On 20th May 2013, Liam Byrne, the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary made a strangely under-reported attack on the current incumbent Iain Duncan Smith:
“Let me tell the Secretary of State the point of the question: across the country discretionary housing payment fund money is about to run out. In my home city of Birmingham applications are up five times on last year. That policy means that in places such as the north-east three-bedroom houses are now standing empty because people cannot afford to move in. There are now 53,000 households in our country being put up in temporary accommodation, which is costing the taxpayer billions of pounds. When will he admit the truth: the hated bedroom tax now costs more than it saved? It is time to scrap it, and scrap it for good?”
That Byrne was calling for the outright abolition of the “hated bedroom tax” was curious for those campaigning against this policy as three days earlier he had been claiming he saw the urgency for repeal but could not “rush into” making uncosted policy announcements. Only a cynic would regard three days as a speedy bit of financial reconciliation on the part of the floundering Labour apparatchiks. It wasn’t even necessary to know that the Labour Housing Group’s “Towards Labour’s One Nation Manifesto – 50 Housing Policies for Labour” had already been published, and contained the proposal that
“The ‘bedroom tax” should be ended in favour of a new national plan to tackle under occupation based on incentives and a stronger ground for possession with a right to suitable alternative accommodation”
What actually made Byrne’s comments so fascinating is that it inadvertently let slip what most anti-welfare reform campaigners had long since recognised: the bedroom tax has nothing to do with under-occupancy or financial clawbacks, but is a deliberate attack on those in receipt of benefits. It is another stage in the ideology of “Conditionality” – the notion that claimants must be forcibly taught to accept their personal responsibilities (or recognise their personal inadequacies) by the imposition of increasingly aggressive and widespread bullying tactics to encourage their return to productive employment. After the enforced “work experience” of workfare, the cuts in benefits imposed by the beefed up sanctions system and the horrifically incompetent “medical evaluations” to determine fitness for work run by ATOS, claimants will now be threatened with the choice of homelessness or removal to a local authority approved “poverty-ghetto”. Remarkably, no-one has suggested a re-evaluation of the labour camps for the feckless unemployed proposed by Sydney and Beatrice Webb during the Great Depression.
Byrne refers to empty three-bedroom properties in the North-East; a recent Guardian article quotes a Liverpudlian: “The social landlords would lease the houses to individuals on the basis it that it was better to have the houses occupied rather than to have them empty… I just walked from my house to the bus stop and counted eleven houses tinned up because the social landlords can’t lease them…” (“Tinned up” refers to the mesh barricades placed over doors and windows).
These “hard-to-let” properties are where social landlords would house some of Byrne’s 53,000 people in need of temporary accommodation. The Haringey Solidarity Group and Brent Housing Action both have evidence of long-term temporary accommodation tenants being focussed-on by advisory “navigators” – teams bought in to liaise between housing providers and the DWP – sending out threatening letters to these already vulnerable tenants in attempts to persuade them to move on from what was in effect “last option” housing (without having to go through the expense of the proper legal eviction process). In April a Newham-based Somali woman arrived at an anti-Benefits Cap demonstration in Stratford after being told that her family of five were being relocated to Birmingham – prior to the borough initiating the bedroom tax!. At a meeting of the Anti-Bedroom Tax and Benefits Justice Federation on 8th June 2013 a disabled activist described how she was due to appear in court to face eviction proceedings… not through non-payment of the bedroom tax but due to failure to pay the new Council Tax increments; the National Housing Federation demonstrated in March 2013 that even if the much vaunted £30 million of discretionary housing payments were ringfenced for disabled claimants many would still stand to lose approximately £14 per week. The website www.insidehousing.co.uk has published a report with data from ten social landlords indicating how between March and June 2013 the numbers of tenants with arrears had increased from around 35% up to 53% or more – in three cases the percentage of arrears due rose to 70%.
Of course some social landlords are unwilling to evict and have “redesignated” rooms in their properties to avoid the tax – notably Leeds Council and Knowsley Housing Trust – but as this article is limited to the bedroom tax it does not have space to consider the heightened effect on social housing providers when the full mechanism of Welfare Reform rolls out as the Benefits Cap and Universal Credit are introduced. Social Housing providers may well choose to work with their tenants when their arrears mount up slowly, but next month Brent phases in the Benefits Cap and it has already been recognised that 800-odd families will lose more than £100 per week from their income which makes the possibility of eviction so much greater… These invidious policies need to be halted now before they take effect. And only we tenants are truly capable of doing that – time to get in touch with your local anti-bedroom tax or anti-welfare reform group NOW!
 “The bedroom tax has made huge problems even worse”, John Harris, The Guardian, Monday 10th June 2013