Bedroom tax critics in need of a better argument

While I am not in the business of defending poorly thought out, miserly policies, neither am I one to jump on slow-moving bandwagons all too eager for everybody to jump aboard. You see, if there’s one thing worse than the bedroom tax it’s the obvious, narrow, cynically emoting critique of it.

According to the National Housing Federation, as a consequence of the ‘bedroom tax’ two thirds of social housing tenants in receipt of housing benefit are now behind on their rent. The 14% or 25% reduction in benefit paid to those who are deemed to have a spare room or rooms has had a not inconsiderable impact on the poorest households. And far from helping solve the overcrowding problem or reduce the benefit bill, critics point out that even for those who have miraculously found somewhere else to live, this has been in the costlier private sector. So there has been a good deal of misery and not much to show for it.

As if that isn’t bad enough, it has also been revealed that those who lose a loved one will no longer be given plenty of time to get over it. The empty room so personally and movingly described by the poet and children’s novelist Michael Rosen, will no longer be just a terrible aching reminder of the person that once occupied it. After just three months it will also be subject to the under-occupancy penalty (to give it its official name). Officials used to be decent enough at least to give the grieving a full year to come to terms with their loss before reassessing their benefit entitlement.

But that isn’t the end of it either, at least not for those responsible for this ‘tax’. I don’t buy the idea that the Tories are ogres compared with their supposedly poor-friendly Labour Party opponents. It is their incompetence in their implementation of the welfare reforms that is most apparent – from the failing IT system underlying the roll-out of universal credit to the failure to properly inform the jobless of their obligation to work for their welfare if need be.

Now it turns out that because of some obscure legislative oversight somewhere between 5,000 (if you believe the government) and 50,000 households (if you believe the opposition), will be entitled to a full refund of the benefit wrongly denied them. That this thoroughly technical loophole has been jumped upon as if it were a matter of principle by those keen to see the back of the ‘bedroom tax’ suggests that they lack arguments of substance. They don’t seem to understand that the problem with this awful policy is not just that it makes hard-up people harder-up still; but that it exposes the extent to which this is a consequence of a large minority of the population (whether in or out of work) being dependent on benefits.

It also shows, as critics have pointed out, how little housing there is to go around. But they’ve stopped short of demanding a mass housebuilding programme, preferring meekly to ask for more ‘social’ or ‘affordable’ housing. Indeed the better argument was put forward in the recent report of Raquel Rolnik, the UN’s now infamous rapporteur; who has been so critical of UK welfare and, particularly, housing policies. Following her recent visit she has been subject to counter-criticism by ministers and in unusually immoderate language. According to housing minister Kris Hopkins her official report was just a ‘misleading Marxist diatribe’.

And yet, putting the cheap lefty-bashing to one side, the government is absolutely right to object to the meddling of this unaccountable official in sovereign policy-making. Bad policies are never so bad that they should be unmade on the say-so of undemocratic supranational bodies. They shouldn’t have invited her in the first place. That leftist critics have been quick to defend her as if she, like all those apparently helpless benefit claimants, is a victim of the bedroom tax too; only draws attention to the fact that they too, so reliant on Rolnik, have failed to make a good argument against it themselves.

Written by Dave Clements, convenor of the Social Policy Forum at Institute of Ideas. We are on Twitter @SocialPolicyFor

Picture by: Jean7031

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