Tag Archives: bedroom tax

Labour Conference: Bedroom Tax and Beyond

My last post was about Conference season, written before Labour’s Conference. During the Conference I was reflecting on what I’d said about Labour in that post. The plan is to split this up into three posts. Otherwise it’s going to be a really long post and might not get posted until Spring Conference. I’m not looking at how Labour can deliver the promises it’s made and I’m going to limit it to some issues which are particularly important to me. I’m asking myself whether or not I can say “thanks Labour. You exceeded my expectations of the ideological position you would take in your policy announcements at Conference”.

A few hours after I saw that Ed Miliband was finally committing to the abolition of the bedroom tax on the Friday before Labour’s Conference started I watched the BBC’s 10 o’clock news and Newsnight and found the post-match analysis. Regardless of Labour’s reasons, the decision to scrap the bedroom tax is the right one but, as far as everything I said about what I want from Labour goes, the reasons matter to me. In fairness, Miliband did say that the bedroom tax is hurting people but the BBC coverage went on to suggest that he’s only making a commitment now because the bedroom tax polls so badly among Labour voters. Well, it’s true that it does and, yes, I think it’s also likely that the increase in overall opposition to the policy (from 51% to 59% since its introduction in April) added to his decision to finally stick his neck out. That and the fact that, if he didn’t, divisions within the party over the issue could’ve come to the fore at the Conference. The BBC also warned that he needs to stop there so Labour doesn’t come to be seen as soft on “welfare”. God forbid that should happen (a few months ago it was Newsnight who revealed the Tory-lite proposal of matching what people get out of social security to the level of their contributions but hey ho).

The bedroom tax was sold by the Government using the politics of resentment: the resentment of people who receive housing benefit and live in social housing by people who are financially better off yet unable to afford a home of equal size, whether to buy or rent. The Government wanted to financially punish people on housing benefit for having the audacity to live in the homes allocated to them by their social landlords. People came to see the underlying unfairness of this. A vocal campaign made that happen. Activists (particularly but not exclusively disabled ones), social landlords and some councils have made the running when it comes to changing public opinion. The result is that the public has been able to see past the figleaf of housing distribution that caused a lot of people to initially support it. More people see it for what it really is now they realise how spare rooms are defined and that there’s nowhere to move people to. They’ve seen it for what it is and they say “that’s wrong”. I don’t believe that the national Labour politicians have done a great deal to achieve that (but give some credit to Labour councillors). Other people made the running to change hearts and minds on the bedroom tax by putting it in the spotlight. In his Conference speech, Liam Byrne acknowledged the contributions that a variety of people make to changing public opinion. Obviously a large section of the public still support the bedroom tax but it’s progress. You might think it doesn’t matter how Labour’s new bedroom tax policy came about if the end result is the same but I’m thinking about whether Labour is proactive or reactive in setting policy.

Pundits on Newsnight went on to say that, while Labour might get away with talking about the bedroom tax, it ought to reaffirm its commitment to benefits uprating, although my understanding of Labour’s current stance on benefits uprating is that it’s warning the issue’s not at the top of its priorities as far as budgeting goes, rather than that the party thinks it’s an inherently fair measure. The BBC coverage does seem to be how it goes. One step forward then rapidly urged to take one sideways, to the right, and then back. The media acts like an over indulgent auntie telling Labour to just give the kiddies what they think they want, even if it’s dolly mixtures for breakfast, without necessarily stopping to ask the kiddies if they’d rather have something more healthy. On Newsnight uprating was called a popular cut. However, when I checked to make sure I hadn’t missed something new on benefits uprating in the Conference, I found a Labour List post saying Labour’s opposition to benefits uprating early this year had public backing. That post also made the same case for open dialogue with the public that I made in my last post. In the end, benefits uprating wasn’t mentioned by Miliband or Byrne at the Conference. I’m left wondering if the reason for that is that Labour’s concerned about being seen as soft on social security or whether it’s actually that the party doesn’t want to remind Labour voters of its wait and see policy. It could even be both, which is what’s irritating about the approach of selling only what people already know they want.

Saturday rolled round and Miliband had replied to the question “when are you bringing back socialism?” with “that’s what we are doing, sir” (which made me laugh because it sounded so like something the Tripe Marketing Board would tweet, but anyway). It made for fantastic headlines. Over the course of the weekend more policies were revealed, followed by Liam Byrne’s Conference speech. Looks good on the surface, doesn’t it? But what struck me was who was saying what and what wasn’t being said at all. Certain issues have been noticeably absent.

