Stupid, Cruel, Counter-productive – A Brief Guide to the Bedroom Tax

27 March 2013

housingI am sure I am not alone in saying that there is something that makes me feel even colder than the current late winter we are enduring, and that’s the feeling from opening virtually any newspaper, switching on the TV news or listening on the radio: the impact of changes to welfare payments as we approach something of a social policy precipice at the start of the new financial year.

bedroom taxOne change that has attracted a lot of attention – and quite rightly so – is the so-called bedroom tax. The bedroom tax isn’t a tax at all, but it is a policy that says that if you are in social housing and receive housing benefit, you will lose money if you have bedrooms above that it is deemed you need.

GHAThis excellent guide from the Glasgow Housing Association sets out the changes really clearly.

The government says that as a matter of principle and policy this is the right thing to do. It believes that there shouldn’t be tax-payer support (which is where housing benefit ultimately comes from of course) for people to live in over-generous accommodation. This is one of those “tough choices” they say we have to make if we are to pay off our national debt. The government also believes that this will address a desperate shortage in accommodation for medium and large sized families.

But as I will go on to show, this is at the very best highly wishful thinking, and at worst a deliberate and sustained attack on the poorest members of society. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle – namely wilful, disingenuous neglect.

You see the government fails on both the policy and principle test.

shelterIf you look at the policy issue, it’s not that there is an imbalance between smaller families in larger accommodation and vice versa. There is simply not enough social housing. End of.

And the financial argument is far from clear or convincing either. The Public Accounts Committee has just added it’s vice to those who say the policy won’t “cost in”

Housing Benefit Form PicAnd people in social housing tend to have two widespread characteristics. They tend to be households that have a lower household income, and a larger proportion of that income is taken up on things they have no option but to pay, so they have less disposable income.

Now factor into that a cut in that household income. What you save in housing benefit you will lose in a range of other expenses including health.

Kings FundLeading health policy charity The Kings Fund estimates the cost to the NHS of poor housing is around £600m a year. (

There is a well established link between housing standards – including the space element – and public health.

And when you take the bedroom tax together with overall caps in housing benefit you see an impact that will see significant displacement of populations from areas where accommodation becomes unaffordable.

children on housing estateThe problem is that when people move from these areas they also disrupt schooling, employment, childcare – and they leave some areas with a dangerously skewed social mix in terms of its population. We need all types of people doing all types of jobs to make society work on a local level. Economic cleansing or social apartheid is just not economically effective.

So that’s the policy angle, what about the perspective of principle?

Again, if you take the government’s policy portfolio as a whole, what does the bedroom tax and associated benefit caps do for its policies on education, social welfare, families – would it be too much to say that this is an act of gross hypocrisy – another example of the way in which the government’s thinking is not only not joined up, but actually is riddled full of contradictions that can’t be resolved.

But I want to end of a point where principle & policy come together: this unifying point is about a view of the role housing, particularly social housing plays in society. The importance of housing is recognized in the United Nations Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Indeed, you could argue that all the other human rights are largely dependent on it. So why are so many people falling through what should be a robust safety net?

If she was still alive, I’d have liked you to have met my wife’s grandmother. She lived in a council house in the North West for the last 30 years of her life. She was re-located there when the slum housing down by the docks was first bombed and then demolished. She had a three-bedroom house where she and her husband – who had seen active service himself – lived with their daughter, my mother-in-law. It wasn’t that they had applied for somewhere larger than they needed. It was just what they were allocated.

My grandmother-in-law was not unrealistic: she knew that she was renting the property and that when she had finished with it – in other words died or moved out – it would go back into the housing stock. That’s how it would be. Her house wasn’t any better or worse than the private houses that were on the same street as hers, it was just a different type of accommodation. But it was her home, and the repository for her memories, her security and her base for living in an increasingly complicated world in which her connections with her friends, family, community and social services were vital to her well-being.

What the government doesn’t seem to realise – or perhaps it does – is that these places are homes to millions of people. And if you start treating them as commodities or assets that can just be moved around without consideration of what it means to the people who live in them, you are really ripping up a plant by its roots. And we all know what happens to plants with no roots.

In Britain’s current extended midwinter – I’m talking politically, not meteorologically – it is easy to lose heart and believe there is much we cannot change. As trade unionists we know that collective action empowers individuals and delivers results. We know that communities are stronger than corporations. We know that a better way is possible and that having the arguments – on things like the bedroom tax and benefit caps – is part of the campaign to achieve a more just society.

Visit to register your views. And see for the latest protests planned across the UK.