Bedroom tax – a battle which should unite not divide

Every issue at the moment, it would seem, warrants the corralling of party political wagons and represents an opportunity to win a tactical advantage in the constitutional debate.

Labour and the SNP, and their various supporters, are currently going at it hammer and tongs over the bedroom tax.  For the uninitiated, the ConDem UK Government came up with this cunning wheeze as part of its welfare reform package.  Housing benefit as we know it is going and will be subsumed into the new universal credit.  Moreover, from April, anyone who has more bedrooms than the UK Government deems appropriate will no longer qualify for help with housing costs.

Thus, foster carers, kinship carers, families with a disabled child or adult, parents who share the care of their children or who need an extra room so they can enjoy overnight contact will all be affected, if they live in local authority or housing association properties and do not have sufficient income to meet their rent.  This is social engineering on the grandest of scales and all to shave the welfare bill at its margins in the name of austerity.

Both Labour and the SNP have had good and powerful things to say on this issue.  Labour did the job demanded of an effective opposition at Westminster and rallied its troops around this one, right from its first appearance in the welfare reform agenda.  And once it reached our borders in terms of implementation, the Scottish Government has laudably drawn attention to it, with help from a range of SNP supporters.  Backbench SNP MSP, Linda Fabiani, one of the most knowledgeable and authoritative members at Holyrood on a slew of issues these days, was quite brilliant on last week’s Sunday Politics Show, emphasising how offensive this policy was, not least because of its failure to acknowledge that a house is also a home.  And Andrew Wilson in today’s Scotland on Sunday, rightly points out that all Scottish MPs but the lone Tory and the clutch of Lib Dems – Mike Crockart as the only honourable exception – opposed this measure.  Both he and Mike Dailly have likened the bedroom tax to the poll tax – a powerful analogy.

But last week in Holyrood’s chamber, our two main Scottish political parties were back to their default positions, squabbling over how Scotland should respond.  Rhoda Grant, the Highlands Labour MSP, decided that if the Scottish Government would just build lots of one bedroom houses, we could fix the problem, conveniently forgetting that under her party’s watch, the Scottish Executive between 2003 and 2007 managed to fund the building of just six local authority houses in total, across all of Scotland – when money did seem to grow on trees.  Which encouraged Mark McDonald MSP of the SNP group to have a pop.  None of it is dignified and not a single word is contributing to finding a way to mitigate against this pernicious policy which will cause appalling financial worry and emotional stress for many and homelessness for some.

When there is an obvious policy battle around which to unite, why do Labour and the SNP prefer to divide?  Surely, the tens of thousands of families about to be hit by the bedroom tax – some of them among the most vulnerable in the country – deserve better?  Don’t we all deserve a political class prepared to leave difference at the door and get round the table to find the solutions when the need demands it?

And enough of the constitutional options being the solution.  Families cannot afford to wait for the outcome of the vote in 2014. To suggest that either a yes vote and independence will allow Scots to reverse such a move and make our own fiscal decisions on benefits or that a no vote will allow for the devolution of welfare policy amounts to a dereliction of duty by both sides.  We might not be able to make this policy disappear with the powers we currently have in Scotland, but we can act to mitigate against its worst effects.  If only our political parties are willing to lay down their cudgels and focus on the here and now and on what can be done, rather than what might be possible one day.

Mike Dailly and the Govan Law Centre have already suggested one way of doing so, urging the Scottish Parliament to relax eviction law so that anyone who accumulates rent arrears as a result of the bedroom tax is not evicted from their home.  That would be a start.

We can and should build more houses, of mixed size and type.  Rhoda Grant was partly right – if we had more one bed properties available, then more people all round would be able to access social housing.  There are far too many families on waiting lists because they need two or three bedroom properties, but others with higher needs get them because they are the only properties available.  Moreover, many pensioners want to downsize but cannot because there is nowhere for them to go.  Where local authorities have one bed properties available and put in place incentive schemes to support people to move – offering rent free periods, free decoration, moving and house clearing – it tends to work in creating a more mobile population.  Not by forcing people to downsize but by creating choice.

So, change eviction law, build more houses, create more incentives enabling more people to move to smaller housing.  All would help, and so would cutting rents.

Last year, 15 of the 26 local authorities in Scotland with social housing stock opted to increase rents at or above 4.4%.  For years, high rent rises have been justified by some because at least 60% of rents are met fully or partly through housing benefit.  The implication is that the Treasury pays the increase not the tenant but that, of course, will no longer apply.  So what local authorities and indeed, housing associations must do is stop applying eye-watering annual rent increases.  Moreover, they must have the power to apply differential rent increases so that anyone who will be hit by the bedroom tax can pay less or no rent.  If they do not have the powers currently to do so, then Holyrood can and must act.  It does after all have complete control over housing policy.

