The bedroom tax (or under-occupancy penalty, as the government prefers), after smashing through so many families’ carefully balanced budgets, has finally hit a legal wall.
The Court of Appeal ruled yesterday that the policy was discriminatory in two cases: that of a woman who has suffered serious domestic violence and whose home has been specially adapted by the police to include a ‘panic room’ to protect her from further assaults; and of Warren, a severely disabled 16 year old, whose grandparents Susan and Paul Rutherford need a spare room for his respite carers to sleep in and to store medical equipment.
CPAG has represented the Rutherfords since 2013, through their long journey to try to establish in law what should have been obvious from the start: that a disabled child is entitled to the same dispensations as a disabled adult to an extra room, and that their family ought not to face the stress and insecurity of continually re-applying for discretionary payments from their council to cover the gap in their budget that the tax inflicts. Payments, moreover, which are dependent on increasingly parlous local authority funding.
The bedroom tax policy has never been the success government hoped. Aside from excluding the largest group of over-occupiers, pensioners, it also hasn’t had the effect intended: rather than down-sizing, families have tended to absorb the loss of income and make do as best they can. Only one in nine move to a different property. So instead of freeing up ‘spare rooms’, the policy just makes families poorer. As many pointed out when the policy was first introduced, with Britain’s chronic housing shortage, many families simply cannot find a smaller property to move to in their area. Who wants to uproot their children, change schools and lose their support networks for the sake of a spare room?
75% of those affected by the bedroom tax do not receive discretionary housing payments. Those who do may have to reapply every three months to ensure they are able to cover their rent. Fundamentally, the government’s argument rests on an assumption that a discretionary system can catch anyone in ‘genuine’ need who is falling through the net. Our experience, and that of many disability charities and others working on the frontline, is that it doesn’t. There needs to be an acceptance that families like the Rutherfords have a right to take care of their kids without the continual stress of relying on the whim of government and local authority decisions to keep their homes and meet their children's needs. Paul Rutherford points out that he and his wife are already saving the taxpayer millions of pounds by taking care of Warren at home, rather than using expensive residential care, "we need looking after and helping, not penalising".
Earlier today the Minister for Work and Pensions, Justin Tomlinson, responded to a parliamentary question on the bedroom tax. He assured the House that the government intended to appeal the Court’s ruling, taking their case that the discrimination inflicted by the bedroom tax is ‘justified’ to the Supreme Court – and putting families like the Rutherfords through more fear and uncertainty.
A pity. Dogged by controversy since its inception, now causing rising unease even among government MPs: it’s time to admit that whatever you call it, this policy now deserves nothing more than a dishonourable retirement.