The bedroom tax is pernicious and has many victims but I never imagined one of those victims would be the Joseph Rowntree Foundation or JRF. The report released yesterday was staggering in its ineptitude and this from one of if not the most revered social policy think tank in the UK in the JRF.
To explain I use the ubiquitous follow-up piece that the Guardian always does in giving free rein to in this case JRF to ‘sell’ their research to the public as they do here in a piece by its Policy Director Kathleen Kelly.
I took time contemplating whether to comment on this as JRF has produced consistently excellent research for decades and known for consistently producing excellent research. Yet they have been so inept in this bedroom tax report and in their recommendations that it has to be said. So, with some reluctance below is why this bedroom tax report is inept and it is not happy reading!
The Guardian article states in its opening and correctly sets the scene -
The bedroom tax has left tenants struggling to cope, failed to free up larger homes for big families and saved less money than the government estimated.
Agreed and no issue with that but it goes on: -
Our report, published today, adds to earlier research by the BBC that found just 6% of people affected by the bedroom tax have moved into a smaller home and half those who have stayed put have fallen behind on their rent.
Oh dear! JRF here give credence to the myth published by the BBC a week or two earlier that the bedroom tax is responsible for 6% of social tenants moving. There is no correlation at all and what has escaped JRF analysis is that for a decade or more about 7% of social tenants move in any case.
Take a look at the English Housing Survey an authoritative report published yearly which says in 2012 that 249,000 of the then 3.88m social tenant households had moved – This is 6.4% and previous years figures for a decade or more says the same. The first year of the bedroom tax has seen fewer social tenants move than in the years before the bedroom tax was live yet somehow JRF go along with the huge myth that the bedroom tax is responsible for more tenant movement. This is an incredibly flawed and lazy analysis.
The report goes on: -
The fact that savings are £115m below target and, at savings of £330m, form only a paltry part of the £19bn overall welfare savings, mean that the time is right to take a more nuanced look at the future of the policy.
There is one simple reason that the claimed savings are £115m below target and hat is because the DWP target saving was based on the bedroom tax affecting 660,000 households and ‘saving’ £480m per year. Yet the bedroom tax affects 498,174 households not 660,000 and so affects 24.5% less than the original estimate so the saving is reduced by 24.5%. This is basis arithmetic without the need for any analysis as to why the figure is 24.5% less. And 24.5% of £480m the expected DWP ‘saving’ is £117m
Kathleen Kelly then goes on to suggest 6 ways to improve the bedroom tax and here setting aside my well-known objections to the policy per se the suggestions given are staggering in their ineptitude and present the coalition with a gift horse as they can now taint JRF’s analysis to be as shambolic as the bedroom tax policy itself is!
There are six options if we want to make the policy sustainable, other than outright abolition.
1. Give people the chance to move
The bedroom tax currently hits 100,000 people who are willing to move but who are trapped in larger homes because of a shortage of smaller homes. We could require landlords to make tenants an offer of a smaller home to move into before the bedroom tax is applied and housing benefit is reduced so that it does not punish those who want to move but are unable to do so.
This is the Lord Best amendment in the House of Lords and does have merit at least superficially. Why should the tenant who is willing to move but can’t because of lack of availability be penalised is the essence of it. Yet “we would require landlords to make tenants an offer of a smaller home…” exposes the futility and unworkability of this proposed solution. How can a landlord be required to make an offer when the lack of availability means they can’t make such an offer? Unfortunately this inept analysis gets even worse.
Don’t apply the bedroom tax if the tenant is willing to move but can’t is the essence. Personally I fully agree with this but JRF are living in cloud cuckoo land with this proposal and totally divorced from political reality. If as has been uncontested that only 6% are able to downsize each year then this would mean that the bedroom tax would not apply to 94% of current households if the under occupying tenant simply said they were willing to move. Some figures have suggested that 14% may be able to move yet that would still mean the bedroom tax would not apply in 86% of cases. Why would this or any government even bother with the policy given those figures?
2. Define what is a bedroom and what is not
The confusion around which rooms count as bedrooms and which don’t has been confusing for tenants. With central government refusing to clarify the matter and leaving it to individual councils, decisions have been highly inconsistent. Introduce minimum sizes for single and double bedrooms to clear up the confusion.
Yes, yes, yes and oh dear! We have to look at why the government steadfastly refuse to define the term ‘bedroom’ to see why defining it means the policy is dead in the water. Take the simple case that is well-known that in legislation bedroom needs to be 70 square feet in floor size and apply that as one constituent part of the what a bedroom is. If its 70 square feet it’s a bedroom if its 69 or less it’s not.
