The Bedroom Dilemma

So, we have our first official death due to the so-called bedroom tax. Stephanie Bottrill is reported to have killed herself because she could not afford to pay £80 towards her rent on her three-bedroom home. From initial reports it seems that she was already in dire financial straits and that the additional charge was just impossible for her to cope with. Reportedly, she had been offered a bungalow six miles away – the media have made much of the distance this would have placed her from family and friends and the journey time, but none seem to have mentioned the most pertinent point of all, the fact that public transport is prohibitively expensive to anyone on benefits. It is not just that she would have faced a long journey to keep in touch with family and friends, but that there is little likelihood she could have afforded to make it.

I actually agree with the basic idea underlying the ‘bedroom tax’ (or ‘spare room subsidy’ as the government would prefer to term it – perhaps ‘poverty penalty’ would sum it up best?) – where possible people who do not need a large home should make way for those in desperate need of larger accommodation. We cannot cram families into one-bedroom flats, after all. But, I fundamentally disagree with both the manner in which it is being implemented and the fact that, like all government initiatives directed from the centre, it utterly fails to take into account any aspects other than the number of people and rooms involved. I also feel that it is very clearly intended as an attack on people on benefits rather than as a move beneficial to the nation.

I think people who do not need a large home should be encouraged to ‘downsize’, but the key word here is ENCOURAGED. Offer them a ‘bribe’ to relocate and pay for their removal costs, don’t bully them – especially as, as is always the case, the ones who will be forced to move will be those who don’t deserve to suffer. We have already seen how people had to campaign to make sure groups such as, to pick just one, foster carers were not unfairly targeted because the initial plans had failed to take their needs into account. Many more remain overlooked. Doubtless benefit fraudsters living in spacious properties will continue to make up the shortfall, if they haven’t managed to mislead the authorities with invented inhabitants, whilst the law-abiding unemployed and disabled who have good reasons not to leave their home – or who would like to but are struggling to find somewhere suitable – are bullied into unsuitable accommodation or suicide.

The scheme also needs to take into account other factors. People should not be forced to move away from friends and family (we all need a support base) nor away from work, if they are amongst those benefits claimants on a low wage. Nor should people with restricted mobility be forced to move into areas inadequately supplied with shops and other services. (Ideally, the government would be making sure public transport was affordable to those on benefits and ensuring that all areas had equal access to all necessary facilities such as shops and doctors, but, sadly, they aren’t.) Then, there are people who live alone but want to be able to have family stay with them or have lived in their home their entire life and would like the opportunity to remain there till they die – why should only homeowners be entitled to a family life or ending their days in a familiar place?

Which brings me on to my other concern. If this scheme was truly about opening up housing to those who need it, we would see the government penalising homeowners who were not making sufficient use of their property. Where is the swinging tax on holiday and second homes? On houses left empty? On people living alone in a house with multiple bedrooms? Why are we not using an economic stick to try and force them to sell or rent to families rather than selfishly occupying more space than they need? The simple fact, as ever, is that it has nothing to do with the stated aim of the exercise. The government sugar coats it as being about opening up housing to those who need it, but, really, it is about having a stick to beat the poor with.

Indeed, on the estate where I live, there are no single-bedroom flats left. Anyone living alone in a two-bedroom property or finds themselves living alone due to a change in their circumstances has two choices – stay put and pay the subsidy,  or move somewhere else altogether. Of course, they could look for private accommodation, which raises a whole raft of questions about higher rents, lower quality of housing and less security for their tenancy – assuming they can find a one-bedroom flat.

The only good news I’ve come across – and I found it entirely by accident whilst researching another issue entirely – is that the bereaved will not be penalised for a year. So, if you find yourself no longer eligible for your home through tragedy, you do at least have some breathing space to try and get your head together before being forced to make decisions about your future, which is better than the situation had appeared.

Unfortunately, that good news is balanced by the bad news that Private Eye reported on the way in which the government intends to squeeze those families with children living at home. The protections that were in place for younger adults just starting out in the world of work will be removed and the amount taken from housing benefit is going to be increased. In other words, if your children live with you, you are going to have to fork out a lot more cash to pay your rent; but, if you boot them out, you will be required to pay the subsidy. So, your only hope, really, if that you and your children can all be simultaneously rehoused into single-bedroom properties which is only slightly more plausible than pinning all your hopes upon the intercession of a genie. Or, in other words, you’re stuck up a proverbial creek without a paddle.

The UK certainly has a housing crisis, but it is not one that can be solved by bullying the unemployed, disabled and working benefit claimants. We may have seen the first official death, but I am certain we will see many more – unfortunately, most will not be suicides that capture the public attention and highlight the iniquities of the system, but will take the form of heart attacks and such like as the stress of the situation takes its toll. The government might piously look away, saying that it cannot talk about specific cases, but the fact remains that they are culpable for all that happens as a result of their actions.

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