Action needed to alleviate worst of bedroom tax

At the start of next month the UK Government’s bedroom tax will come into force, affecting thousands of vulnerable households across Scotland.

The new rules will affect housing benefit for families in social housing who are deemed to have too much living space – cutting the level of support by up to a quarter.

Scottish Labour has this week launched a campaign calling on the UK Government to rethink the Bedroom Tax following an emergency summit which brought together 30 organisations including housing associations, local authorities and housing advocates from across Scotland.

Estimates have suggested that up to 100,000 households in Scotland stand to be affected by the change while Citizens Advice Scotland has said that 10,000 people could face homelessness as a result. 

People in receipt of housing benefit include many workers on low incomes who already struggle to make ends meet.  Cutting housing benefit will force many of these people to choose between paying the rent and feeding their families.

The proposals have attracted widespread criticism for the way they will be implemented and the impact they will have on specific groups.

For example, couples with a disabled partner who needs to sleep in a separate room, families who look after foster children and separated parents who keep a room for a child to visit will all be penalised.

Families who have children away at university will not be penalised initially as long as their children stay at home for at least two weeks a year.  However, when the Universal Benefit is launched in autumn, students will need to be at home for six months for their parents to avoid the cut.

Considerable concern has also been raised about the prospect of families of armed force personnel who are serving overseas being hit by the changes.

The proposals will also have an impact on the way that many families choose to organise their household. Under the rules, all children under 10 will be expected to share a room while siblings of the same gender will have to share up to 16.

The Government argue that their policy will encourage people in larger homes who do not need the space to downsize, thereby freeing up larger properties for families who need them.

There is merit in the aim of using limited housing stock efficiently but these proposals ignore the fact that there is a real shortage of smaller properties, particularly here in Edinburgh. Tenants who are willing to downsize to avoid the changes but are unable to find a smaller home due to lack of availability will still be penalised – that is simply not fair.

With the Government estimating that the Bedroom Tax will save over £500m a year on the benefits bill it appears their motivation has more to do with party ideology than alleviating the challenges we face in housing.

The Scottish Government have criticised the policy but I’ve been disappointed by their lack of action to date.  Over the weekend, it emerged that the Scottish Government only wrote to the UK Government about the new arrangements in the last two weeks.  These changes have been on the cards for months and the Scottish Government should have been acting earlier to argue Scotland’s case.

So far, the SNP have seemed content to use the issue of the bedroom tax as a justification for their separation agenda, saying that the changes could be overturned upon independence.  It is simply not good enough to promise change tomorrow while ignoring the problems facing vulnerable people today.

We need the Scottish Government to work with COSLA and other stakeholders to investigate creative solutions that can protect vulnerable people from the impact of this latest coalition cut.