The Lib Dems are today proposing reforms to the Spare Room Subsidy – more commonly known on the street and in the tabloids as the ‘Bedroom Tax’. It might be a good sound bite but in reality we’re talking about a reduction in Housing Benefit, not a levy.
But that argument aside, let’s discuss what the Lib Dems are and are not proposing:
What the party is not proposing is scrapping the policy as some early media outlets erroneously claimed.
What the Lib Dems are proposing are two very simple reforms.
First. That no disabled person with a genuine medical need will see a reduction in Housing Benefit if they have a spare room – this group of people will be exempt.
Second. Whilst new social tenants will still be subject to the current rules on spare bedrooms as soon as they take up the contract. Existing Social tenants should, the party believes, be offered the choice of a suitable alternative before any reduction in Housing Benefit occurs.
The Government should not pay for spare bedrooms to remain empty, as Labour want, nor should the damaging implementation of the policy remain unreformed as Tories desire.
You might not have seen in the midst of the Reshuffle and the Data Retention bill that the first report on the impact of this policy dropped earlier this week and it doesn’t make great reading. More than half a million tenants are now in arrears despite the increase from the Government in Discretionary Housing Allowance and only 5% have been able to downsize to avoid paying for the spare room.
The policy objective, to ensure every room is used or paid for, is sound, the damage poor implementation of that policy has caused cannot now be ignored in light of that review.
Social Tenants in existing contracts should never have been asked to take a hit in Housing Benefit without also first being offered a suitable smaller choice and that is what the Lib Dems will now demand of its Coalition partner, the status quo is simply socially unjust.
No, when there is a housing shortage, when young people can’t afford to buy and struggle to make the rent and when hundreds of thousands of Families are in cramped and overcrowded homes the Government should not pay to keep spare bedrooms spare.
Labour are, let’s not forget, the party which changed the rules for those getting Housing Benefit in the Private sector in 2008 so that they could not claim for spare bedrooms. Before we hear shouts of hypocrisy from them let them first answer if the ‘Bedroom tax’ is not, in principal simply levelling the playing field for private and social tenants.
Labour also need to answer if they think the taxpayer should pay to keep vacant rooms empty. Why should home owners & private renters pay for spare bedrooms for social tenants they can’t themselves afford nor claim for?
Then there is a moral question. When there is a shortage of housing for people to move to is it right to reduce housing benefit without helping people find an alternative which avoids that first?
This is where the Lib Dems and the Tories now divide. The Conservatives were keen that this should be an immediate cost saving measure. Liberal Democrats have always been uneasy about that and are right to be so – there are nearly one million spare bedrooms which need to be filled, not paid for. This should never have been about cost savings.
People will point out there is a shortage of housing to move to. This is true, but there are plenty of people in overcrowded properties who could make use of those empty spare bedrooms which would then free up smaller properties and we cannot continue to ignore the pressing need to build more houses.
It is safe to expect to hear more from the Liberal Democrats about that in the near future.
It is nothing short of a scandal that we have allowed a social housing regime which lacks capacity yet allows spare bedrooms to go fallow as overcrowded families sleep 4 to a room.
It cannot be socially just to pay for rooms to be empty nor is it fair to fail to put in the effort to match families and individuals to suitable accommodation in swaps or fail to do what we can to promote new builds.
The Lib Dem proposals announced today will ensure that the Government spends taxpayers money wisely whilst offering people the choice to stay and pay or make way for those more in need of more room.
Frankly it’s long overdue.