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.

DebateTech
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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.