The Under-Occupancy Element of the Welfare Reform Act 2012 has created scores of headlines in the media. The obvious unfairness of a policy that penalises tenants in social housing who are deemed to have a 'spare' bedroom instinctively goes against the values of the majority of the electorate. Some call it 'an attack on the disabled community', some call it 'an attack on social housing.' I call it the Bedroom Tax.
The Bedroom Tax affects around 80,000 households in Scotland, of which 79% of the household contain a disabled person. 96% of those affected cannot downsize to smaller homes as there is a lack of suitably sized accommodation in their area. It is a cruel policy that punishes some of the most vulnerable in our society for the mistakes of politicians who did not have the foresight to build sufficient numbers of appropriates sized homes in the social sector.
We are lucky in Scotland in that we have a devolved Parliament that does have the powers to mitigate the effects of the Bedroom Tax. Although welfare is reserved to Westminster, housing is devolved to Hollyrood. Prominent lawyer and civic campaigner, Mike Dailly, has petitioned the Scottish Government to amend the Housing (Scotland) Act so the 'Bedroom Tax arrears' are legally viewed as 'ordinary' debt. This would immediately stop all 'Bedroom Tax evictions in Scotland. This petition is not universally supported by all stakeholders, the SFHA and CIH fear that this change in legislation would leave smaller Housing Associations susceptible to financial difficulties while encouraging rent arrears. It does have the support of the vast majority of 'anti-bedroom tax' campaigners with the Scottish Labour Party putting forward a proposed Bill at the Scottish Parliament with a view of making this petition law.
The Bedroom Tax will cost Scotland £53M a year. This shortfall will have to be funded by tenants through extra rents or by Social Registered Landlords via increased rent arrears. The Scottish Government did listen to the demands of the STUC, Shelter Scotland and other civic organisations when they called for Discretionary Housing (DHP) budgets to be increased by 150%, the maximum level the Scottish Government can set. An added £20M was added to D.H.P. funding which, as Shelter Scotland says 'that at least one in seven - maybe as many as one in three - families and individuals can now be helped". The Scottish Government was rightfully congratulated for this move and subsequently announced at their national conference that this extra funding will also be available next year.
Even with the extra in D.H.P. budgets there is still a 'Bedroom Tax shortfall' of approximately £18M. This shortfall is resulting in inconsistencies in how local authorities are dealing with Discretionary Housing Payments(DHP). One local Councillor describes it as Local Authorities making 'hard choices' with D.H.P. budgets and, sadly, it appears that some of the most vulnerable tenants are being hardest hit by these 'hard choices'.
One example of these inconsistencies is that certain councils in Scotland are regarding Disability Living Allowance (D.L.A.) as an income when calculating Discretionary Housing Payments. D.L.A. is to ensure that disabled people can have a quality of life, even DWP advice states "...a local authority would not generally say that a person is able to use disregarded income such as disability living allowance to pay their rent...". This postcode lottery is effectively barring disabled people from extra funding that they should be entitled to.
This is why the No2Bedroomtax Campaign has petitioned the Scottish Parliament to fund the entire 'Bedroom Tax shortfall'. Our petition is formally supported by COSLA and BinTheBedroomTax initiative; a coalition of housing associations, trade unions, tenant's organisations and grassroots Bedroom Tax campaigns whose successful 'mass lobby' of the Liberal Democrats Conference resulted in an 'anti-Bedroom Tax' motion to be passed.
This extra funding would protect tenants, housing associations and local authorities. It would protect jobs and services and give peace of mind to the thousands of tenants who have the Bedroom Tax hanging over them. To me, this is the perfect solution to a policy that has no place in a civilised society.
I will be presenting the petition on behalf of the No2BedroomTax Campaign to the Scottish Parliaments' Petition Committee sometime in November. This will only be my second visit to the Scottish Parliament but I will not be fazed by the experience, not in the slightest. I firmly belief that I am right, that the Scottish Government should provide the extra funding which would effectively end the Bedroom Tax in Scotland. Fingers crossed that they feel the same way.