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The bedroom tax - a prime example that class politics are still relevant

The ‘bedroom tax’ is not only a vicious attack on some of the poorest people in society, it is also an example that the politics of class is still relevant in Britain today.

The Government’s charge for ‘underoccupation’, dubbed the ‘bedroom tax’ much to annoyance of its creator, Iain Duncan Smith, comes in on April 1st, the same day as the reduction in tax for millionaires. It applies to social tenants in receipt of housing benefit whether in or out of work. The rent that qualifies for housing benefit will be cut by 14% if there is one ‘spare’ bedroom on the Government’s restrictive definition, and by 25% if there are two or more ‘spare’ bedrooms. An estimated 660,000 households will be affected, of whom two-thirds are thought to be disabled.

Although the idea of the bedroom tax has been around for some time – it had to go through all the stages of Parliament - it is only in recent weeks that it has hit the headlines. The left has generally been on the defensive over welfare reform as the Government and its friends in the media have managed to convince people that the benefit bill was ‘out of control’ and that reform was something to do with either scroungers or people in the posh bits of London getting more than £100,000 a year in housing benefit to live in luxury (Cameron’s favourite diversion). 

As more and more examples emerge of people who will be thrown into the direst poverty by the tax, the national mood is changing: it is becoming common to hear people say ‘I thought it was about scroungers, not people like them’. The Coalition suddenly looks vulnerable in face of a constant drip of awful stories about individuals who will be affected. The cases that have been highlighted in the media are horrendous and show Government callousness and indifference to suffering in the extreme. 

A family whose son would be touring with the Forces was told they would have to pay the tax but that they should take in a lodger while he was away. A family with a specially adapted – at public expense - bedroom for their severely disabled daughter was told they would have to pay the tax because she could share with her sister. A family where the couple have to sleep apart in separate bedrooms because of ill-health were told they would have to pay. Carers, foster parents, students, home workers, children spending time with 2 divorced parents – it seems no exceptions are allowed.

Of course some people are willing, indeed keen, to downsize, but cannot do so because smaller social rented homes are just not available in the required numbers. They are told by the Government that they could move into the private rented sector, but this would be a nightmare for many of these families – and, because private landlord rents are twice as high, it would cost the public purse more not less. How crazy is that?

The Government’s defence to attacks on all its welfare reforms is that they have put in place a discretionary payments fund. But this is tiny – a few per cent – compared to the amounts being cut, and is only a temporary amelioration for some. The reality is that this is a collective punishment for a class of people who dare to be social tenants, who dare to claim housing benefit to help pay the rent, and who dare to have what the majority of home owners take for granted – a spare bedroom.

For many of those affected, unable to live on less and unable to move, the outcome will be more debt. More business for Wonga and the rest, but, even more likely, more rent arrears for social landlords to deal with. Landlords are coming under pressure to refuse to evict for bedroom tax arrears and there is no doubt that deciding to institute possession proceedings in such cases will trouble even the hardest-nosed housing providers.

Bedroom tax comes in on April 1. This should not mark the end of the campaign against it but should be the signal to intensify efforts to get it amended in the short term and repealed in the longer term.