The Labour Party is set to lay into the government’s expansive reforms of the benefits system later today.
Shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne claimed that taxpayers are on course to lose £1.4 billion by 2015 as a result of the changes.
In a speech yesterday, Bryne will outline a number of Department of Work and Pensions schemes that Labour believes are out of control.
Bryne said: “Three years into this government, their promised welfare revolution has collapsed because of a failure in basic delivery.”
Already the nation cannot find one bedroom properties as both successful governments failed to build decent social housing. Furthermore many people have seen deep cuts to our public services and some social housing agencies gone into administration because they cater for the demand.
Furthermore all the major political parties getting ready for the forthcoming European and Local Elections in 2014 activists are calling on all political parties to moving a resolution to repeal the Bedroom Tax.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend a discussion group which oddly enough the main topic was Bedroom Tax When we’ve talked about the bedroom tax in the past few months, campaigners have asked us: “Surely the judges will intervene?”
The bedroom tax penalises the poor by reducing housing benefit available to social housing tenants – council and housing association – if they are deemed to be “under-occupying.”
In reality, those tenants are rarely leaving their extra bedroom empty. They are just failing to follow the government’s strict guidelines on when children should be required to share a room.
This is a tax targeted at the poor and can result in someone being evicted from a long-standing home. Isn’t it against human rights or irrational?
The pessimistic answer has been that judges are reluctant to intervene in what they perceive to be political decisions, and I would be surprised if any judge found that the bedroom tax as a whole is unlawful.
Where challenges have succeeded in the past, it is usually where judges decide that government policy unlawfully discriminates, often against the disabled.
Sadly, the Administrative Court’s decision on the bedroom tax delivered on July 30 2013 – R (MA) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions – shows that I was too optimistic.
The challenge – brought by 10 families each with a disabled adult or child in their household – was solely on the basis of disability discrimination, not against the whole policy of the bedroom tax.
However, two senior judges found that the bedroom tax was lawful even though it might penalise families with a disabled member.
When the legal context of this decision is considered, it is even more surprising.
A case in 2012 about housing benefit restrictions in the private rented sector – R (Burnip) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions – resulted in the Court of Appeal deciding the restrictions are not a fair or proportionate response if a disabled child is required to share a bedroom.
The government’s response, announced shortly before the bedroom tax came into operation in April 2013, was to give local authorities some flexibility when considering whether a disabled child should share a room with a sibling.
The Housing Benefit Circular says: “Local authorities must consider not only the nature and severity of the disability but also the nature and frequency of care required during the night and extent and regularity of the disturbance to the sleep of the child who would normally be required to share the bedroom.”
The circumstances of the families who brought the bedroom tax challenge are poignant, and make the case for flexibility.
Jacqueline Carmichael, aged 41, has spina bifida and needs a special hospital-type bed in her bedroom.
She cannot share that bed with her husband, who is her full-time carer. His caring responsibilities mean that he cannot work, which is why the couple of claim housing benefit.
There is no space in their bedroom for an additional bed for him to sleep in.
Since they have a two-bedroom flat, he sleeps in the other room. Their housing benefit has been cut by 14 per cent. Richard Rourke is a wheelchair user with spinal arthritis, sciatica and other disabilities.
He lives in a three-bedroom bungalow. His daughter Rebecca, who also uses a wheelchair, is currently at university but returns home during the holidays and some term-time weekends.
He is assessed as only needing one bedroom and his housing benefit has been cut by 25 per cent.
The two judges found that the rules governing the bedroom tax could, potentially, discriminate against families containing disabled adults.
There were some very technical legal arguments as to what type of discrimination it constituted.
The judges went on to find that any disability discrimination was justified.
They did so in highly political terms, noting that the original purpose of the bedroom was “the saving of public funds” and “a strategic aspiration to shift the place of social security support in society.”
The latter point refers to ministers saying that families affected by the bedroom tax should take in a lodger or find extra work.
The judges were anxious to say that they “have no public voice for or against” that strategic aspiration, not being elected politicians.
However, it does seem that they were prepared to take the government’s very harsh approach at face value.
Having decided that the bedroom tax is an example of “high policy,” they concluded that the tax, and its discriminatory effects against disabled people, was not “manifestly without reasonable foundation” and so they were not going to intervene.
