Perverse, cruel, self-defeating, unjust: these terms could legitimately be used to describe a whole raft of Government policies.
But consider this leading contender on all four counts: the so-called “bedroom tax”, due to be imposed from April. All social housing tenants of working-age will have their housing benefit docked if they are judged to have a spare bedroom. For 670,000 households already struggling to pay bills and rent while feeding themselves or their children, that means losing an average of £14 a week, and up to £80 a month. Misery awaits.
The policy has two stated aims: firstly, to bring down the housing benefits bill; secondly, to free up under-occupied social housing to help overcrowded families. The Government is absolutely right to argue that £21bn worth of taxpayers’ money is wasted on housing benefit. But it is paid out because our economy is blighted by a combination of high unemployment and underemployment, low wages and excessive rents, leaving large sections of the population unable to afford their housing costs. A huge chunk of housing benefit has become a subsidy for private landlords who scrounge off the taxpayer, knowing they can charge extortionate rents and the state will pick up the tab. Controlling rents – as in Germany – would be a more effective and humane way of reducing the bill.
According to Shelter, the number of overcrowded homes has doubled in just a decade; in some parts of the country, one in four households live in cramped conditions. Yet the bedroom tax is yet another means for the Government to turn Britain’s poorest against each other. Don’t blame the Government for failing to build housing: blame your neighbour instead. The refusal of both New Labour and the Tories to build council housing has left up to five million on social housing waiting lists. A house building programme is key to recovery from our economic catastrophe: it would stimulate the economy, create j obs, and bring down the housing benefit bill. But it would be a policy of sanity for a government in the grip of economic madness.
Thousands of those hammered by the bedroom tax have nowhere to downsize to. According to the National Housing Federation, there are 180,000 English social tenants “under-occupying” two-bedroom homes, but fewer than 70,000 one-bedroom available social homes. According to Hilary Burkitt at Affinity Sutton, one of the largest housing associations, there are very few one-bedroom properties at all in regions like the North West and North East. Tenants could be driven into the higher rents of the private sector, of course, but then would need even higher levels of housing benefit. Research for housing associations shows 42 per cent of those affected already struggle financially. The rise in homelessness that will result won’t just be devastating for those involved, it will cost: last year, the number of homeless families living in B&Bs soared by nearly half.
What is so cruel about this policy is that it aims deliberately to drive poor people further into hardship. Sounds like hyperbole? It only works by inflicting such intolerable financial pain that families will be forced to leave their homes. It’s not just the bedroom tax they will face, either. April will be the most savage month since the Lib Dems decided to prop up the Tories: these households will be further battered by cuts to council tax benefit, disability benefits, housing benefit, and a cap on in-work and out-of-work benefits. It will be one of the greatest raids on Britain’s poor in modern times.
For the Government to get away with inflicting such misery, it needs the victims to be demonised as state-dependent leeches, scrounging from taxpayers. How some commentators howled about the abandoned mansion tax, allegedly imposing hardship on those without savings. All too many are silent about a policy which will cause far more suffering on the genuinely poor.
So let’s be clear about who is affected. Nearly two thirds are sick or disabled. People with box rooms; disabled people with specially adapted rooms or who need carers to stay over occasionally; the recently bereaved; parents of soldiers; those with broken marriages who need a room for their kids to stay: all face being kicked. Like Wayne Blackburn, a disabled man in Nelson, Lancashire, who needs a wheelchair to get around: “financially, April will cripple my wife and I,” he says. Like Zoe Edwards in Wandsworth, scraping by on a £7 an hour zero-hours contract after her son left home. I’m bombarded by other horrifying stories: a best friend’s father in the late stages of cancer, expected to leave his home; a man who cared for his sick mum, expected to leave now she is dead; a mother who needs a spare room as a foster carer, and so on.
There are other perversities, too. Elderly people are exempt from the tax, but are mostly likely to want to downsize: they will now struggle to find one-bedroom properties as demand soars. As Hilary Burkitt puts it, because supply rarely matches demand, one in three couples in social housing are given a two-bedroom property by councils: they will now be punished, too.
Some apologists of Government policy, like blogger Guido Fawkes, have tried to obscure the suffering inflicted on the poorest with semantic pedantry. It is not a “tax”, they say, falsely claiming that left-wingers labelled it such. But it was cross-bencher Lord Best who introduced the term, and housing specialists have popularised it in an attempt to explain clearly to tenants who have been starved of information by the government. Notorious hotbeds of socialism like the Daily Telegraph, ITN, and Tory councils such as Cornwall council call it the bedroom tax: a monstrous policy, whatever it is called.
And so a warning to Number 10. You calculate your attempt to demonise benefit claimants has paid off, removing all potential empathy. But – unfortunately for you – most are decent people. When the electorate realise you are inflicting misery not on “scroungers”, but on some of the most vulnerable in society, your campaign will fail. You bank on the suffering remaining below the radar, and you will be proved wrong. We will hammer you with the consequences, and, in time, you will be defeated.
By Owen Jones at The Independent