What were promised were easy policies. For example, a pledge to terminate Atos’ contract is a no brainer coming from Labour. It’s hardly cause for celebration. It’s another vote winner because, no matter what their views on payment of sickness and disability benefits generally, everyone has seen the stories of cruelty and incompetence related to Atos. Even the Daily Mail has published them, while continuing to push the argument that most recipients of ESA and DLA/PIP are up to no good. An unprecedented level of activism from disabled people has, I believe, put disability rights onto Labour’s agenda at the Conference. Byrne acknowledged the contribution disabled activists have made. I have a huge amount of respect for disability rights activists who haven’t given up in the face of everything from apathy to scorn and have continued to challenge Labour to stand up for disabled people. The steady pressure they’ve brought to bear has driven the unfairness of the bedroom tax and Atos assessments home to the public, despite a climate where disabled people are increasingly demonised as scroungers.

The proposal to introduce a specific offence of disability hate crime is also welcome. It should have been done sooner but it’s telling that it was Liam Byrne who made this announcement*. The creation of a new offence would be an announcement best left to Yvette Cooper, given the two hats she wears as shadow Home Secretary and shadow Equalities Minister. To me, including it in the shadow Work & Pensions Minister’s speech implicitly accepts the Government’s and media’s narrative that all disabled people are on benefits and legitimizes their agenda. It’s like saying it’s ok to have negative attitudes to disabled people, just keep it within the law. If they said that about other minority groups, I expect they’d be pilloried for it.

Byrne’s speech is a bit like one of those what’s missing from this picture puzzles. He says that there must be sickness and disability assessments, with or without Atos. That’s stating the obvious and people can interpret it how they want. It looks to me like the only thing Labour intends to change at the moment is Atos. I’m not holding my breath for a return to old medical assessments. He also says Labour will look at a better approach to the provision of health and social care but doesn’t mention the possibility of reversing the new criteria for disability benefits in the form of PIP. During consultation plenty of responses dealt with the question and in considerable detail. Was Labour listening? The April Labour List post linked to above cites a YouGov poll which found only 11% of people polled backed cuts in DLA so there isn’t public support for cuts per se but I’m not so sure about public opinion on medical criteria for entitlement, which would be telling. The stories of extreme hardship experienced by the most severely disabled and terminally ill people have gotten through but there’s a high level of public suspicion that claims are being fraudulently made. Maybe it’s too much effort to address the negative attitudes to disability benefits being pushed in the media. Maybe Labour just doesn’t believe people who will lose out under the new criteria. I found this footage from March where Milliband took a question from someone who will lose out. I found it a bit disturbing that, even as he was giving reassurances that DLA/PIP and motability would be looked at, he sounded like he didn’t really know much about it. Looking at it now, after the Autumn Conference, it feels like maybe Labour have just shelved the issue for now.

What else is missing from the picture? Byrne said:
“And the cardinal principal is this, full employment first,”
Fair enough. That should be the goal of any government: a job for everyone able to work. At Conference Labour talked about the minimum wage, inflation and even backed a living wage in a limited way but didn’t mention workfare. I get that Labour supports back to work schemes (well, back to work schemes that actually lead to long term employment) but how can Labour claim it stands for a fair day’s pay if it won’t commit to paying minimum wage under workfare? How can Miliband say it’s wrong for everyone’s favourite villains to pay minimum wage but it’s right for others, including large retailers, to pay nothing at all? As far as I’m concerned, silence on workfare is another sign that Miliband is looking for easy wins. There is so much resentment towards unemployed people now that short term slavery has become socially acceptable. He doesn’t have to do away with sanctions or work schemes completely to make a positive change but he’s not making the case for change at all.

As I mentioned above, there was no mention of benefits uprating, despite rhetoric about inflation and despite the fact that many people receiving benefits and tax credits are in work. The fact that Labour wasn’t prepared to go there, even after Byrne said:
“We’ll need a campaign for the living wage because it is wrong that we are spending the nation’s tax credits propping up low pay at firms with rising profits”,
is weak as far as I’m concerned. We get it. You’ve told us that there won’t be limitless cash in 2015. Couldn’t you at least commit to doing what you can?