They tried to sweeten the pill by emphasising the role of discretionary housing benefit (DHP), suggesting that the government should issue regulations setting out how local authorities should use it, rather than leaving it to general discretion.
But they ignored the key point made by local authorities – the amount given to local authorities to distribute as discretionary housing benefit is not enough to make up the shortfall caused by the bedroom tax.
The political context of the bedroom tax, and its implications for disabled adults, was not really considered.
Disabled adults who receive housing benefit face several cuts to their benefits which are supposed to cover their basic subsistence.
The introduction of universal credit is likely to make most welfare claimants poorer.
The benefit cap has now come into force and affects large families by cutting their housing benefit even above the bedroom tax limits.
Everyone is paying higher fuel bills, but rises in fuel prices hit disabled people disproportionately.
One-hundred per cent council tax benefit has been abolished so claimants have to find money from their other benefits to contribute to council tax.
And many disabled adults will have found themselves Atos-ed or declared fit to work, so the amount paid in benefit will have decreased by around a third.
Noting the attack on disabled people by this government, which is determined to cut the welfare state, should have been part of the “high policy” that the judges were so keen on avoiding.
The families are in the process of appealing and may have more success in the Court of Appeal.
It is hard to see how the government can justify a more flexible approach for disabled children but not for disabled adults.
However, this disappointing judgement reminds us not to have faith in judges.
If the bedroom tax is going to be defeated, it will be through political means, with large numbers of local authorities, tenants and others acting in solidarity, making the point that it is just not workable and a tax on the poor.
The government needs to be shamed into repealing it.
Intriguingly the caricature of British society favoured by multimillionaires David Cameron and George Osborne shows feckless claimants sitting on their sofa or snoozing in bed as they wait for their benefits to be paid.
Everyone knows that this is an unfair portrayal, but even critics of the conservative coalition government see the size of the benefits bill and believe that something must be done.
Benefits are certainly a burden on society, but the key questions are why they are paid and who benefits from them.
GMB general secretary Paul Kenny’s comments in response to the Council of Mortgage Lenders report that 40,000 mortgages worth £5.1bn were advanced to buy-to-let speculators in the second quarter of this year are very pertinent to these questions.
Housing benefit in respect of rent payable to private landlords owning over 1.5 million homes is little more than a direct state subsidy to the private sector.
And the recent spurt in mortgages offered to buy-to-rent landlords will add a further 16,000 households to the housing benefits merry-go-round.
Claimants, whether unemployed or in low-paid jobs, cannot afford the extortionate rents demanded by private landlords, but they have nowhere else to turn since both the Tories and new Labour pulled the plug on council housing.
Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government ran an aggressive right-to-buy campaign to encourage council tenants, especially in the most desirable properties and areas, to join the “property-owning democracy.”
This was beneficial to the tenants involved, but, in a situation where the supply of new council homes for rent dried up, it increased council housing waiting lists.
Sales to individual council tenants were followed by wholesale stock transfers to the private sector, forced by government refusal to fund property upgrades, which has exacerbated the situation.
Neither the government nor the Labour opposition has been willing so far to promise the necessary decisive action to kill two birds with one stone – meet housing need and reduce unnecessary spending on cosseting private landlords.
Indeed, a massive council housebuilding campaign could add a third bird to the lethal stone’s account by kick-starting the construction industry, providing tens of thousands of jobs and boosting government tax receipts.
Kenny wants Labour to pledge a programme to build new homes to let at affordable rents across the country, which would undoubtedly be a vote-winner.
So what stands in the way of Ed Miliband making such a bold commitment?
The GMB leader’s reference to the need for compulsory purchase orders to be applied to build social housing if 177,000 new units in London with existing planning permission are not started within six months of the general election provides a clue.
Compulsory purchase orders and a mass council housebuilding campaign strike at the heart of the neoliberal orthodoxy that housing provision should be left to market forces.
That has always been the fundamental philosophy of the Tory and Liberal Democrat parties.
But Labour, for three decades after the second world war, had a different approach, seeing local authority housing as essential to working class security and social cohesion.
Miliband’s One Nation Labour, in common with its new Labour forerunner, remains obsessed with the invisible hand of the market, even though its shortcomings are plain for all to see.
