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 Images
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The Conservatives have failed on home ownership. Here's how Labour can do better

Far from helping first-time buyers, the government is robbing Peter to pay Paul

Making it easier for people to own their own first home is something to be celebrated. Most families would love to have the financial stability and permanency of home ownership. But the plans announced today to build 200,000 ‘starter homes’ are too little, too late.

The dire housing situation of our Greater London constituency of Mitcham & Morden is an indicator of the crisis across the country. In our area, house prices have increased by a staggering 42 per cent over the last three years alone, while the cost of private rent has increased by 22 per cent. Meanwhile, over 8200 residents are on the housing register, families on low incomes bidding for the small number of affordable housing in the area. In sum, these issues are making our area increasingly unaffordable for buyers, private renters and those in need of social and council housing.

But under these new plans, which sweep away planning rules that require property developers to build affordable homes for rent in order to increase the building homes for first-time buyers, a game of political smoke and mirrors is being conducted. Both renters and first-time buyers are desperately in need of government help, and a policy that pits the two against one another is robbing Peter to pay Paul. We need homes both to rent and to buy.

The fact is, removing the compulsion to provide properties for affordable rent will be disastrous for the many who cannot afford to buy. Presently, over half of the UK’s affordable homes are now built as part of private sector housing developments. Now this is going to be rolled back, and local government funds are increasingly being cut while housing associations are losing incentives to build, we have to ask ourselves, who will build the affordable properties we need to rent?

On top of this, these new houses are anything but ‘affordable’. The starter homes would be sold at a discount of 20 per cent, which is not insignificant. However, the policy is a non-starter for families on typical wages across most of the country, not just in London where the situation is even worse. Analysis by Shelter has demonstrated that families working for average local earnings will be priced out of these ‘affordable’ properties in 58 per cent of local authorities by 2020. On top of this, families earning George Osborne’s new ‘National Living Wage’ will still be priced out of 98 per cent of the country.

So who is this scheme for? Clearly not typical earners. A couple in London will need to earn £76,957 in London and £50,266 in the rest of the country to benefit from this new policy, indicating that ‘starter homes’ are for the benefit of wealthy, young professionals only.

Meanwhile, the home-owning prospects of working families on middle and low incomes will be squeezed further as the ‘Starter Homes’ discounts are funded by eliminating the affordable housing obligations of private property developers, who are presently generating homes for social housing tenants and shared ownership. These more affordable rental properties will now be replaced in essence with properties that most people will never be able to afford. It is great to help high earners own their own first homes, but it is not acceptable to do so at the expense of the prospects of middle and low earners.

We desperately want to see more first-time home owners, so that working people can work towards something solid and as financially stable as possible, rather than being at the mercy of private landlords.

But this policy should be a welcome addition to the existing range of affordable housing, rather than seeking to replace them.

As the New Statesman has already noted, the announcement is bad policy, but great politics for the Conservatives. Cameron sounds as if he is radically redressing housing crisis, while actually only really making the crisis better for high earners and large property developers who will ultimately be making a larger profit.

The Conservatives are also redefining what the priorities of “affordable housing” are, for obviously political reasons, as they are convinced that homeowners are more likely to vote for them - and that renters are not. In total, we believe this is indicative of crude political manoeuvring, meaning ordinary, working people lose out, again and again.

Labour needs to be careful in its criticism of the plans. We must absolutely fight the flawed logic of a policy that strengthens the situation of those lucky enough to already have the upper hand, at the literal expense of everyone else. But we need to do so while demonstrating that we understand and intrinsically share the universal aspiration of home security and permanency.

We need to fight for our own alternative that will broaden housing aspirations, rather than limit them, and demonstrate in Labour councils nationwide how we will fight for them. We can do this by fighting for shared ownership, ‘flexi-rent’ products, and rent-to-buy models that will make home ownership a reality for people on average incomes, alongside those earning most.

For instance, Merton council have worked in partnership with the Y:Cube development, which has just completed thirty-six factory-built, pre-fabricated, affordable apartments. The development was relatively low cost, constructed off-site, and the apartments are rented out at 65 per cent of the area’s market rent, while also being compact and energy efficient, with low maintenance costs for the tenant. Excellent developments like this also offer a real social investment for investors, while providing a solid return too: in short, profitability with a strong social conscience, fulfilling the housing needs of young renters.

First-time ownership is rapidly becoming a luxury that fewer and fewer of us will ever afford. But all hard-working people deserve a shot at it, something that the new Conservative government struggle to understand.