I’m going to post separately on Ed Miliband’s Conference speech and the overall impact of the Conference on me but it’s fitting to end this post with a quote from his speech:
“We know what we’re going to see from these Tories till the general election: the lowest form of politics, divide and rule. People on benefits against those in work, people inside and outside unions, private sector versus public sector, the north against the south. It’s the lowest form of politics.”
I’m having some trouble seeing how Labour’s policy announcements prove they’re really going to strike out in a new, brave direction though. It seems to me that Labour gave potential voters what it was confident they already want when it comes to social security.

* since writing this I’ve read Yvette Cooper’s speech and gather from that that Byrne was actively involved in forming this policy which is even odder as far as I’m concerned, even if it does explain why he was the one to make the announcement

The Bedroom Tax

I first wrote this in March but Nick Clegg made me so furious when he suggested that the Bedroom Tax is necessary due to long waiting lists that I decided to reblog one of my own posts for the first time. The Tory part of the coalition told us when the Bedroom Tax was introduced that they were doing it to save money. Clegg now claims it will redistribute social housing. Even if the Government’s goals have changed, it won’t redistribute social housing. North Herts made a handy case study to prove the point…

While I’m on the subject, the Director of Aragon Housing in Bedfordshire shared their review of the first 100 days of the Bedroom Tax with me last night. As she put it, they’re just across the border (Incidentally North Herts Homes also owns properties in Bedfordshire). I’m hoping they’re not the only ones and plan do a future blog on it but it’s great they’re collating and sharing this information so I thought I’d pass it on now.

Law Geek's Blog

The bedroom tax. Apart from the financial and social problems it will create, I couldn’t help wondering how it could be expected achieve anything other than making a large number of people poorer. There have been so many personal stories, particularly involving disability but the question I kept coming back to was, what the hell is the point? That’s what sent me looking for more information. The Government’s stated aim is not to reallocate resources more effectively but to cut the cost of housing benefit. The fact that this change is only being put in place for working age people in receipt of housing benefit underlines this point. Retired people who are underoccupying are completely unaffected. A property is underoccupied if there are any bedrooms left over after:-
A. an adult couple sharing one room
B. two mixed sex children under 10 sharing
C. one or two same sex children…

View original post 2,355 more words

Bedroom Tax, Universal Credit and Implications for Housing

My chain of thought on this started with a conversation with a developer back in March about the bedroom tax. When he asked me if I thought it was fair he probably wasn’t expecting a detailed, researched answer setting out statistics, what North Herts Homes has said and the failings in pilots of Universal Credit but that’s what he got.  Thinking about it, the point he added was blatantly obvious and I’m slightly embarrassed I didn’t mention it in my original post. He agreed about the unfairness of what I was describing but added another factor. “We can’t get planning permission for smaller social housing.” This isn’t a “boo hoo poor little developer” point because what he’s talking about is the size of the properties being allocated as social housing on the development.  Whenever a developer wants planning permission, they have to account for the requirement to build social housing, (although the Government’s taken steps to relax this rule which could result in even less social housing being built) and this is what he was talking about. He was basically saying he builds what he’s told to build when it comes to the size of social housing. That said, even if they were given planning permission to build smaller properties, when social housing started being mixed into private estates there were concerns it would suppress the value of the private properties, put private buyers off and therefore reduce the profitability for the developer. I suspect that concern would crop up again for some developers if they were asked to add, for example, one bed flats into a development of three and four bedroom houses.

Our conversation started over the assumption that a social landlord had plenty of cash available. The previous day I’d heard the results of pilots which showed an extraordinary rise in rent arrears in areas where Housing Benefit was being paid directly to the claimant, rather than to the landlord. The Universal Credit pilots involved a very small sample and some people were deliberately kept out of the pilot because it was believed that they wouldn’t be able to handle direct payments. In theory this ensures individual autonomy and, in theory, it’s hard to argue against direct payments without seeming patronising, a supporter of the nanny state. The practical reality is that people struggled. They couldn’t manage their personal finances effectively.

I’d love to be able to say that our education system has successfully prepared everyone for managing their money. I’d love to be able to say that people’s household incomes aren’t stretched painfully thin and they don’t have to make choices like whether to feed the meter today for a less immediate risk of being evicted. The reality, though, is that education does fail many people and that poverty is real. A third of the UK population is unable to add up two three figure numbers (and 20% are functionally illiterate). Household budgeting includes doing precisely that. It is inevitable that people with poor numeracy skills will be among the poorest in our society. It’s inevitable that many will be in receipt of benefits. Housing Benefit is also received by people with better numeracy skills – it’s a broad reaching benefit – but we shouldn’t create a system that is too complex for many recipients to handle.

