Bedroom tax: pushing those “getting by” over the edge

Despite the concessions made by Iain Duncan Smith yesterday, the bedroom tax will still hit thousands of disabled children and adults, and those fleeing domestic abuse, argues Frances Ryan as she speaks to some of the families affected.

You might not think of Jane* as the sort of person who would be taking on the Government. She has two boys, and the youngest, Thomas, is autistic. She’s not able to work because she's busy caring for him, and she tells me she often thinks about being “normal” like her friends. Her husband has serious health problems and the daily focus is on getting by.

Things can change, though. Something can happen that pushes families like hers, who are “getting by”, over the edge. For Jane, it was two things: receiving a letter informing her that the family’s housing benefit would be cut unless Thomas shared a bedroom with his brother; and health professionals telling her that, because of the distress that sharing a room would cause Thomas, he would go into residential care.

This month, Jane has taken the government to court. She is one of several people who have started legal action against Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith and the impending “bedroom tax" (or, as David Cameron would have it, the end of the "spare room subsidy"), due to come into force next month. The plaintiffs' legal teams say what the bedroom tax critics have said from the beginning: the policy disproportionately affects disabled and vulnerable people, discriminating against them for being both more likely to need an extra room and less likely to be able to pay for it.

Many of the people taking part in the legal challenge are parents of severely disabled children, like Jane. Some are adults with disabilities; one is being penalised for not being able to sleep in the same bed as her husband; another has anxiety and persecutory delusions, aggravated by stress, but is expected to move or take in a lodger. Others are victims of domestic violence, with children who have been abused. All of them have been expertly assessed as requiring their own bedrooms but have been told they must now give up a room they need, or lose money they don’t have. They’re a handful of families, in many ways, that represent hundreds of thousands of others around the country.

“I’d like the people responsible for this policy to come and see how we live,” Jane tells me.  

Her son Thomas often has screaming episodes or is aggressive. Something as common as a washing machine or the noise of a hairdryer can distress him. He is strong and frequently attacks his brother, Lucas, and rips his clothes apart. Despite this, the family have been told that in two weeks they will have their benefit cut unless the boys share a room.

Doctors, including Thomas’s psychiatrist, say that sharing would likely lead to a surge in violent behaviour and that, due to the risk of this situation, it would not be possible for Thomas to continue living with his family. The only realistic option would be residential care in a specialist placement.

“I can’t believe that that might have to happen,” Jane says. “I’m determined to keep my son at home and to do that he needs his own room.”

She tells me her and her husband have been “desperately trying” to think what they can cut down on to compensate for the reduction in their housing benefit, but they have no luxuries to cut. The only thing they can think of is Thomas’s “travel training”, she says, in which they take Thomas repeatedly to the same places “so he can learn not to be scared”.

***

Amid increasing pressure from critics, it was hoped that Iain Duncan Smith was ready to make concessions for children like Thomas. Yesterday, DWP officials stated that they had issued guidance to Local Authorities that families with a severely disabled child can be exempt from losing part of their housing benefit.

The claim received less media attention than the wider concessions to foster carers and members of the armed forces (pdf) and failed to offer much explanation of what it actually meant. The initial wording suggested it was at best a concession for children with “certain disabilities” and that the need for a bedroom will be assessed on a case-by-case basis. It’s thought that when a claimant says that their children are unable to share a bedroom, it will be for LAs to satisfy themselves that this is the case.

Rebekah Carrier, the solicitor acting for the claimant children and their parents, tells me she’s currently reviewing the details of the new guidance - but she remains concerned the government hasn’t amended the regulations. “The guidance is very unsatisfactory, as it’s unclear,” she says. “I’m delighted if the litigation and press coverage have resulted in positive changes . . . but the government haven’t yet set out their position to us and indeed haven’t written to me at all about any changes.”

Adults with disabilities, such as Charlotte Lowery-Carmichael, another person taking legal action, are waiting for any acknowledgement of their situation. Charlotte has spina bifida and sleeps in a specialist bed in order to ease her bed sores (among other reasons), while her husband Jayson has a single bed in their box room. Charlotte would be exempt from the penalty if her carer was a live-in assistant - but because he is her husband, she is not.

