ONTD Political

The spare bedroom tax: a mess of contradiction and impossibility

9:25 pm - 01/25/2013
The Holden family live on the end of a terraced street in the middle of Hartlepool. There are six of them: Stuart, 36, his wife Lorna, 33, and four kids: Faith, 8, Noah, 6, Elijah, 2, and Sam, 4. You'd think of them as a thoroughly ordinary family, finding their way through the kind of trying circumstances that now seem to define the national condition, were it not for one detail: Sam, is autistic, and just starting to talk. "He was very non-verbal: shut off," Lorna tells me. "Now, he's starting to communicate what he wants. But it's still only one or two words at a time."

Stuart works a 9.30am-2.30pm shift at the HQ of Student Finance England in nearby Darlington, so as to be around for the more trying parts of the day. Though she aims to return to paid work once she's somehow got round the steep cost of childcare, Lorna – a native of Cambridge, who came to Hartlepool due to a past relationship – has recently been suffering from stress-related illness, as well as gall bladder problems. The family are entitled to £114 a week in housing benefit, which covers their five-bedroom home, rented from the Endeavour Housing Association. All the bedrooms are used: the smallest, they tell me, is a "sensory room" for Sam, where he can let off steam and be free of the overstimulation that can make autistic people extremely distraught.

Their house is sparsely-furnished and slowly being redecorated, with some laminate flooring paid for by Stuart's mum. It's eye-wateringly expensive to heat, they tell me – but since they moved here a few months ago from their previous three-bedroom home, Sam is apparently transformed: "He's like a different kid. He wants to be with you more, he brings you things to read or to look at," says Lorna. But there's a big problem looming. In April, the housing benefit paid to families like the Holdens will be changed by a new set of rules, outlined in last year's Welfare Reform Act.

What's about to arrive is widely known as the "spare bedroom tax", and is a central part of the government's radical changes to social security (which also include a planned real-terms cut in most working-age benefits). It's targeted at what officialspeak terms "under-occupation": if you live in social housing and are deemed to be one bedroom over, your housing benefit will be docked by 14%; if it's two or more, 25%. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people who live on very tight incomes are faced with a choice: either stay in their homes and somehow find the money, or move somewhere else.

For the Holdens, all this is very bad news indeed. With Sam and Elijah sleeping in the same room, and the other two kids each given a bedroom of their own, our initial conversation revolves around the assumption that they'll get a special dispensation for the sensory room – but the new rules still mean that, until daughter Faith turns 10, they'll be "under-occupying" by one bedroom, and therefore in line for a £16 a week hit. To some, that will not sound like much, but like so many families, they count every penny – and the extra money, Lorna tells me, will have to come out of their food budget, which currently runs to around £80 a week, and is largely spent on the budget lines Lorna calls "value food".

"Sam has very specific needs: there are lots of things that he needs – like nappies," says Lorna. "And we can't cut it from fuel, or electricity, or petrol. So when you lay that budget out over a month, with your council tax and water, and all your bills, there's nowhere else it can come from: the only place we can cut from is our food budget. And we're already having the cheapest food you can buy.

"I try and budget each day, like a daily allowance," she says. "So it'll just mean that when the yoghurt's gone, it's gone, and when the fruit's gone, it's gone. We'll just have to go without things: that's just the way it's going to have to be."

Towards the end of our conversation, there comes a grim twist. Contrary to their belief that they will only be penalised for one bedroom, the PR from the housing association raises the possibility that Sam's dedicated sensory room might be deemed to be "spare", meaning that the Holdens will be two bedrooms over their threshold, and faced with a hit of £28 a week.

Suddenly, Lorna looks panicked. How, I wonder, will they be able afford a cut of that size? "I don't think we could," she says.

The government's official blurb says the spare bedroom tax is intended to "contain growing housing benefit expenditure, encourage greater mobility within the social rented sector, make better use of available social housing stock, and improve work incentives for working-age claimants". It makes rules on housing let by councils and housing associations even tighter than similar regulations covering privately rented accommodation – and in that sense, drastically weakens the "social" aspect of so-called social housing.

The new regime is exacting, to say the least. If you're a separated or divorced couple who share the care of your children, only one of you will be allowed extra rooms; if the other keeps a bedroom for the kids, it'll still be deemed "spare". If a family contains two children of the same sex under 16, they must share, and the same will apply to mixed-sex children under 10. As the Holdens have discovered, whether a disabled child is entitled to a room of their own is a matter of some uncertainty, apparently being left to local authorities.

