies have become more conservative, immigration has driven a cultural wedge into the cross-class coalitions that once undergirded centre-left voting blocs, and austerity has ushered in a politics of security, not reform. Only those who have borne the brunt of the financial crisis and its aftermath, like the unemployed youth and evicted homeowners of Southern Europe, have swung decisively to the left, joined by relatively protected but angry older middle class liberals of Northern Europe. Even in Latin America, where the left swept the board at the turn of the century, politics is shifting to the right. Bright spots, such as municipal experimentalism in Spanish cities, or energetic liberalism in Canada and Italy, illuminate the gloom. But mostly, darkness is visible.

Is this condition terminal? Inequality, stagnant living standards and the turbulence of global capitalism generate profound political discontent. They give oxygen to progressive protest movements as well as populist reactionaries, as the convulsions in US politics show. But only a facile determinism reads off political progress from economic crisis. There is nothing to guarantee that revulsion at political and economic elites will give birth to a new egalitarianism. The left needs a clearer headed view of the political terrain that it will face in the 2020s.

Demographic change is a given. Advanced democracies like Britain will get older and the weight of older voters in elections will increase, not diminish. The gap in turnout rates between young and old is unlikely to close, tilting politics even further towards the cultural concerns and economic interests of the over fifties. Leadership credentials and economic competence matter for these voters more than abstract appeals to equality. But a generation of young people will also enter middle age in the 2020s having endured the worst of the age of austerity, with lower wages, stymied home ownership aspirations and stunted career progression to show for it. So just as 20th century catch-all parties built cross-class electoral alliances, successful political movements in the coming decades will need to secure inter-generational voting blocs. Stitching these together will foreground the politics of family and focus policy attention on transfers of wealth and opportunity across multiple generations. 

Ageing will also ratchet up fiscal pressures on the state, as costs mount for the NHS, care of the elderly and pensions. But Britain’s tax base has been weakened by low productivity, corporate tax avoidance and expensive personal allowance giveaways. In the 2020s, this crunch will loom large over fiscal policy and force hard choices over priorities. Just as in the 1990s, we can expect public disquiet at the run-down of investment in public services to mount, but this time there won’t be the same spending headroom to respond to it. The political debate currently underway in Scotland about raising income tax is therefore a harbinger of the future for the rest of the UK.

Fiscal constraints will also force the left to take seriously the agenda of economic reform opened up under the ungainly title of “pre-distribution”. Without an account of how to generate and share prosperity more equitably within the market economy, social democracy is purposeless. But it will need a far more robust and plausible political strategy for achieving these ambitions than anything that has been on offer hitherto. Technological change will not usher in a new economy of its own accord, and without the solid base of an organised working class to ground its politics, the left needs to be open to a wide set of alliances with businesses, big and small. Combining economic radicalism with credibility and popular appeal, particularly to voters who still blame it for the financial crisis, is the hardest challenge the left faces, but there is no getting away from it.

On a note of optimism, the left is currently strong in cities, from which it can build out. Diversity is a strength in major urban centres, not a weakness, and powerful city leaders endow progressive politics with governing authority. Cities are the places where new social movements are most active and much of the energy of contemporary politics can be found, even if elections are fought on wider terrain. The task is to combine a propensity to decentralise and devolve with clear national political direction. The same holds with party reform: the mass political parties of the 20th century are dead, but networks can’t fight elections, so combining openness and democratic engagement, with discipline and national purpose, is vital. 

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.