Social landlords might squawk about the need to raise rents to invest in repairs and maintenance, but needs must.  Ask their tenants and most of them would rather have a roof over their heads than an uptodate kitchen.  In any event, there is nothing to stop the Scottish Government nor local authorities from investing capital allocation in housing refurbishment and repairs as well as in construction.

Moreover, Holyrood must also look at what it can do under social work powers to create new provisions for emergency maintenance payments for families affected by the bedroom tax which do not then impinge on their entitlement to other UK benefits.  How might a pot be created for this?  Well, how about a revaluation and reform of council tax to create more bands at the top of the property ladder, so that those who can make more of a contribution, do?

None of these solutions are simple:  some would take a bit of effort to make them work but nor do they have to be unnecessarily complex.  And they should not be dismissed as impossible.  Anything is possible if the political will and maturity exists, not least to unite to face down this threat.  Acting to mitigate against the impact of this policy shouldn’t prevent our politicians from protesting vociferously but that protest would be more effective if it was voiced in unison.  Yes, we need more powers to make our own decisions on welfare.  But in the meantime, let’s acknowledge that we are not entirely powerless.

We have some powers:  let’s use them.

31 thoughts on “Bedroom tax – a battle which should unite not divide

  1. “ConDem UK Government came up with this cunning wheeze”
    I’m sorry, but this is not correct. In fact it was Labour’s idea, and was introduced by Gordon Brown’s Government for private tenants as part of the Local Housing Allowance legislation in 2008, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Local_Housing_Allowance#Bedroom_Requirement
    All the ConDems have done is to extend this Labour policy to social tenants.

  2. Pingback: Empty political vessels make the most noise | A Burdz Eye View

  3. Pingback: The ‘Bedroom Tax’ is not perfect, but the potential to improve future generations is worth the change | Speaker's Chair

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  5. If Labour would for,once come out with a costed proposal, their credibility might get back in through that hole in the bottom of the barrel they scraped.

    Compare Labours record on house building to that of the SNP since 2007, it is just hilarious the hypocrisy that reeks from them.

    Where are all your affordable houses Labour ? Well the Liberals I suppose had a wee hand in it. Lies just seem to be there default position on every thing from speeding tickets to appearances on QT to Student Fees and Home Rule for Scotland.
    http://on.fb.me/XzgAnv

    If Labour want all these things they suddenly think are so important now they are down and out, if they want an extra million or two here and there, then they need to say what they want to cut to fund their ideas. But of course they won’t. They gave the game away with Lamonts “something for nothing” blundering. They are now further to the right of their partners in crime the Tory’s in the Unionist bed.

  6. The bedroom tax is just one element of welfare reform which is a strikingly unfair one but for every household and individual affected by other aspects of welfare reform it is often just as unfair. People living in private rented accommodation for example are not affected by the bedroom tax but can be just as vulnerable as those who live in social housing. This is not an argument for saying do nothing about the bedroom tax. But there is much more to this than the bedroom tax. How are we to prioritise those in need? It has to be on the basis of need -not on the basis of what sort of benefit people receive or what particular reform they are affected by.

    And while the SG and councils can provide support and mitigate some of the worst effects of the welfare cuts there also has to be a level of realism. They cannot replace the 2.5bn being taken out of Scotland’s welfare system, nor can that amount be raised by increasing council tax.

    Politically it makes no sense – no sense at all – to say that it is right that welfare is decided on a UK basis, that we are better together rather than having a separate Scottish tax and benefits system but to also argue that devolved powers and funding should be used to try and reverse reserved decisions. That may seem like a negative fighting point but it is true.

    The Scottish Government has more power over welfare than it has over defence and it can’t *stop* welfare reform any more than it could stop the Iraq war. I think because the impacts of welfare reform are felt most sharply by devolved services and agencies people feel that somehow those devolved services and agencies can be used to stop welfare reform happening – to make it go away. That is just wishful thinking.

    Note I am not saying that the Scottish Government is powerless. There are things they can do and things they will do, in partnership with COSLA, to deal with the worst impacts. But they can’t make it go away.

  7. You know what really blinds – having your heads so far up your own arses that you fail to see why normal people regard those in party politics as a shower of ignorant, narcissistic, gobby, self-centred pricks who compensate for their lack of integrity by obsessing with securing power over others in order to justify their vacuous views of self.

