So much sh*te is talked about the bedroom tax

In January the National Housing Federation released a report to say 57% of social tenants had not heard of the bedroom tax.  Just 3 months on we appear to have 60 million UK experts on it after awareness has been raised through all forms of the media (TV, radio, papers, social etc.) and its the topic of hot conversation in the home, on the train, tube, bus and in the pub and obviously across social media.  It’s time to look at some basic facts and debunk some of the many myths.

A) DWP figures given in their purported assessment on the Bedroom Tax

  1. It will affect 660,000 social tenant households.
  2. The average reduction in Housing Benefit will be £14 per week.
  3. The total claimed saving will be £480m in the first year.

The 660,000 number affected and average £14pw cut appears pretty accurate.  The total saving figure at 3 above is merely 660,000 lots of £14 per week which comes to £480m in a full year.  This means the government always expected next to nobody to move as the saving can ONLY be achieved if they stay put.  If every ‘under occupier’ moved then nobody would pay the bedroom tax and no saving at all would flow.  As such coalition arguments that the policy would free up social housing availability have always had no validity at all.  Moreover, if the 259,000 social tenant households known to over occupy or are overcrowded all moved to the private rented sector and swapped their 2 bed social homes with those in 3 bed private ones then the HB bill would increase by £339m per year.

B) The Government has increased Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP)

True.  The detail of this can be found in the HB circular S1 of 2013 issued in January 2013.  Paragraphs 2 and 3 provide the detailed breakdown although please note that £5m has been reduced from the bedroom tax amount after the changes to foster carers etc in March 2013.  This also reduces the claimed overall saving figure above from £480m to £475m.  This now reveals a total DHP figure of £150m for 2013/14 of which:

  • £60m or 40% is for private tenants shortfall in Local Housing Allowance (LHA)
  • £65m or 43% is for private and social tenant shortfalls from the overall benefit cap (56% are private tenants and 44% social), leaving
  • £25m or 17% for social tenant shortfalls from the bedroom tax.

So we see in figures that £25m is the discretionary amount of funding available to make up the £475m bedroom tax reductions and means DHPs will on average be paid to just 5% of bedroom tax affected tenant households.

Each local council is allowed to add its own funding to this but limited to 2.5 times their allocation of the DHPs and there is a table in the S1 of 2013 which gives figures for each council.  Yet this maximum DHP even if all spent on bedroom tax claimants still only means that 13% will get a discretionary payment and 87% will not.

Government MPs use the DHP budget as a political deflection and almost as if it is a panacea for these cuts.  The figures show this to be very different indeed and many social tenants errantly believe that DHPs are just for the bedroom tax which they are not. In fact we find that £60m is for private tenants in LHA and also 56% of the £65m allocated for the overall benefit cap which is £36.4m.  In total almost 68% or £101.4m of the £150m DHP budget goes to private tenants who are not affected by the bedroom tax policy.

The DWP also estimates that just 40,000 of the 660,000 will seek a DHP a mere 6% and that each request for a DHP, successful or not, will cost the local council a mere £25 each.  Both of these figures are woefully low and to suggest that sending out DHP form and then checking its worth and then writing back to the tenant with the result of their DHP claim, and any subsequent request to look again at this from the tenant will involve about 1 hour of local council administrative time is incredulous.  Yet here is what the DWP said in the impact assessment

53. As an illustration, it is estimated that if 40,000 of the householders that experienced a reduction at the point of transition were to make an application for a Discretionary Housing Payment, the total cost across all Local Authorities of administering these additional applications would be approximately £1m. This is the estimated cost of administration, regardless of whether the outcome of the application for a Discretionary Housing Payment is successful or not.

The reader will also have noted that whenever a government MP is asked a question about the bedroom tax the stock answer is apply for a DHP!

Finally note applying for a DHP does not hold a legal right for the tenant to appeal the DHP decision but merely a right to ask the council to look again or reconsider the DHP decision.

C) Bedroom Tax Appeals

  1. The DWP estimated 20,000 of the 660,000 social tenant households affected by the bedroom tax will appeal.
  2. The DWP further estimated that each appeal would cost the public purse £200 each.

This represents just 3% of all the 660,000 affected tenant households and is an extremely low estimated figure, as is the cost to a local council of a formal appeal by the tenant which is the absolute right of all 660,000.  The DWP said this in the purported impact assessment:

54. Similarly, as an illustration, if 20,000 claimants chose to appeal the decision made on their Housing Benefit entitlement, DWP estimates the additional administration cost associated with these appeals would be approximately £4m.                                                           

Both of these DWP claims of likely numbers and cost per appeal need much greater consideration.

Numbers

I published a template letter which advised as a first step tenants to write to their local councils for further information on HOW they took the bedroom tax decisions.  This ‘standard letter’ was downloaded from my blog and website alone over 180,000 times.  It was also reposted on many other blog and web sites and I know personally it was printed off and distributed by unions, welfare rights groups and many similar organisations.

The Govan Law Centre in Glasgow has produced an excellent bedroom tax toolkit for appeal a few days ago and they tweeted it had been downloaded 4000 times in the first few hours. I would expect this to be downloaded ten if not a hundred times more before deadlines to submit appeals expire.

Hence to estimate 20,000  a mere 3% of tenants will appeal is totally inept of the DWP.

