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Plaid Cymru’s call for the Welsh Government to take action to mitigate the appalling consequences of the ‘bedroom tax’ is very welcome. For nearly a year, the Bevan Foundation with many other organisations in Wales, through Cuts Watch Cymru, has been warning of the disruption, misery and hardship that this arcane restriction on Housing Benefit will cause. Yet until very recently the warnings have fallen on deaf ears. Now, there is just 10 weeks to go until people who are on already low incomes start losing 14% of their Housing Benefit if they have one spare bedroom and 25% if they have two.
The case for action is overwhelming. But it’s not just a question of concern at the impact on people’s lives – there is also a compelling business case not least as the new Housing Benefit rules will save money for the UK Government and transfer costs to the Welsh Government. Here are just a few examples:
Disabled people with a spare room who rely on help from friends and neighbours, but who don’t need a resident overnight carer, will have to move or face a benefit cut. If they stay in their home, they will have less money to spend on maintaining their independence, e.g. taking a taxi to the shops or buying pre-prepared meals. If they move, they will lose support from friends and neighbours. Net result – greater demands on local authority social services and the third sector.
Disabled people whose homes have adaptations which are not deemed to be ‘substantial’ and who have a spare bedroom will have to move or face a cut in benefit. Social landlords will bear the costs of ‘un-adapting’ one property for re-letting to non-disabled people and installing adaptations to a different property.
Same-sex children under 16 years old who currently have their own bedroom will either face their parents losing Housing Benefit or moving to new accommodation to share a bedroom. If they stay, they and their parents could be pitched into poverty. If they move, they may have to change schools, disrupting their education. Net result – greater demands on schools and local authority education services.
Foster children do not count towards the number of ordinary residents in a household. Fewer people are likely to be able to afford to foster children. The cost of keeping more children in care will fall on local authorities.
Children of divorced parents who occasionally stay with the non-resident parent will no longer have a bedroom when they visit. If their parent is under 35 and claims Housing Benefit, he or she can only claim the shared accommodation rate – meaning children staying in shared rooms in shared houses or flats. The risks of abuse are significant. Net result – increased child protection costs.
Individuals and families who decide to try to manage on reduced Housing Benefit will face greater financial hardship. If they fall into rent arrears they may be made homeless – with the result that local authorities have to pick up the costs of re-housing them.
A house move is recognised to be one of life’s most stressful events – an enforced move, in which the tenant has little choice, may well cause great mental distress – increasing costs to the health service.
These costs cannot be quantified but they will surely amount to many millions of pounds, on top of the sheer human misery of the reforms.
So, it is time for action, and time is of the essence. The new arrangements are now law, but some means must be found of mitigating their worst effects. Housing is supposedly a devolved issue – so let’s find a solution.