    Nothing personal, just really bored with an absence of constructive discussion around issues that matter to people. There may well be honest, decent, humans among them but it’s pretty clear that internal, personal compromise is a far more common political currency than compromise between political parties, never mind constructive discussion and agreement.

    A whole bunch of folk are getting shafted here (and being either demonised or paraded like Channel 5 reality show topics). Show some respect for fuck’s sake – this isn’t politics, it’s real lives.

  8. The GLC proposals have merit as a short term fix but are not a long term solution.

    They don’t excuse the debt but only limit its means of collection so, for example, the working poor could still have their wages arrested or their car attached and sold.

    Even insofar as they effectively prevent collection from some benefit (only) recipients, they can’t solve the related loss of income suffered by (exclusively) not for profit housing providers which will inevitably impact, at least, on money available for repairs.

    The real solution would be to use s.12 of the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 but the Scottish Goveenment would have to fund that. Which they show no desire to do.

    That’s not a Party point, for there has been nothing to date to suggest Scottish Labour would do anything different and indeed I suspect that Liam Byrne would not welcome such an initiative at least until our UK Policy review reports. It is disingenuous however for (some) Nationalists to claim there’s nothing can be done immediately except blame the Tories.

    • Fair enough, Ian, though i would say it may be easier to deal with diligence than eviction actions. However, i agree with you funds should be rediverted into funds available to be given out to S12 applicants. I do think there is possibly up to £40 million that could be diverted for this purpose, as I do think housing benefit cuts must take priority over council tax benefit cuts.

      • Alan why not just put up council tax and fund both? The freeze is of most benefit to the better off.

      • Because I don’t think the solution is to make a bad tax worse off. It needs to be reformed. I also think you need to be careful when you say its the current freeze is only a benefit to the better off. The benefit is for everyone, including those on low incomes who only get partial council tax benefit (as they only pay the remainder of the frozen amount). They are huge swathes of society who get no assistance with their council tax benefit, but in these times would struggle to pay an increase.

      • I don’t get that argument. The cut to council tax benefit that you propose takes money off the poorest and only the poorest. Compared to that increasing council tax takes less from the poorest and more from the better off.

      • Well I am not proposing any cut to council tax benefit, the lib/Con Coalition are introducing a 10% cut. I am proposing if there are limited funds available to protect the poorest from these and housing benefit cuts, then the £40 million the Scottish Govt have allocated to help with Council Tax benefits would be more effectively helping specifically with the housing benefit cuts, as the consequences of these cuts are far more severe: ie homelessness.
        In relation to whether the council tax freeze helps the better off, then I think we need to be clear who this “better off” catergory include. It includes people on low income, people already in receipt of partial council tax benefit and many hard working families who get no assistance with their rent, mortgages, council tax etc but are already struggling and would possibly be forced into further hardship if it was increased. People who get partial council tax benefit still pay council tax, so if you increase it, they pay more and trust me you have to be on a very low income to qualify for council tax benefit, even partial benefit, in the first place.
        So a council tax hike would hit some of the lowest income and many struggling families in this country.
        However, as the council tax is an inherently unfair tax, with the millionaire often paying just a couple of times more than people who don’t even make average wages and live in rented accomodation, never mind penthouses or large flashy houses, a reorganisation of tax is a far more progressive way to proceed.

      • Ie we will end up just moving counters around the table. If you increase council tax for many this will just result in debts as they will struggle to pay it, if we bail out the council tax benefit cuts, we will end up just running up more local authority budgets trying to deal with providing more advice agencies and homeless families. So give the money where its needed, presuming we don’t have a bottomless pit, to helping with the housing benefit cuts

      • Council tax increases don’t affect people on partial council tax benefit.

      • Steve, you are absolutely correct, shows how long its been since i have done a council tax benefit calculations. Just refreshed my memory. My apologises, however, i would still stand by the rest of my argument in that the “better off” catergory you refers to still includes many what i would deem low income families who can hardly afford an increase. i would also add, which just dawned on me as i refreshed my memory, would increasing council tax also not require what is available as maximum council tax benefit to also be increased?

        And with the lib dem cuts and i believe their decision to devolve the administration of it to scotland, the scot gov would need to top up the £40 million that they are sticking into this years to avoid further increases resulting from the fact maximum council tax benefit would not equal the full council tax, otherwise.

        i believe this would be the case.

        The way i see it this not a long term solution either and the only long term solution is to reform local taxation and deal with the priority of housing benefit cuts now.

      • Alan, this has been an interesting wee chat. Yes you’re right maximum ctb would need to increase.

        I think we’re pretty much on the same page here, I agree that long term we need reform of council tax.

        I think what we’re discussing is what are the least worst short term sticking plasters we can apply to help just now.