I first spoke to the couple in January when they had just been told their second bedroom was being classified as “spare” and they would lose £12 a week of their housing benefit because of it. With the help of disability campaign group We Are Spartacus, they’ve since gained legal representation.

“We’re proud to be part of this,” Jayson says. “It might get us some justice.”

He tells me going to court feels like the only option they have. "We feel that the legal course of action is the only way that the government will make any amendments to the legislation."

No wonder many feel that, until this point, the Government haven’t been listening. Funds called "Discretionary Housing Payments" are being increasingly held up as the solution to the bedroom tax's disproportionate hit on disabled people, despite the fact that many are not eligible - and there not being enough money to go around those who are. Meanwhile, David Cameron is publicly stating (in last week’s Prime Minister’s Questions) that “people with severely disabled children are exempt and people who need round-the-clock care are exempt”. This is at best inaccurate, and at worse, a lie.  

As Anne McMurdie, a solicitor representing the legal teams involved, said to me: “The Prime Minister’s understanding of the policy is not accurate and doesn’t reflect what his colleague [Iain Duncan Smith] . . . is arguing in court proceedings.”

The High Court has given the Work and Pensions Secretary until 18 March to show why there should not be a judicial review of the entire “bedroom tax” policy. It will come two days after 24 hours of action against the legislation, with more than 50 protests planned around the country. The clock is ticking until the policy starts to hit and the dissent is getting louder.

For Holly, another member of the legal challenge group, public attention is not something she wants. Her ex-partner (known as “M” in the case) was violent and, after leaving him two years ago, she lives with her two young children, Isaac and Joy, in an area he doesn’t know. “M” was arrested after physically assaulting her soon Isaac when he was six years old. Holly is conscious of protecting their identity and when we speak we do so via her solicitor. It says something about the level of desperation many are feeling that, despite these concerns, Holly is taking part in legal proceedings.

She feels the court action is the only option left to her. Those escaping domestic violence have no protection from the bedroom tax, nor do children recovering from abuse.

Holly’s children still struggle with the violence they witnessed, but are making some progress now they have a stable home. Isaac finds things particularly difficult though and shows what’s been diagnosed as traumatised behaviour. He’s violent and unpredictable and often needs time alone to cope with his feelings. It was for this reason that the council allocated the family a three-bedroom flat in 2011, enabling the children to have a room each. From 1 April, they will lose just over £15 a week because of it.

“We don’t have any spare money at all,” Holly says. “We don’t have family or friends who can support us and we don’t have any savings.”

Isaac has previously attacked his sister, cutting her hair. It’s clearly frightening for Holly to consider them sleeping in the same room but to stop this from happening, she’ll have to lose money she relies on. “I’m worried we won’t be able to manage at all if our housing benefit is reduced,” she says.

Holly is aware that if Isaac was a couple of years older, the family would not be going through this (under the regulations, children of different genders over ten do not have to share a room). In a couple of years, the family will be re-eligible for a three-bedroom flat. Housing shortages mean it’s uncertain whether one will be available then, and even if it is, another move will result in the children going through more disturbances in order to get back what they have now.

That absurd situation seems reflective of the lack of sense or consideration running through these changes. Disabled adults are being charged for a room they sleep in, while parents of abused children are being advised to invite a stranger into their home to lodge there as a means to get by. 

As Rebekah Carrier , the solicitor acting for the claimant children and their parents, says: “A year ago the Children’s Commissioner warned the government that these changes would have a disproportionate and devastating impact on families with disabled children and those fleeing domestic violence. The appalling situation my clients now find themselves in was entirely predictable and avoidable.”

Holly hasn’t told the children what’s happening yet. She knows the emotional impact it would cause and says she doesn’t want to upset them.

Joy is scared of Isaac and they both just need stability. “I don’t know what to do,” Holly adds.

* some names have been changed.

Bedrooms classified as "spare" will result in a loss of housing benefit. Photograph: Getty Images

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.