Brian Wilson: Basic dishonesty of ‘bedroom tax’

When the majority of social housing went up, the priority was families, so small homes were not built. Picture: Jane Barlow
When the majority of social housing went up, the priority was families, so small homes were not built. Picture: Jane Barlow
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I take comfort in the fact that the “bedroom tax” has one crucial feature in common with the poll tax. It is so grotesquely unreasonable as to be unsustainable – either in the court of public opinion or, quite possibly, a court of law.

On that basis, the question is not whether saner counsels will prevail, but when? As with the poll tax, the puzzle is how much damage the political authors of this folly are prepared to inflict, not least to their own reputations and prospects, before bowing to the inevitable.

Meanwhile they are cocooned from consequences and defending by platitudes. With a 13,000 majority in his Woodford constituency on the north-eastern outskirts of London, Iain Duncan Smith is not exactly at the sharp end of the debate and it is conceivable that he is incapable of distinguishing between generalised rhetoric about benefits and the revolting specifics of the bedroom tax.

There is no such alibi for Liberal Democrat Treasury chief secretary Danny Alexander and I find his enthusiastic acquiescence extraordinary. He certainly knows the realities of social housing and, if by any chance he has forgotten them, he has excellent sources to call upon. So how can he conceivably square that knowledge with his political actions?

The key statistics for Danny, the MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, appeared in Monday’s Scotsman story about 
a) the number of tenants who will be penalised by the bedroom tax and b) the number of smaller houses available to them. In the Highland Council area, the first answer is 2,000 and the second is 164.

This is the nub of the matter. Overall, there is estimated to be a 90 per cent deficit of small houses vis-à-vis families who will face this arbitrary cut in housing benefit. Either they pay increased rent from meagre incomes in order to stay where they are, fall into arrears with all the inherent problems or move. But where to?

Places with mature housing stock are worst affected. In the early days of council housing, they didn’t think of building small homes. Houses for families were the priority. It is only quite recently that the mix has improved, but there is a huge amount of catching up required. The smaller houses people are expected to move into do not exist.

And this is where the utter unreasonableness comes in. Leave aside the dubious ideology and take it as an assumed social good to force tenants in receipt of housing benefit into units which the state deems commensurate with their needs. Even put to one side the mean-minded definition of what living space they are entitled to.

Supposing all of that was justified, the inescapable fact is that the houses to move them to do not exist. So how, Mr Alexander or Mr IDS, do you get round that difficulty? What is the political, far less ethical, far less Liberal justification for penalising people financially because they cannot do something which is, quite literally, impossible – ie move to a smaller house.

Even unto its demise, there were true believers defending the poll tax and arguing that it failed only because it had been implemented without sufficient rigour. They may have been bonkers, or bad, but there was no a priori reason why it was wrong for the rich and poor to pay the same in local taxation. The poll tax died because it was politically suicidal – not because it was impossible.

And this is what makes the bedroom tax more dishonest than the poll tax – for it is based on a mendacious hypothesis. If the houses do not exist, how can people move to them? There is no ideological answer to that question, however extreme – only a gross and cruel deception.

But please prove me wrong. I will be delighted to surrender this space to Danny Alexander next week if he wishes to justify penalising 2,000 people in the Highlands for failing to move into 164 houses – and the Highlands is a big area and we don’t even know where these houses and people are. Should they load their belongings on to a cart and set off in search of a smaller house?

Much of the political response to the bedroom tax has been as depressing as the deed itself. Calling for a united approach from Holyrood in the current atmosphere is a lost cause, but one might have expected more than point-scoring about which party’s councils are more against evictions than the other’s, an argument which misses just about every available serious point.

Half of Scotland’s social housing is now run by housing associations which are not under anyone’s political control. They are at the sharp end as housing benefit is paid to landlord rather than tenant. While politicians bicker, they have been addressing the serious business of planning for a doubling of arrears and ameliorating the suffering of tenants. (I recommend an excellent report by the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, Preparing for Welfare Reform 2013).

Like local authorities, they cannot simply decree non-eviction of people who fall into arrears due to the bedroom tax without that position being underpinned in law, which the Scottish Government has declined to provide. There is no legal right to distinguish between bedroom tax arrears and those stemming from other causes, and implementing that distinction is fraught with problems.

It is a insulting to local authorities and housing associations to suggest they need instruction from Holyrood on how to behave. The vast majority go to extreme lengths to avoid evictions. In 2011-12, the highest ratio by a Scottish council was six in a thousand, in East Ayrshire. Most were much lower. No social landlord will rush to evict because of the bedroom tax.

The real point is about impacts on families – the increase of debt, the misery of leaving a much-loved home, the fear of being forced into inferior accommodation, the social engineering which says that a studious 15-year-old must share a room with his or her disruptive teenage sibling. Who in Easterhouse told you that was what society was demanding, Mr Iain Duncan Smith?

There are genuine issues. As I know from my MP days, there are lots of people trying for years to transfer to a smaller house. The vicious logic of the bedroom tax dictates that they too will be penalised for living in a situation which many of them have been trying to escape from. Where is the logic or justice in that, a court might reasonably be asked to determine?

Like the poll tax, the bedroom tax is riddled with anomalies which will soon start to reveal themselves. And like the poll tax, it will soon start to frighten MPs who are sitting on majorities less handsome than in Woodford. Unity of campaigning, not gesture politics, is required – based on hard facts and the relentless exposure of that fundamental dishonesty.