Jeff Salway: Why bedroom tax is the last straw

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CALL it what you like – “bedroom tax”, “under-occupancy charge”, “spare room subsidy cut” – but comparisons with the Poll Tax are not as outlandish as they seem.

It won’t bring down the government and there will be no repeat of the riots throughout the UK.

Yet for all the despicable policies targeting vulnerable welfare recipients, it may yet be the bedroom tax that unites opposition against the coalition government.

There’s been little mainstream backlash against the flawed capability assessments finding seriously ill people fit for work, their benefits slashed or removed as a result. The stress caused by the assessments alone has led to suicides, yet the outrage has been muted.

It seemed that way with the bedroom tax at first. The measure – a 14 per cent housing benefit cut for social housing tenants deemed to have a spare room (25 per cent if two rooms are considered spare) - takes effect next month.

It’s one of those policies with little obvious rationale other than to create disruption and misery. Only with the approach of the implementation date has the backlash gathered momentum, however.

More than 100,000 Scots will be affected, roughly one in five social housing tenants. Separated parents with a spare room each so they can share custody of their children will be hit, as will couples using separate rooms for reasons such as illness or disability, to cite just two examples of the unfair nature of the policy.

Until the government backtracked last week it was due to affect foster parents and homes where a room was kept free for members of the armed forces while they were on duty. Those climbdowns underline how fiddly and illogical the policy is. The reduction in housing benefit will leave many facing arrears and possible eviction, even though downsizing is rarely possible. Some council areas have no such accommodation available, meaning tenants prepared to move will lose out through no fault of their own. Combined with other cuts taking effect next month, the move will also force people deeper into debt and into the waiting arms of payday lenders.

Charities and campaigners have called on the Scottish Government to amend the housing act to prevent people being evicted due to arrears resulting from the bedroom tax. Those calls have fallen on deaf ears, although some local authorities, including Dundee, have made such pledges. More than 50 protests took place in cities across the UK yesterday, while charities, opposition MPs and MSPs are vocal in their opposition.

Why has the bedroom tax become a bigger issue than other, more damaging policies? One reason is the timing; there’s a sense of it being the straw that broke the camel’s back, while the economic gloom has put the government on the back foot and created a perception of growing vulnerability.

There’s also the question of what it aims to achieve. The savings produced for the government will be negligible, partly of the administration costs. The cost of rehousing people may even wipe out the savings altogether.

The government sadly appears to have persuaded many voters that all benefits recipients are scroungers and shirkers. But the bedroom tax isn’t framed in that context and so cannot be sold as such.

As it becomes clear that the austerity programme is economically illiterate, the penny is dropping as to the ideological motives behind it.

The cuts taking effect next month could prove a turning point, with the bedroom tax representing the coalition government’s step too far.