Thousands of families on Merseyside have “spiralled into debt” in the 100 days since the government introduced housing benefit cuts, a study claims.  Ministers introduced changes to benefits for tenants with spare rooms, dubbed a “bedroom tax”, in April.

However, the National Housing Federation said it had forced 14,000 tenants in “one of the poorest areas in the country” into rent arrears.

A government spokesman said: “Reform of housing benefit is essential.”

Changes in the rules to housing benefits were introduced to tackle overcrowding and free up larger homes by encouraging those with spare rooms to move into smaller properties.

First time in arrears

Recipients of working age who were in social housing with spare bedrooms had their benefit cut by an average £14 per week from 1 April.

The federation collected data from 18 social landlords, which own 91% of all 130,000 housing association homes across Merseyside.

They estimated almost 26,500 households have been affected by the cuts, yet, due to a shortage of smaller homes, only 155 were able to downsize into housing association properties in April.

In the Riverside area, 2,347 householders would need to move to a one-bedroom property to avoid cuts to their benefits – however only 407 one-bed homes become available each year, the report stated.

As a result, large family homes are lying empty as tenants cannot afford to move in and pay extra for spare rooms, it is claimed.

David Orr, the federation’s chief executive, said: “The fact is there aren’t enough smaller social homes in Merseyside for people to avoid the bedroom tax, even if they wanted to move.”

The federation’s report found 6,000 of the 14,000 householders who had fallen into arrears since the cuts were introduced had done so for the first time.

‘Hurting most vulnerable’

Mr Orr added: “Housing associations warned the government from the start that the bedroom tax would not work and that families would face financial hardship.

“If they rented in the private sector, where costs are higher, this would more than likely increase the benefit bill.

“The reality is that many people will stay in their homes and will be forced to live on less money in a country where living costs and utility bills are rising.

“It is time to face the facts and repeal this unfair policy now.”

The report also found disabled people were bearing the brunt of the changes, with an estimated 19,000 in Merseyside losing more than £13m a year.

Julie Atherton, from St Helens, has adapted her home of 14 years owing to her disability and said moving to a smaller home without the alterations “terrifies” her.

‘Saving £1bn’

She now has to pay an extra £11.46 a week for her spare bedroom and said she has only managed to pay the extra due to being awarded a Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP) which lasts 12 months.

She said: “I suffer from a disease of the spine, I’ve also got diabetes, arthritis and other issues, so I had a bathroom converted into a wet-room and it has made a real difference.

“Don’t ask me how I would have paid the extra without getting the DHP or how I will pay once it runs out because I just don’t know.”

Cake shop owner Angeline Hoile, 36, lives with her husband and three sons in a four-bed house in Garston, Liverpool, and said she is struggling to find an extra £65 each month for under-occupying by one room.

As her children, aged 15, 13 and eight, are all autistic she said they need separate rooms.

A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “We are giving local authorities £150m DHP funding this year to support vulnerable people, including £25m to help people who live in accommodation that has been adapted for their disabilities.

“We always monitor the impact of our policies carefully but there is no conclusive evidence that people affected by our housing benefit reforms are not getting the help they need.

“This reform will save hard working taxpayers almost £1bn over the next two years and will help restore fairness to our housing benefit system.”