Breaking with the private-is-best policy for housing is an essential prerequisite to meeting people’s needs and ending the state spoonfeeding of parasitic buy-to-let landlords.
Whilst millions of people may be languishing on council housing waiting lists, but house-building companies Persimmon and Bovis profits are booming, so all is well with the housing market.
That is the message delivered by TV newsreaders whose features soften into smiles to indicate that such revelations are sunshine stories.
The same goes for news items indicating a rise in-house prices – beneficial for those who already own their homes but less so for people looking to buy somewhere to live.
According to IHS Global Insight, average house prices will rise by 3 per cent over the rest of this year, possibly increasing next year by 7 per cent.
At the same time, average pay rises are stagnant at 1 per cent, with workers’ incomes having fallen by 5.5 per cent in real terms since the Tories and Liberal Democrats took office in 2010.
Compare that miserable situation with the 40 per cent profits leap from £97 million to £135m in the first half of 2013 enjoyed by Persimmon and the 19 per cent jump to £18.6m for Bovis.
House prices have been boosted by government schemes such as Funding for Lending and Help to Buy, which effectively provide state aid to the housing industry.
But these mechanisms have also encouraged buy-to-let parasitism where speculators are helped to enrich themselves by private tenants paying the mortgages on the extra properties they take on.
Even former Bank of England governor Mervyn King has spotted the inflationary danger posed by Help to Buy and suggested that the scheme should be discontinued in 2017 when it is due for review.
Government ministers and the Bank of England have trumpeted the case for lower interest rates, asserting that this will encourage the private sector to invest.
But British private companies are already awash with cash, sitting on liquid assets of over three-quarters of a trillion pounds that they refuse to commit to boosting the economy.
Low interest, expressed in manageable mortgage rates, can provide some respite to working-class families who are buying their own homes while struggling to cope with higher living costs.
However, chastened by previous housing bubbles, far fewer homeowners are tempted to borrow against perceived equity in their properties to finance major expenditure on cars, household goods and so on.
But this is the government’s only means of encouraging economic activity because of its obsession with cutting public expenditure.
Instead of appreciating the necessity of providing everyone with somewhere to live, ministers see housing as just another market in which there will be winners and losers and major profits to be gained by the big corporations that dominate the sector.
Housing charity Shelter’s recent warning that fewer than half the houses necessary to tackle a “chronic shortage of homes” in England are being built each year has fallen on deaf ears.
The Labour opposition has spoken out against the exorbitant cost of letting fees imposed on tenants, but, as usual, it falls short of a pledge to end the practice.
Similar reticence to move away from the neoliberal consensus holds it back from pledging to tackle the 5 million-strong council housing waiting list through a determined campaign to drive up provision of local authority homes to rent.
This would put housing need before corporate greed and also stimulate economic activity by putting construction workers into long-term employment.
This must be a first for the LibDems Nick Clegg is facing a major revolt by the party’s grassroots over his support for the Bedroom Tax.
Lib Dem activists have tabled a motion at next month’s party conference in Glasgow demanding an urgent review of the policy, which they claim discriminates “against the most vulnerable in society.”
The motion condemns the Coalition for ramming through the Tax without recognising the needs of the disabled, and calls for financial help for those affected.
The Bedroom Tax, introduced in April, docks housing benefit of any household with a spare bedroom.
Families either have to pay at least £14 a week more or find alternative accommodation.
The motion reads: “The majority of rural and urban areas outside large cities such as London have insufficiently large, diverse and dynamic social housing markets to make moving into a smaller property locally a viable option.”
Sources close to Mr Clegg admit there is good chance the leadership could be defeated by the motion.
One said: “It’s no secret that Lib Dem grassroot activists do not like the way the spare room subsidy is being removed.”
Mr Clegg also faces a major protest on the issue outside the Glasgow centre at the opening of the conference on Sept 14.
Local Lib Dem councillor Robert Brown said: “We should send the clearest of messages that the policy is damaging and unfair.”
Last week Lib Dem MP Andrew George branded the tax as “absurd”.
And Lib Dem activist Julie Pörksen, who tabled the motion, said: “We decided to draft our own fair and workable party policy which frees up larger homes, respects people and reflects the reality of our limited social housing resources.”