Note: since this article was published, Iain Duncan-Smith has published (12 March 2013) a Written Ministerial Statement which gives exemptions for adult children on deployment with the armed forces and approved foster carers. Up to date information is available at http://wearespartacus.org.uk/bedroom-tax/
It is well documented that the under-occupancy penalty for housing benefit claimants in social housing deemed to have ‘spare’ bedrooms is one of the worst thought-out provisions of the Coalition’s Welfare Reform Act. Its practical implementation is certain to lead to widespread hardship and, because of the shortage of smaller properties to which tenants can move, it will not even fulfil its stated aim, to free up larger homes for families who are homeless or overcrowded.
This shambles of a policy is now accompanied by the shambles of the Prime Minister’s statements. At Prime Minister’s Questions on 6 March, David Cameron said: ‘…people with severely disabled children are exempt and people who need round-the-clock care are exempt…’. The regulations (see B13), however, provide for no such exemptions, so Cameron misled the House of Commons.
It is totally understandable that the PM would like to think severely disabled people are exempt, since the under-occupancy rules will have an especially serious impact on disabled people and their families. But since he is wrong in his statement, applications for judicial review have been issued on behalf of several disabled children and adults, pursuant to which a directions hearing was held at the High Court on 5 March.
There are strong legal arguments, on human rights and equality grounds, to exempt disabled people from these regulations. Under Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, it is arguable that the statutory criteria as to the permitted number of bedrooms are discriminatory in that they fail to take into account the particular needs of disabled people; they do not allow for the number of bedrooms required to meet the objective needs of disabled people who may need the extra room – for example, because a disabled partner or child cannot share a room or because a room is used for storing disability-related equipment.
In addition, the regulation fails to take account of the different consequences of the benefit reduction for disabled people as compared with non-disabled people – for example, the need to live close to those who provide vital informal support or the need to retain the adaptations made to their current home. There is no justification for these discriminatory impacts.
Furthermore, the Government has failed to discharge its duties under the Equality Act 2010 as it has paid no regard to the different impact of the regulations on disabled people and has failed to consider whether or how to mitigate the impacts of the regulations on disabled people – who are also generally less able to fund the shortfall or to downsize.
As Sue McCafferty has pointed out before, availability of discretionary housing payments (DHP’s) is not sufficient mitigation of the impacts on disabled people, especially as there is unlikely to be sufficient funding to meet the shortfall for all disabled claimants who need help. The extra resources the Government has committed to provide for DHP’s only reflect the need to help disabled people with extensive adaptations to their home and foster carers. Sue has explained this in greater detail in Loaves and Fishes, her response to last year’s consultation on the subject. There has been no consideration of the impact of the policy on disabled people who do not qualify for DHP’s.
So the ‘bedroom tax’ is a shambles of a policy, through which any half-decent human rights lawyer can – and will – drive a coach-and-horses; and, if that’s not bad enough, the Prime Minister is now misleading the House on the rules. With impacts on disabled people and the poorest likely to include an inability to pay for food, heat and essentials, this policy and the politics around it are starting to look like one of the worst omnishambles of this Government. Whether via the political or the legal process, the bedroom tax must be scrapped urgently before it does serious harm to those in our communities who need the most support.