There will be no exceptions for foster carers, who might need extra space for children they look after. Even if a family or couple has had a house or flat kitted out with must-have facilities for someone who's disabled, if they're deemed to be under-occupying, they'll still be penalised (to help such people pay the rent, the government has set aside an extra £30m a year for discretionary payments, though help will be given on a temporary basis, with no kind of hard entitlement – and besides, next year's extra funding set aside to deal with the fall-out from housing benefit cuts amounts to just 6% of what the government intends to save).

The spare bedroom tax will affect around 660,000 households. It's estimated that around two thirds of those households will have at least one person with a disability. In general, one thing seems beyond doubt: the huge national housing shortage means that the government's imagined spurt of mass downsizing simply cannot happen – the Holdens, for example, have asked their housing association to look into the availability of four-bedroom places, only to be told that there's a very long waiting list.

The changes will hit the north far more than the south, chiefly because social housing in the UK's old industrial centres is often synonymous with bigger properties, and there has never been big demand for one- and two-bedroom flats. In that sense, the spare bedroom tax chimes with rising resentment about how disproportionately the government's mixture of cuts and "reform" are hitting different parts of the country. The north/south factor also explains why this most remarkable of stories has barely broken through into the national media – which, according to those who are having to spread the word, means plenty of the people who'll be directly affected seem to be barely aware of what's about to happen.

Five minutes from the Holdens' house, I meet 24-year-old Jason Gaffney. He's unemployed, and on the government's work programme. His flat has two bedrooms, one of which he uses as a compact studio: he's a talented artist and sculptor with A-levels in art and fine art, who says he wants to become self-employed and sell his work – fantasy-based stuff full of psychedelic elements redolent of Grateful Dead albums – online.

His jobseeker's allowance brings in around £100 a fortnight, and housing benefit covers his £300-a-month rent. But he's deemed to be one bedroom over, and must therefore find an extra £56 a month. "They're telling me to budget, saying I'm going to have to tighten my belt," he says. "What belt? We've already tightened our belts.

"If I'm going to get even less now, where's that going to leave me? " he says. "What will I have to cut back on? Food. And heating. I hate paying for heat. I've run up debts on heat. And water."

The government's essential idea, I remind him, is that he should move to a one-bedroom flat. "What one bedroom flat?" he shoots back. "There are no one-bedroom flats, that's the thing. They haven't been built. I've asked the housing association that. They don't exist." He could conceivably find a one-bedroom place on the local private rental market, but a quick trawl online suggests that it would cost a minimum of £350 a month, which would actually put his housing benefit up.

Such is the mess of contradiction and impossibility the spare bedroom tax has kicked up. In Manchester, a call to a local councillor leads me to the Mosscare Housing Association, and Tola Adesemowo, their housing services director: she tells me she's taking on extra staff to deal with the fallout from the bedroom tax, and that most of her affected tenants either can't or don't want to move – so, to enable them to take the financial hit, the association has been referring some to food banks.

In Leeds, a spokesperson for the city's Tenants Federation tells me about one particularly remarkable aspect of the spare bedroom tax's consequences: the fact that the city council long ago decided that flats in the upper reaches of tower blocks were ill-suited to families, and let them to single people and couples – who moved in good faith, but are now being hit by the spare bedroom tax en masse. The whole thing, he tells me, is "time bomb waiting to go off".

Talking to people who are anxiously awaiting the spare bedroom tax's effects, questions extend into the distance. What, some wonder, is to stop people claiming a bedroom is a study or home office? "We are not defining a bedroom," says a statement sent my way by the Department of Work and Pensions. "A tenancy agreement normally states the numbers of bedrooms within a property, and the rent will reflect this."

How will people's use of bedrooms be monitored? "It is a responsibility of the claimant to inform us of the size of a property and those living in it," the same text goes on. And what of the chronic shortage of smaller properties in such places as Hartlepool? In response to this question, I get a remarkable reply: despite the fact that the same statement bemoans people living "in homes that are too large for their needs", it also acknowledges that "most people will not move" and claims that "there are other options available such as taking up employment, increasing hours worked or taking in a lodger".

As the other cuts to benefits are also on the way, there's high anxiety among councils and housing associations about massive increases in rent arrears, which will have one simple upshot: fewer houses will be built. And underneath just about everything you hear about the spare bedroom tax lies one rather chilling augury of the UK's future: the fact that, for a swathe of Britons, the certainty of a stable and enduring home is now apparently out of bounds, and family life will in future take place against a backdrop of uncertainty, anxiety and the heavy hand of government.

