Today’s the day the British Welfare State started to be dismantled in earnest by the Conservative government, aided by their coalition partners the Liberal Democrats – the party that those of us who voted for them did so knowing they would go into coalition with the Tories if they got the largest number of seats in the election, but expecting that if they did they’d reign in the worst of the Tory nastiness rather encourage it.
One of the changes introduced is the Bedroom Tax, or the Single Room Subsidy as it’s officially known, meaning people who live in social housing receiving housing benefit will get a proportion of that benefit cut according to how many extra rooms their accomodation has in relation to the number of people living there. So a single person living in a two or three bedroom house will get a reduction of their benefit, or be expected to move to accomodation with just one bedroom.
The argument the government makes is that there are too many people living in social housing which is bigger than they need, whilst at the same time there are also too many people living in overcrowded properties, with children sharing bedrooms etc. I can actually sympathise with this as an argument, from personal experience – when the two of us were tenants of Bournville Village Trust living in a single room flat it took us much work to get them to accept that two people living in a bedsit should be considered overcrowding, and then when they did finally accept that the only place they offered us – again after a long wait – was a shithole in Weoley Castle, and although it was a one bedroom flat rather than a single room flat, it was still on the small size; so small, in fact, that after just a year of living there we decided to move to living on a boat (or rather, a pair of boats).
So the stated aim of the tax has reasonable foundations – to encourage people living in places with extra rooms to enter into mutual exchanges with tenants who need more space.
What makes it unfair is the blunt instrument way it is applied, and the suddenness of its introduction. Whilst some last minute concessions were introduced, for the most part individual circumstances are not taken into account – for example, fathers who are separated from their children’s mothers who need to keep a spare room or two for when their children visit will be subject to the cut in their benefit. And whilst it has been trailed for the last few months, there has barely been any time for people to prepare for it and make arrangements to move (because even mutual exchanges don’t appear at the drop of a hat) – plus there appears to be no assistance with the costs of moving itself, which doesn’t come cheap even when one does it on the cheap.
If this was genuinely being introduced to improve fairness in the system, it would be better constructed to take individual circumstances into account. And rather than being introduced quickly and universally, it would have been introduced in phases – first of all it would have applied only to new tenants, and then existing tenants would have been given one or two years to find somewhere else to live. It wouldn’t have been coupled with other benefit cuts (such as the reduction in council tax benefit), and, of course, it also wouldn’t have been coupled with the reduction in funding for councils and other agencies resulting in a reduction in the amount of staff available to actually help and advise people who are affected.
But then very little this government has done has been anything about fairness.