Disabled families still aren't exempt from the bedroom tax

The "discretionary fund" cited by Duncan Smith will cover just £2.71 of the £14-a-week loss in housing benefit facing disabled claimants.

In a sign that ministers are increasingly losing the argument over the bedroom tax, Iain Duncan Smith has announced that 5,000 foster carers and some armed forces families will be exempt from the measure, 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, an average loss of £14 a week or £728 a year. 

Those tenants who have children serving in the military will no longer be charged for the vacant room while they are away. In addition, carers will be allowed extra space as long as they have fostered a child or become a registered carer in the past 12 months. Yesterday it was announced that families with severely disabled children would be exempt. 

It would be churlish not to welcome these concessions, but the overwhelming majority of the 670,000 tenants due to be affected will still lose out, including thousands of disabled families. In his written statement, Duncan Smith emphasised that Discretionary Housing Payments would remain available for "other priority groups" including those "whose homes have had significant disability adaptations and those with longterm medical conditions that create difficulties in sharing a bedroom." 

But research published by the National Housing Federation shows how inadequate this support is. Were the £30m discretionary fund 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.

Having conceded that those families with severely disabled children should be exempt, on what grounds does the government maintain that those with one more or disabled adults should not? In a recent letter to George Osborne calling for all disabled families to be spared from the cut, the heads of seven charities, including Carers UK, Mencap and Macmillan Cancer support, cited one typical case.

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).

With increases in most working-age benefits capped at just 1 per cent and a shortage of one bedroom houses for tenants to downsize to (there are 180,000 English social tenants "under-occupying" two-bedroom houses but fewer than 70,000 one-bedroom social houses available), the bedroom tax is both immoral and unworkable. Labour's Helen Goodman has written movingly on The Staggers of her experience of living on £18 a week, the amount many of her constituents will be left with after the measure is introduced. The only "concession" we should accept is the full abandonment of the policy. But, at the very least, ministers must protect the disabled, who, more than any other group, will suffer the most from this cut. 

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith arrives to attend the government's weekly cabinet meeting at Number 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.