By Bob Duncan
Anyone facing a cut in their housing benefit due to the ‘bedroom tax’ because they have a ‘spare’ room in their council house should work more hours to avoid eviction, says the UK Pension Minister.
Lib Dem MP Steve Webb made the comment after it emerged over 600,000 social housing tenants across the UK, 100,000 who are in work, will be hit by the new legislation from the beginning of April.
Families or individuals whom the government considers to have too much living space will see a reduction in housing benefit – a cut which is becoming known as the ‘bedroom tax’.
The tax is part of the Westminster Government’s Welfare Reform Bill and will see tenants in the social housing sector lose up to £22 per week from benefits if their home contains an unused bedroom.
The minister was asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme about an example of a divorced father who has a spare bedroom for his visiting children, but will lose out under the new arrangements.
Mr Webb said: “Many of the people we are talking about – over 100,000 – are in work. So they could, for example, work a bit more and simply pay the shortfall.
“We’re talking on average £14 or £15 a week. So three hours at the minimum wage would pay the shortfall then he can keep the spare bedroom and have someone to stay.
“The issue of an extra shift, a bit of overtime, to pay that shortfall, if it really matters to have that spare room – and I entirely understand that it will, for a family in that situation – making up the shortfall through working extra hours will be one of the options. But there may be others.”
Webb said there were nearly a million ‘spare’ bedrooms being paid for by housing benefit and the changes the government was implementing were designed to cut the cost of the housing benefit bill.
“But crucially,” he added, “we’ll be making better use of the vitally important low-rent housing that we have in the country. It’s about fairness.”
Critics have claimed the tax is worse than the old poll tax and that its implementation could see those on low incomes unable to pay their rent.
Labour MP Michael McCann, an aide to shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne, said: “Steve Webb must have missed the last two years where his government drove the British economy into the ground.
“He blithely tells those hit by the bedroom tax to work extra hours but two thirds are disabled and there are still more than five people chasing every job – extra shifts aren’t easy to come by. They are staggeringly out of touch.”
During Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, David Cameron defended the bedroom tax saying it was providing fairness between those who claim housing benefit and live in the private rental sector and those who live in social housing.
“If you are in private housing and do get housing benefit you don’t get money for an extra room,” he said. “So there’s a basic argument of fairness: why should we be doing more for people in social housing on housing benefit than people in private housing on housing benefit?”
The row follows news that a petition has been raised with the Scottish Parliament calling for protection for tenants who may face eviction due to the new Bedroom Tax.
The petition, by Mike Dailly of the Govan Law Centre (GLC) calls on the Scottish Government to take action in order to ensure that people who are unable to pay the new tax are not forced out of their homes.
According to the GLC website:
The Department of Work and Pensions estimate 660,000 claimants will be affected across the UK, and the Chartered Institute of Housing in Scotland suggest as many as 95,000 tenants could be affected in Scotland.
When it comes to Scottish rent arrears eviction actions in sheriff courts, often the success or failure of a tenant in preventing eviction will turn on a few pounds per week, for example the standard payment for arrears direct is £3.55 per week.
Accordingly, the prospect of £12 to £22 per week being deducted from rent payments under the bedroom tax from next April means Scotland’s law centres and advice sector will be unable to defend many eviction cases in practice.
According to the GLC, a minor amendment to section 16 of the Housing (Scotland) Act 2001 (as follows) which would prevent ‘bedroom tax rent arrears’ being used to establish a reason for eviction.