Back in Hartlepool, Stuart and Lorna Holden tell me there's a lot of local talk about how to beat the spare bedroom tax using the simplest of expedients: human reproduction. "My personal opinion is that if you start adding bedroom taxes on and saying, 'You're under-occupying', people are just going to occupy that space by having more kids," says Lorna.

"I've heard people saying that," says Stuart. "'We'll just have more kids then. We'll fill the bedroom.'"

"And then they get more benefit from the government because they've got more kids," says Lorna. "So what they're really doing is punishing people who are trying to work, and bring up a family, and who need that extra bit of support to make ends meet. I just don't see how it's going to work."

tabaqui 25th-Jan-2013 10:02 pm (UTC)
What the everloving fuck.
deborahw37 25th-Jan-2013 10:31 pm (UTC)
Fecking bastard Tory government!
69love_songs 25th-Jan-2013 10:37 pm (UTC)
Who the fuck voted for this shit? I got so angry around election time when people were posting all kinds of bullshit on facebook about how 'disillusioned' they were so they were voting for the Conservatives. Well, thanks to their ~edgy fucking bullshit, this is the mess we're left with.

Fuck them, seriously. Fuck them all.
slashburd 25th-Jan-2013 11:03 pm (UTC)
This was my first thought when I read the article too.

I worked with a guy who was absolutely great apart from his dip-dyed and reality blinding Tory-ness. When he worked with us he was full of it - how the unemployed were stealing his taxes, people should go out and get jobs etc. He got made redundant and has been made redundant from at least two other jobs since then over the course of the last 3 and a bit years. Where I'm going with this is that he was allowed to stay on in his aunt's council house after she died which will now be deemed too big by one if not two bedrooms as he lives alone and is childless. I wonder now if he'll be basking in the smugness of putting his ballot slip in that box with a tick against Conservative?
spinnigold 25th-Jan-2013 10:46 pm (UTC)
Who actually sat down and thought this would help anyone in any way???! There is nothing helpful to this, it just creates more problems down the road; it's pathetic.

I am more than certain that this government cares only about disenfranchising the 'lowest common denominator', the 'undesirables' in their eyes. Never fucking mind that these are decent, hardworking people who NEED help not hindrance.</p>

Just....fuck the Tories. Fuck them!

strandedinaber 26th-Jan-2013 10:15 am (UTC)
It's not supposed to help. It's supposed to punish those who dare try and use the welfare state for the purpose for which it was created.

Goddamn fucking Tories.
ceilidh 25th-Jan-2013 11:04 pm (UTC)
what the fuck. I seriously don't understand what they are getting at here. I don't know about houses/apartments in the UK but sometimes how many "bedrooms" a house has is no indicator of how much actual live-in-able space there is in a place. We used to have a 3 bedroom/2 bath house with an extremely tiny living room and small bedrooms and tiny bathrooms....we now have a 2 br apartment which is actually bigger with more usable space. Going on bedrooms alone is ridiculous. A place can have more bedrooms but less "space" because of how it's laid out. And I think requiring kids of opposite genders to share rooms is bullshit. Some 10 year olds are already going through puberty and with that often comes a need or desire for more privacy. If the kids WANT to share, that's one thing but REQUIRING them to share a room is awful. And sharing a tiny room like we had in our old house is one thing, sharing a bigger room might be different.
glass_houses 26th-Jan-2013 12:56 am (UTC)
And what teenagers want to share a room with a sibling? How about without killing each other? Like, seriously? My sister and I are 5 years apart (I'm older) and while we had separate rooms I still hated her.
iolarah 25th-Jan-2013 11:21 pm (UTC)
Wow, that's an awful mess. Scary stuff for people who are already at their limits.
grace_om 25th-Jan-2013 11:47 pm (UTC)
The people who come up with these things.... It's like they read Dickens and take home the totally wrong message :-(
tallycola 25th-Jan-2013 11:53 pm (UTC)
IDGI. There are six people and five bedrooms - a master bedroom and four bedrooms for the kids. How are any of them spare bedrooms, even if the kids end up sharing rooms? What does it matter if they use one room as a special room and bunk the kids? Five bedrooms for a family of six sounds totally reasonable?
thedorkygirl 26th-Jan-2013 01:23 am (UTC)
kids of the same gender share rooms (2 to a room) until 16, I think? In teens. And kids under teen can share rooms mixed gender.

