SO IT’S finally here. On Monday, the “bedroom tax” will come into law. Otherwise known as the “under-occupancy charge”, the “social sector size criteria” and the “removal of the spare room subsidy”; the point is that it’s no longer theory. From Monday it will be a reality.
So while politicians and commentators continue to argue the merits and controversies around it, tenants everywhere need to consider more urgent practical questions: will it affect me, and if so, what can I do about it?
Here we set out the plain facts, as simply as we can, and without comment.
We can only do so here in a very general way, though. How you are affected will depend on your precise circumstances. You should get free personal advice at your local CAB, or by using our advice website: http://www.adviceguide.org.uk/ (search for “bedroom tax”)
WHAT IS THE BEDROOM TAX?
If you rent your home from a council or housing association, and if you claim housing benefit, your benefit may be cut because your home is considered too big for you. For example, if your children have grown up and left home, the state now considers that you have a “spare” bedroom and no longer believes it has a responsibility to pay for this.
Some people are exempt from the rules, however. For example, those who are no longer “of working age”. But note that “working age” is not the same as “retirement age”. You can check whether you fit the government’s definition of “working age” by using the special calculator on our website.
SO HOW DO THEY DECIDE IF MY HOME IS TOO BIG?
Under the new rules, your home will be deemed too big if you have more than one bedroom for each of the people:
• Each adult couple
• Each other person over 16
• Two children of the same sex under 16
• Two children under 10, regardless of their sex
• Any other child
• An overnight carer you need but who doesn’t normally live with you. For example, a married couple who live in a two-bedroom flat will now be deemed to have one spare bedroom, and will get less housing benefit as a result.
WHAT ARE THE EXEMPTIONS?
There are some people who may be allowed a spare bedroom for special reasons. For example, if you are disabled and need an overnight carer to stay with you. Or if you have a disabled child, or if you are a foster carer, or have an adult child who is serving in the Armed Forces.
But the precise definitions are important. You should check whether you fit any of the exempted groups – the special calculator on our website can help you do this.
You may think you need your spare bedroom, eg because you and your partner need to sleep apart because of a medical condition, or because your children have moved out but you keep a spare room for when they come and stay. But the government does not consider these to be adequate grounds for exemption.
If someone normally lives with you but is away from home for up to 13 weeks, for any reason, they still count as living with you. And if they are away for up to a year they can still count as living with you if they plan to return home after their period of absence and they are away from home for a reason recognised by the rules (eg they are in hospital or away studying or training).
WHAT HAPPENS IF MY HOME IS TOO BIG?
If you are deemed to be in a home that is too big, your housing benefit will be cut, starting from Monday. It will be reduced by 14 per cent if you have one spare bedroom, and by 25 per cent if you have two or more.
Some people may lose all of their housing benefit, particularly if they were only getting a small amount to start with.
The options for those affected are stark. The government has suggested that if you are in work then you should try to increase your hours, or that you might consider taking in a lodger, or moving to a smaller property. Citizens Advice Scotland would strongly urge people to avoid the temptation to make up the shortfall by getting into debt. This may seem like a short-term solution, but will only increase your problems.
IF YOU ARE AFFECTED, GET ADVICE
It’s important to note that the bedroom tax – while it has received huge publicity - is only one of a number of changes being made to the benefit system.
Another change being made on Monday, for example, is that there will now be a cap on the total amount of benefits anyone can get.
• Susan McPhee is head of policy at Citizens Advice Scotland