How can you charge the bedroom tax on a stalked woman’s panic room?

Under the bedroom tax regime, a panic room built to keep a woman and her son safe from abuse has been deemed a “spare bedroom”.

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A woman appeared in court yesterday. We do not know her name. She is identified only as “A”. To reveal her identity would put her at risk of being killed by a man with whom she had a very brief relationship several years ago. This man was sent to prison for killing a police officer. When he got out of prison, he went to her house, broke in, beat her and raped her. Nine months later, she gave birth to her son.

This woman and her now eleven-year-old son have received help. The garden of their council house has been secured; their window frames and front door have been fortified; their loft has been converted into an alarmed panic room. These alterations were made, according to her solicitor, Rebekah Carrier, “by the police, at great expense”. But now, this woman has been deemed no longer worthy of these safety precautions. The risk posed by her ex-partner has not lessened: he continues to stalk, harass and threaten to kill her. What has changed is that, under the bedroom tax regime, her panic room has been deemed a “spare bedroom”. This vulnerable, traumatised woman must either find a lodger, or move to a smaller property – which, as Carrier explains to me, will not have safety features installed. “She won’t have a steel door, she won’t have bulletproof glass, a fireproof letter box, a special link to 999”. When these features are installed, “you are told very clearly it’s a one off. You only get those adaptations once”. In A’s particular case, as well as safety features, she has special arrangements with her neighbours and nearby family about what to do if she doesn’t turn up, or if someone comes knocking. If she is forced to move, she will lose all this.

Even if moving were not a problem in principle, in practice there is no guarantee that A would in any case be able to find a property with the requisite number of rooms. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) July 2014 report into the bedroom tax – or as they stubbornly continue to call it, the “Removal of the Spare Room Subsidy” – found that “demand” for smaller properties “has proved challenging to meet”. The demand, at 19 per cent of those affected by the bedroom tax, is not exactly dramatic, but even so, most of those who wanted to move had been unable to because no smaller property was available. The report found that the problems were particularly acute in areas “with the highest proportion of tenants” affected by the bedroom tax; and perversely, they also found that in areas with high levels of so-called “under-occupancy”, landlords were reporting difficulties in letting larger homes – the very homes that the bedroom tax is supposed to be freeing up. Indeed, Carrier tells me that this is the case for A: she was originally given a three-bedroom house because in the area where she lives there is an oversupply of three bedroom houses, and an undersupply of two bedroom houses. Even more perversely, the report also found that because households that might previously been allocated two bedrooms were now only eligible for one bedroom, the already limited one-bedroom housing stock was stretched way beyond capacity, “causing difficulties for the single homeless and other single people in housing need.”

The result of all this perversity is that most families, unable to find a smaller property, are having to stay put and pay the bedroom tax. The problem is, many of those who are liable simply cannot afford it. They have been forced to cut back on food and heating, and many have ended up resorting to food banks; some have borrowed from family members; others have turned to credit cards and payday loans. Many have simply not paid, with the DWP study finding that 60 per cent of tenants affected by the tax were unable to meet their housing benefit shortfall. More than 35 per cent of tenants who were liable for the bedroom tax had been issued with eviction warning letters little over six months after the tax was introduced. 

When presented with the misery being faced by some of the most vulnerable in society, the government points to its discretionary housing payments (DHP), intended to provide short-term help to housing benefit claimants who can’t pay their rent. Indeed, in response to a Guardian article on woman A, a DWP spokesperson said, “This is exactly why we have made £345m available to councils to help vulnerable people. We understand the council have awarded a payment to make up a shortfall in rent.” The problem with DHPs is that there simply isn’t enough to go round. In May 2013, the Independent reported that there were 25,000 DHP claimants in April of the same year, compared with 5,700 in the same month the previous year. A leap of 338 per cent. As a result, people who previously would have been given help were receiving reduced and therefore inadequate handouts – and some were being refused all together.

Many of those who are being refused help are disabled – unsurprisingly, given two-thirds of those hit by the bedroom tax are disabled. In July 2013, the Papworth Trust reported that, after being refused DHPs, nine in ten disabled people were being forced to cut back on food or paying household bills, and more than one in four were cutting back on medical expenses. A Joseph Rowntree report from April 2014 found that councils were taking Disability Living Allowance (DLA) into account in income assessments, and refusing disabled claimants on the basis that they had too much money – this despite the fact that the DLA is designed to cover the on average £500 extra a month disabled people have to spend on things related to their disability. This money is not spare – but is being counted as disposable income. And DHPs are specifically intended as a short-term solution. There is no guarantee on how much money will be allocated to councils for this purpose each year; there is no guarantee that those who receive it once will receive it again. Small comfort for woman A.

She is not an isolated case. In March 2014, the Guardian reported that one in twenty households who, like A, are on the sanctuary scheme (where a safe room is created), had been forced to pay bedroom tax. In the year since the bedroom tax had been introduced, 281 households had been affected. Carrier tells me that the Freedom of Information request her firm made found that 80 per cent of the women affected were not getting DHP. The government’s much-vaunted safety net is providing little safety.

One woman forced out of a safe home because of the bedroom tax is too many. But as Polly Neate, CEO of Women’s Aid, points out, 281 households “is not even a large number of people”. The cost of exempting “this really quite small number of women is not very large” she said. “When you think about the cost that it’s preventing later on, I can’t see any reason for it”. She makes her case on two grounds. The first is that two women are killed every week by a partner or former partner. By the time you read this article the likelihood is that at least one woman will already have been killed this week. By exempting this small number of women from the bedroom tax, by allowing them the safe space the police have judged they need, we are potentially saving women’s lives. We can’t put a price on that. Except actually we can. Polly tells me that a domestic homicide costs about £1m in criminal justice costs; compare that to the £14 a week the DWP will be clawing back from 281 women, and the figures just don’t stack up. 

In court, Rebekah Carrier will continue to make the case that, when drafting the bedroom tax regulations, the government didn’t take account of the discriminatory impact on this group of women (and it is mainly women). This is the government’s legal duty under the Public Sector Equality Duty, which requires that a public authority have due regard to the need to “eliminate discrimination, harassment, [and] victimisation”. And Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, will continue to fight for A’s money. We must hope that he will fail in this fight. We must hope that the duty to protect women from violent partners, that the duty to save lives, will be seen as more important than saving money in the very short term.

Caroline Criado Perez is a writer and feminist activist. Her forthcoming book, Invisible Women, is an examination of how the global gender data gap harms women. She tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

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