        And I agree with you that if the choice is between ctb and the bedroom tax then the latter should take priority.

        But to me that choice feels a bit like a choice being taken by the well off as to the best way to make the poor a bit poorer.

        I could well afford to pay more, so why, in the short term, is a solution that asks me to help out not even on the table? That feels wrong.

    • I agree with that to some extent – it could lead to a real cash flow crisis for HAs and councils – but I think in reality local authorities and the Scottish Government are waiting to see what the extent of the problem is going to be. We are not really going to know that until it happens. There aren’t going to be loads of evictions because people would just need to be rehoused then. The private sector can’t absorb them. There is going to have to be additional money put in to ease the cash flow situation but there is no point in making commitments until it is clear how much is going to be needed.It can’t just come from the SG,some will have to come from councils too.

      All of this pales in comparison to what could happen if the universal payment is brought in. That could actually destroy the social rented sector if it is implemented as planned. The people who thought that up are clearly bonkers.

  9. Aye a good lot of writing and a long post,with suggestions of a solution,but unfairly ,I think,pushing blame onto the SNP,with the call of “they have the powers then they should use them” so where shall we cut first?I don’t often disagree but this time “The View” is not so clever.Just my view.

    • A 3% increase to council tax would do it.

    • Patrick, cuts may indeed be inevitable and yes ultimate responsibility must lie with the Westminister Government, although to be fair, I don’t think Kate fails to provide solutions. Local Government taxation and the reform of it, is a policy the SNP are committed to and could if implemented avoid further cuts, albeit, some quite rightly may have to pay more in taxes.

      Also as I have previously pointed out, Government is about priorities. The SNP have already committed to finding £40 million to offset the effects of 10% council tax benefit cuts. That would go a significant way to offsetting the effects of the bedroom tax. Yes that may see people accrue arrears for Council Tax if that money was rediverted, however, people cannot be evicted for council tax arrears. A solution is possible, especially when you also take the Govan Law Centre amendments on board also. The issue is whether this Government wishes to use its powers to protect the Scottish People.

      To be fair, this Government has not yet said it will not act, but hopefully over the next few weeks its will

  10. Good post. We know how much the bedroom tax would cost to reverse in Scotland, £60 million a year. We know all the people affected because councils still administer housing benefit. So if the political will were there we could have no bedroom tax in Scotland if we wanted.

  11. Excellent post Kate.

    Much as the constitutional debate bores me as irrelevant it’s this war on ordinary people, perpetrated by borderline inhumane Tory idealism, that could tempt me to the Yes side.

    And I think the current ‘vote Yes or get the wicked Tories’ peddled by the SNP borders on pathetic.

    Calum Cashley posted this link recently regarding future Labour welfare policy should they gain power in 2015.

    http://m.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/oct/02/labour-cuts-welfare-liam-byrne

    I despair for the social cohesion of the country. It sounds like Labour would deliver more of the same.

    Regards

  12. I, will also, finally add there has to my knowledge, overall been a deafening silence from all parties on whether they do or don’t favour the no eviction proposals of Govan law Centre. Do you support them Iain?

  13. To be fair, Ian, linda Fabiani did not say she wouldn’t implement the proposals contained in the GLC petition, only she wasn’t convinced.

  14. I think you are absolutely Kate, stop evictions and local tax reform could be the start of a longer term solution, to allow us to get over the worse of this tax’s effects

  15. Of course the SG could use the parliament’s existing powers to sort this. It only applies to public sector housing and that’s completely devolved. They won’t though for two reasons.

    Firstly they’d need to fund it and they clearly don’t regard it as a priority.

    Secondly, it suits them to maintain the fiction that the ONLY solution to anything is independence.

    Pity for those affected. It’s a shockingly heartless policy even by the standards of the Tories.

    • And have Labour led councils frozen rents, using the powers they have? This Labour -SNP divide on the issue has to stop. Both parties have powers they can use.

    • Blinded by your hatred of the SNP you would rather tread water looking around for a piece of driftwood to save yourself from drowning rather than try to swim unaided for dry land not very far away.

      • While, you, blinded by your hatred of the UK would rather do nothing, so as to increase support for a Yes vote.

        Inaction and calls for independence as the cure for all our ills show the irrepsonsibility of the Scottish Government. We deserve better.

      • Yes I have no time time for a UK government (ConLibLab) who think that the City of London are the epiphany of good for all and need to be appeased at all costs.

        For Labour to advocate that the building of single occupancy houses to alleviate the hardship that this policy will imply beggars belief and no wonder you are now outside the Socialist International that made Labour downgrade its membership, party before people.

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