Monday, 12 August 2013

The ‘Bedroom Tax’ – false dawns, and a loophole that works

Before we start, I hate the ‘Bedroom Tax’ … probably more than you. For me, its greatest evil is that it denies anybody on welfare benefits a ‘home’ – it means that all they can have is a temporary roof over their heads, until their circumstances change.
However, much as I hate it, I do have to caveat some of the daft suggestions people are making about the 'bedroom tax'.
And I do know a loophole which, to my amazement, people are making much less of than they might.


A couple of non-starters
Let’s start with an obvious statement: if the solution to the ‘Bedroom Tax’ were so easy, somebody cleverer than you and I would have found it already.
So when you read those internet blogs purporting to have found an easy answer which will undermine/overturn the ‘Bedroom Tax’, it’s probably a myth.

Let’s dismiss two of the least intelligent:

1. Why don’t the Councils refuse to collect it?
People who suggest that councils or Registered Providers (‘RPs’) could ‘refuse to implement’ the bedroom ‘tax’ misunderstand its nature. This is because it is not actually a ‘tax’ at all, and nobody ‘collects’ it. It is a reduction of housing benefit by the government to the tenant. The housing provider has no influence over it whatsoever.
It’s like me telling you to refuse to implement a parking fine I have incurred.

2. The Councils should refuse to evict tenants who fall into arrears
Refusing to evict tenants who fall into arrears as a result of the bedroom tax would be disastrous, not least financially to the Council/RPs.
But it would also be disastrous to the tenants. What would you propose to do with the arrears – just let them mount up (which would saddle these vulnerable people with a mountain of never-payable debt for the rest of their lives) ... or do you plan to write the arrears off (? – just for Council house tenants, or are you in effect suggesting that Councils should pay the bedroom tax of every social tenant by clearing the bedroom-tax-resultant arrears of everybody who rents from an RP – best of luck to the Council that suggests doing that out of the rates)?
This is a bonkers suggestion, utterly unworkable – the clue being that not a single council has done it.


Less unworkable suggestions which still need a caveat
Not all the ‘solutions’ out there are stupid as these (and some RPs are actually trying them) but – imho – they still have serious drawbacks.

3. Reclassification
Reclassification is less impossible, a couple of councils have tried it (Leeds and Nottingham) and there are rumours that some RPs intend to do so. Reclassification, however, also has its problems. Quite small numbers of houses are involved, and the houses which can be reclassified don't necessarily match the houses with 'bedroom tax' victims. 
Reclassification permanently devalues the value of the Council’s/PR’s housing stock. It also permanently reduces the rent take. One might have some sympathy if these were huge greedy tax-avoiding capitalist corporations, but they are not. RPs are usually relatively small non-profit organisations.
Reclassification *does* shift the damage of the ‘bedroom tax’ from the victims to the RPs, which is a noble and generous thing to do, but long-term it is not a wise move significantly to reduce the financial viability of our RPs – it will reduce their power to borrow and, thus, their power to provide new housing.

Also, the government has said it will penalise financially councils which have reclassified their social housing. It hasn’t done so yet, so we wait to see how damaging reclassification will turn out for these Councils, and the services they provide other than housing.

4. The ‘box room’ myth
Welwyn Hatfield Council, a Tory Council no less, has tried to get round the ‘bedroom tax’ by using an old law to reclassify some of its smaller bedrooms as box rooms. But it was established at the very start of the 'bedroom tax' saga that the law does not support the interpretation, so we wait to see whether that will work.

The problem with this particular idea (that a room under 50sq ft does not ‘count’ for bedroom tax) is that the law it cites simply does not say what it is claimed it says. You can read the actual law here: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1985/68/part/X/crossheading/definition-of-overcrowding

You will see that this law simply does *not* define a bedroom - it defines overcrowding, and whether it is usable for the bedroom tax is moot. In fact, the DWP explicitly stated in its guidance (at http://www.dwp.gov.uk/docs/a4-2012.pdf) that:

‘Bedroom size. We will not be defining what we mean by a bedroom in legislation and there is no definition of a minimum bedroom size set out in regulations.’
To be fair, this statement itself is challengeable at law, but it is all very uncertain – on some of the legal complexities regarding this, try here: http://www.politicsworldwide.com/the-bedroom-tax-a-professional-view/


A loophole which works
All of which makes it surprising that people are making very little of an allowed loophole which *does* work.


Because, in March 2013, following a Supreme Court decision in (and therefore back-dated to) May 2012, the DWP announced that:
‘local authorities should allow an extra bedroom for children who are unable to share because of their severe disabilities.’
Under ‘bedroom tax’ rules, all children under 10, and two children of the same sex under 16, are expected to share a bedroom … UNLESS:
in the case of ‘a severely disabled child … they would seriously disrupt the sleep of another child at night if they were to share a bedroom’. 
Anyone, therefore, who has found themselves hit by the ‘bedroom tax’ because children who previously had their own bedrooms are now officially classified as ‘expected-to-be-sharing’ – and where one of those children is classified in any way as ‘special needs’ – should go to their doctor and school SENCO, getting from them a statement that the nature of that special need means that they will ‘seriously disrupt the sleep of another child at night if they were to share a bedroom’. Then take that to your RP and ask them to organise your exemption from the ‘bedroom tax’ on those grounds. 

As a former SENCO, it is my experience that most children at school have *some* kind of special need, and that many children who might be regarded as SN are not on the school register because the parents have not flagged up with the school the problems they are facing. Any child with ADHD, ADD, autism, Asperger’s, emotional fragility, violent outbursts, a history of abuse or a number of other relevant special needs (e.g. sleeplessness, sleepwalking, epilepsy etc.) should surely qualify, and most professionals will be prepared to comment on the severity of the problem after a little explanation and clarification by the parents. Moreover, it will be a brave (and heartless) RP which refuses to process such a case in the face of letters from the school and the doctor … in short, *it’s worth a try*.


Watch this space
Thus, apart from possibly some flexibility around the government-allowed exemption on the grounds of a child’s disability, there *is* no ‘easy fix’ to the bedroom tax, and I wish campaigners would stop attacking councils and councillors because they cannot wave a magic wand at it.

I am currently putting the finishing touches to my own ‘cunning plan’ to ameliorate the ‘bedroom tax’, which I hope to be able to put before Durham County Council in September … and I shall update this blog with the details if and when it happens.

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