Cost

The additional public pure cost of appeal includes local council time in administration for accepting appeal letter right through to councils cost of representation at the appeal with legal advice, internal and external on this, preparing a bundle of perhaps 150 pages to give to the tenant (the appellant) and a copy for each of the 3 persons at the tribunal (one judge and two lay members) all of which has to be correct and checked for legal reasons before this. I estimate this to be no less than £1500 per case and that figure does not include if the appeal goes on to the Upper Tribunal when a figures of £5000+ is more realistic.

Then there is the cost of the tribunal itself which is a public purse cost.  The judge, the two lay members, the tribunal administration costs, reasonable expenses for the appellant and so on.  Last year these tribunals heard 200,000 cases for all welfare benefits and so if we estimate 100,000 appeals for the bedroom tax decision added to this then this sees the public purse cost increase 50%.  This will run into many hundreds of millions and all of which needs to be set against the maximum public purse saving figure of £480m for 660,000 weekly HB deductions of the average £14 pw.

It is obvious that the appeals alone will cost more in public purse costs than the £480m claimed public purse saving.  If anyone has an overall yearly cost figure for the social security tribunals then please let me know and we can put a reasonable additional public purse cost on these bedroom tax appeals.

We can say IF all 660,000 appealed AND the £1500 per appeal figure is an accurate one then the cost of the bedroom tax appeals will be £1 BILLION and double the claimed but highly errant bedroom tax savings figure of £480m

General

I see no point in my re-inventing the wheel and doing the same and I doubt any appeal toolkit I published would have been as good.  The GLC toolkit also has much better legal advice than I could offer in any case.

The HB officer has to follow the law and has to follow HB regulations in making the bedroom tax decisions. Their role can and should be seen in that way.  The GLC bedroom tax toolkit could be said to focus on the legal issues involved whereas my bedroom tax ‘loophole’ and another 20 or so grounds of appeal focus on HB regulations.  Combine the two and using the template of GLC and every one of the 660,000 social tenant households has their appeal form, format and content.

I daily get hundreds of emails from tenants considering appealing and many phone calls from advisors working with tenants and these often ask ‘silly’ questions but nonetheless understandable ones given the amount of stress each tenant has.  A few of these are below.

I am paying my bedroom tax can I still appeal YES

Is there an exemption for Muslims for a prayer room? NO this is a rumour which some suggest has been traced back to an EDL activist

I have signed my tenancy agreement which says I have 3 bedrooms therefore I must have 3 bedrooms? NO – only a court can decide what a bedroom is and how many you have

My landlord says I have 3 bedrooms therefore I have 3 bedrooms surely? NO only a court can decide this not your landlord

My landlord says the bedroom size is irrelevant and the 1985 Housing Act figures only apply to overcrowding and not to bedroom tax?  NO – is your landlord a judge or a court as only they can decide that. You may also want to ask yourself does a landlord have a conflict of interest in saying that which indeed they have.

There are some very complex questions too for which the ONLY answer can be the court will decide and why tenants need to appeal. For example:-

  1. What is a bedroom?
  2. How many bedrooms does a property have?
  3. What is the minimum size of a bedroom if indeed there is one?
  4. If the tenant or tenant’s partner is allowed a spare bedroom for a non-resident carer then how come a spare bedroom is not allowed for a non-resident overnight carer for a child or my adult age child?
  5. If a former bedroom has been adapted into say a wet bathroom for a wheelchair user does this count as a bedroom?
  6. If an alleged bedroom has non-portable adaptations installed such as a dialysis machine how can this be determined to be a bedroom?
  7. If I appeal the bedroom tax decision and win in October 2103 then what level of Housing Benefit is payable from April to October 2013?
  8. If my council took the decision before 13 March 2013 then this why before the regulations were changed to exempt foster carers and I have never been asked by my council if I am, so does this make all such decisions deficient and needing to be quashed by the court?

I could write 20 more similar questions but one in particular stands out for me and that is: –

As there is no legal definition of a bedroom and the bedroom tax can only be applied to a bedroom and not a room, then how the hell can the government expect a HB officer to decide what is a bedroom if such a question would tax the most learned legal minds in the country?

My view is the DWP cannot and never should have placed the HB officer in such a position and to do so is irrational.  The judge at the appeal tribunal will have to make the same decision on what a bedroom is and that judge will be very wary of making such a definition and know that the Supreme Court will struggle to answer that when they are asked that same question which they undoubtedly will have to be eventually.

The issue of the HB officer deciding also has to be seen in its correct context which is the average £14pw deduction he or she is imposed upon to decide could see the social tenant income of as little as £71 per week for JSA fall in effect by 20% and 20% below the minimum subsistence level that JSA is.

The bedroom tax decision truly is a life-changing one without any exaggeration.

Yet there is no legal definition to help the HB Officer just some heavily prescribed guidance in the form of the A4 HB circular of 2012 that steers the HBO into making a decision based on the cost of making it and not reaching the correct decision.  The same guidance that fails to mention the HB regulation that forms the bedroom tax ‘loophole’ I have discussed and means in my view that every one of the 660,000 bedroom tax decisions need to be thrown out as they cannot be relied upon and the HBO has come to a deficient and unjust decision because they failed to follow the HB regulations which they must do.

In summary anyone who believes the bedroom tax appeal is a stunt or is ‘direct action’ or anything other than a tenant seeking what is fair and just is deluding themselves and has not thought this through. Perhaps they should apply to work for the DWP?

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