Opinion divided on ‘bedroom tax’

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They say no man is an island. And this idea, that people need the help of others, has arguably been at the heart of Britain’s welfare system for as long as the Government has been providing support.

But, according to some national reports, the tide of public opinion has been shifting and fears are growing that there is now too much reliance on welfare support.

Government welfare reforms are now being brought in, with one of the most controversial new additions being a change dubbed the ‘bedroom tax’.

Introduced on April 1, the new rule means the amount of housing benefit given to working-age claimants will be cut if they are considered to have a spare, unused bedroom.

The move applies to tenants renting from a local authority, housing association or other registered social landlord.

According to Kettering Council, there are 6,099 social housing tenancies in the Kettering area alone and 658 of these will be affected by the change. There are currently 1,723 on the council housing waiting list.

There are believed to be a further 1,512 households hit by this reform in Corby and East Northamptonshire and, in the Corby borough area alone, there is a council house waiting list of 3,920.

But is the reform justified?

Conservative MP for Wellingborough and Rushden Peter Bone said: “I think the Government is right. The subsidy for spare rooms in the public sector will encourage people to move into smaller properties and allow people on the waiting list to get off the waiting list and into houses. I do think that the Government’s proposals will make it better for people to be in work than out of work.”

One accusation about the spare bedroom penalty is that it targets the poor and vulnerable.

Mr Bone said: “All pensioners are excluded, a lot of disabled people are excluded, the Government has done its best to cover all reasonable circumstances.

“It is not a tax, it isn’t a tax on any income, this is simply reducing the amount of subsidy. People can call it what they like, but it is about getting people into the right size property for their requirements.”

One person to be affected by the reform is Tracey Biddle, who lives in a four-bedroom house with her four children. Because Tracey has twin 15-year-old boys (who under the rules would share), as well as a 12-year-old and five-year-old boy (who would also share), she is deemed to have a spare room.

When the twins turn 16 this year, she will no longer be seen as having a spare room. Tracey has been unable to work since an accident last year left her with seven broken bones in her body.

She said: “This is the first time I have been unable to work and need the help.

“There are two box rooms and the twins are in there as they need their privacy and they are both revising for exams. The other boys share a room and I’m in the other bedroom. They gave me a four-bedroom house as they classed us as being overcrowded in a three-bedroom house.”

Karen McCluskey is personally unaffected by the changes but got involved to organise the recent protest in Corby.

Karen, who lives in the town, said: “The level of poverty this will inflict on people is unacceptable in this day and age. When I found out about this, on the same week I found out about millionaires getting a tax rebate. This ‘bedroom tax’ is affecting people who can least afford to pay it.

“If I lost my job tomorrow, I could be four payments away from losing my house. They are denying welfare, in my view.”

Chairman of Northamptonshire Rural Housing Association Chris Sparrow commented on the reform, saying: “In principle, we do support changes to the welfare system. However, historically there is a real lack of social housing, which is only getting worse following the reduction in social housing grants. This means it is not easy to find alternative smaller homes for many of our tenants, particularly for those who need only one bedroom.

“In the light of these changes, we have been looking at our portfolio of properties, but we strongly believe when designing new homes we should be thinking about the long-term needs of potential tenants, rather than requirements of the benefits system.”

Case study:

“Even before the ‘bedroom tax’ I was struggling to get by with food,” said Danielle Sharpe as she reflected on the way the latest welfare reform will affect her own circumstances.

She said: “Half the time I was starving myself so the kids could have food to eat, clothes and everything else.”

The 20-year-old single parent currently lives in a three-bedroom council house in Corby with her two sons, who are two years old and six years old.

Danielle, who made a speech at a recent protest in Corby, admitted that money has been a worry, even before the welfare reforms.

She said: “I couldn’t find a two-bedroom house and so I ended up going into a three-bedroom house.

“I have been looking for work but, even though I have been to college and got GCSEs, I haven’t been able to find work.

“I apply for jobs every day and I’m not picky about what I apply for.”

The ‘bedroom tax’ will mean a difference of £17 a week to Danielle’s income.

Danielle said: “I really don’t think I will be able to afford that.

“I do understand that some people take advantage of benefits and everything but I have a medical condition and have been told I should really claim disability allowance.

“But I’m not going to claim something when I’m not disabled.

“There is a stigma to claiming benefits but I don’t think everyone should be tarred with the same brush.

“People should be helped into work rather than making it harder for them to live.”

Benefit changes explained:

Children under 16, or of the same gender, are expected to share.

Children under 10 are expected to share, regardless of gender.

A disabled tenant or partner who needs a non-resident overnight carer will be allowed an extra room and foster carers will be allowed one extra room (as long as they have fostered a child or became an approved foster carer in the past 52 weeks).

Other exceptions include parents with adult children in the Armed Forces, who normally live with them.

Councils have also been advised they should allow a room for a disabled child who is unable to share a bedroom.