1) Parents

2) the babies
2-year-old Elijah & 4-year-old Sam sleep in the same room\

3) Noah, age 6

4) Faith, age 8

5) the small "sensory room" for Sam

They will say -

1) Parents
2) Sam & Elijah
3) Noah & Faith

4 + 5 are extra rooms
abiding 25th-Jan-2013 11:59 pm (UTC)
How fucked up, wow.
lovelokest 26th-Jan-2013 12:19 am (UTC)
This is fucked up on so many levels. I wonder if there is a way to classify the "extra" bedrooms as box-rooms and avoid getting a benefits reduction?
the_gabih 26th-Jan-2013 12:56 pm (UTC)
Possibly? But then if it's written into the lease that there are that many bedrooms, it can be pretty hard to change it.
kyra_neko_rei 26th-Jan-2013 01:17 am (UTC)
What the fuck is this? Who comes up with this shit? Do government people come into their offices in the morning thinking "Y'know, the number one problem around here is that the poor aren't miserable enough. How can I make them more stressed and uncomfortable?"

That part that penalizes the guy who had too many bedrooms for not moving into a 1-bedroom that doesn't exist or is more expensive than what he's got really takes the cake. It obviously has nothing to do with making housing stretch better, it's just an arbitrary "hey, you, you have too much!" thrown at a person whose actual "crime" is not having enough.
strandedinaber 26th-Jan-2013 10:24 am (UTC)
"Y'know, the number one problem around here is that the poor disabled unemployed anyone who isn't rich, male and white aren't miserable enough. How can I make them more stressed and uncomfortable?"

Fixed that for you. Goddamn Tories.
mollywobbles867 26th-Jan-2013 01:42 am (UTC)
OT: Shenanigans?
beuk 26th-Jan-2013 02:23 am (UTC)
bestdaywelived 26th-Jan-2013 05:47 am (UTC)
I really don't see the issue with requiring kids to share rooms. I think charging extra is ridiculous, and if there is no availability, they shouldn't enforce the extra payments, but I absolutely do not think that every child in a family needs a private bedroom, or that single folks need a spare room.

This is another case where I can tell that I grew up very differently than most of the community. I was forced to share with both of my sisters, and I lived in a small trailer, not a spacious house. I survived, even though it sucked.
strandedinaber 26th-Jan-2013 10:28 am (UTC)
The issue for me isn't really that people are having to share rooms (except in the case of this family, where Sam has very specific needs), though. It's that in order for kids to share rooms and not face the financial hit, families have to uproot their lives and move. There are very few council houses available, and people won't be given much of an option on where they can move to. And private landlords will be shoving the rent right up on smaller properties now. There's costs in moving if necessary, maybe moving schools for the kids, changing transport costs for jobs and schools. All because they might have an extra boxroom which can barely fit one bed in. There is absolutely no way that this policy will end with anything other than those who can ill afford it being forced to pay more because of some stupid scheme the coalition dreamed up.
sio 26th-Jan-2013 06:57 am (UTC)
i don't get why the fuck they CARE how many rooms the places have--as long as the occupants pays their fucking rent on time, why is it the government's business what they're using the rooms for? uggh.

and TELLING parents how the children should be roomed? bullshit.
mahsox_mahsox 26th-Jan-2013 07:09 am (UTC)
I don't think they check which rooms the kids are actually living in. They use a formula to work out how many bedrooms a beneficiary gets without a reduction in assistance, but if you've actually got three kids in one room and one in another when the formula says two in each is reasonable I doubt they care. Likewise, if a parent wanted to sleep on a foldout in the living room to free up a bedroom, I doubt they'd call the living room a bedroom.
mahsox_mahsox 26th-Jan-2013 07:02 am (UTC)
Why not also increase council rates for home owners who have more bedrooms than they strictly need? I mean, just to be fair and spread the pain around.
rebness 26th-Jan-2013 09:52 am (UTC)
Because only the poor and disenfranchised must suffer under the fucking ConDems.
kishmet 26th-Jan-2013 09:28 pm (UTC)
This is such a bizarre law. It's too all-encompassing. I'd get taxing families over a certain net income for any spare bedrooms while taking other factors (such as disability or working at home) into account, but this is clearly just punishing any poorer people who dare have one too many rooms
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