How many homeowners have ‘bedrooms’ of less than 70 square feet and believe they own or are paying a mortgage on an asset they believe to have 3 bedrooms? If they suddenly found out they own a 2 bed plus boxroom property their asset value and equity drops dramatically and all the borrowing they have against it becomes a huge risk for those who lend. Cue biggest financial crash ever seen and 2008, the Great Depression and even the South Sea Island Bubble pale into insignificance.
The proposed solutions continue…
3. Allow spare bedrooms in some cases
Many people with disabilities rely on the extra space a spare room provides to store their medical equipment, or for a place for their carers to sleep. Similarly, a divorced parent who has shared custody of children will need somewhere for them to stay on visits.
Again yes but again what a lazy analysis and lazy and unworkable suggestion. The disability lobbies have produced some excellent research (as have JRF) to show that disability gives higher costs of living and higher need for space. Yet what would the criteria be for additional space and do able-bodied persons also need storage space? Yes I would argue they do and most households have a ‘junk room’ where they store a whole range of things and especially so in a flat over a house as these tend to have far less storage space in any case. Would the spare alleged ‘bedroom’ be extended to grandparents too and so many more similar questions can be asked which quickly reveal this proposal to be unworkable and incredibly cost intensive to determine.
That leads nicely into the next suggestion for improvement of the policy (a reform of a claimed reform anyone?)
4. Allow people a spare bedroom in all cases
Looking across the profile of the country’s entire housing stock, having a spare bedroom is a well-accepted norm among homeowners. Working-age social tenants make up only 3% of under-occupied homes. Reducing somebody’s benefits only where there is more than one spare bedroom would address this inconsistency.
The DWP original 2012 estimate had 81% of likely bedroom tax households underoccupying by one (alleged) bedroom. Hence allowing 1 spare ‘bedroom’ would take 81% out of the bedroom tax altogether. As I said earlier are JRF living in a political cloud cuckoo land? Of course this is also a suggestion put forward by Riverside and many other social landlords to allow 1 spare bedroom in each household and it has the same implication – it would see 81% taken out altogether and an unknown percentage of the other 19% reduced from a 25% HB deduction to a 14% deduction. Why on earth would ANY government bother with such a diluted policy?
That makes a further important point that this paucity of thinking and political analysis in the JRF report is mainly a concoction of previous suggestions by others that have been rejected or dismissed because of the financial and political implications they would give. It is lazy naivety writ large!
5. Make hardship payments a long-term solution
The government has set aside a £155m pot of crisis funds (discretionary housing payments) to help tenants struggling to cope with the bedroom tax, but this fund will not last for long. Many tenants will require long-term financial help in order to cope. The crisis fund should be reformed to help them.
No they have not set aside £155m at all and this is an incredulous thing for JRF to say.
The government has this year set aside or allocated £60m for bedroom tax DHPs not £155m and the £155m is the total amount of DHP for ALL reasons not just for bedroom tax purposes. Has JRF simply bought the government rhetoric on this or is it too lazy to see the £60m figure for bedroom tax DHPs as clear as day as written in the S1 HB circular of 2014?
This also alludes to the purported fact that DHPs are and can only be short-term when they can as a matter of fact be given indefinitely as the DHP guidance manual says they can. Hence there is no need to reform what is already in place.
It is commonly stated that DHPs can ONLY be given on a short-term basis yet the guidance explicitly states they can be given indefinitely and so once again we see JRF buying into a myth and NOT conducting a proper analysis. I fully agree that DHPs tend not to be given indefinitely but that is not the point; rather the point is JRF can be easily ridiculed for these proposals and painted by IDS et al as just another biased ‘leftish’ organisation and JRF up till now rightly deserve to refute such a slur on their reputation.
The final suggestion I have no objection to at all: -
6. Stop counting disability benefits as income
When applying for crisis funds – which are means tested – the disability benefits people may receive have in some cases have been counted as income and can make disabled people less likely to qualify for crisis payments.
As I state above JRF has published many excellent research documents over the years as to the higher costs that disabilities in all their forms, physical, learning and sensory dictate. And that is why I am so angry at JRF for this woeful analysis and woeful proposals.
The old adage that is takes 20 years to build a good reputation and 5 minutes to lose it is very much at play here. I am astounded at just how bad this report is at how bad the research is and how bad the analysis is because, to date, JRF research and reports have been so good. Yet this is staggering in its ineptitude per se and not just by comparison.
I truly hope JRF do not get tainted by this aberrant woeful piece of work though I imagine the spads (SPecial Advisors or spin merchants) for the coalition are rubbing their hands with glee at the ineptitude of this report as they can and will tarnish JRF for this.
What have you done! (Shakes head, still amazed at chronic ineptitude!)