The statistic on numeracy skills also makes a mockery of the Government’s claims that unemployed people make an active decision to stay out of work to keep benefits after calculating them. In an interview with Sky from his own home on 31 March, Grant Shapps defended benefits changes by saying that people can believe the Government when it says they’re better off in work without having to “study the Job Centre Plus computer for an hour and a half” (if JCP’s online calculator takes that long to use, its developer should be put down). And these pilots didn’t even include people with learning disabilities or mental illness. So, in addition to the tenants who will be unable to top up their rent after their Housing Benefit is cut by the Bedroom Tax, social landlords face further drops in rental income under Universal Credit.

It’s also been correctly pointed out elsewhere that redesignating properties as having less bedrooms will help the tenant who would otherwise be subjected to the bedroom tax but will reduce the amount of rent the social landlord can charge, which will have a knock on effect on cash flow and, in all likelihood I would think, capital spending.

If the outcomes of the Universal Credit pilots are replicated nationally, will we see an increase in private sector arrears and a decrease in the availability of private rentals to Housing Benefit recipients? Where Housing Benefit is highest, it’s down to the demands of private landlords. They set the rents and we don’t have rent control mechanisms in place. They’re entirely in it for the money. Over the past five years, home owners have been helped to keep their homes when they default on their mortgages but I don’t believe for a second that most private landlords will be sympathetic to their tenants if they go into arrears. It’s equally unlikely that the Government will feel that there is any political imperative to protect renters who get in arrears (if anything, I expect the Government to say that the failure to properly budget constitutes incontrovertible proof that people on benefits spend them on useless things like booze, fags and gambling and that the rise in rent arrears proves that benefits should be reduced). In fairness to individual private landlords, if a landlord has a buy to let mortgage on the property, he may well go into arrears himself and risk repossession if he allows his tenant’s arrears to mount up. Owners of investment properties can’t expect to be treated the same way owner-occupiers are if they go into mortgage arrears.

If housing wasn’t already stretched thinly, this might all start bringing rents down a little bit but the rental market is so overheated in areas like here in the South East that it’s entirely plausible that we won’t see a reduction in rents. I suppose one possibility is that we’ll see shifts in market rents for different sizes of properties. People driven out of social housing may look for a smaller property but they’re already occupied by other renters. If demand for larger properties dips, private renters who aren’t on benefits may be able to consider moving to a larger property but wages are suppressed across the board. How many people would be able to afford to do that?

There is a slim chance this could produce a beneficial change for young house buyers. If lenders are unwilling to give buy to let mortgages, owner-occupiers stand a better chance of being able to buy properties which would be attractive to investors. However, the words in my head as I write this are “no DSS”. Whether properties remain in investors’ hands or are bought by owner occupiers, the one thing that seems a near certainty is that less privately owned properties will be available to people on Housing Benefit. These outcomes seem to fit the Government’s ideological desire when it comes to the distribution of housing. They hurt the poorest but possibly put a few more middle income people onto the housing ladder. If you want to be really cynical about it, it also blocks upstart investors who need mortgages so that only cash buyers can confidently buy to let. That would be a satisfactory outcome for wealthy investors the Tories may want to woo in 2015.

Bedroom Tax Update

A follow up to The Bedroom Tax for any North Herts Homes tenants who come across it.

‘Kevin Thompson, chief executive of North Hertfordshire Homes which is the largest registered provider of social housing in Herts, expressed his opposition towards the impending changes.

Mr Thompson said: “It is a pretty insidious tax and it will cause more problems than the government is hoping to solve with this.”

He added: “We are willing to do our best to minimise the impact and maximise the amount of support we can give to people in this position.”’
Herts Advertiser 11 March 2012

UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

In 2009 the UK ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, not just to protect disabled people but to actively promote the rights of disabled people to participate fully in society and to live with dignity. A fundamental aspect of this is the right to independent living. These principles had cross party support, although it was a Labour government which actually ratified the Convention. On 1 March 2012 the Joint Select Committee on Human Rights reported on the implementation of the right to independent living. I’ll come back to the detail of that report another time but for now I want to emphasise what the Convention actually says. The Committee explained that its purpose is to:

“promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.”

The Convention doesn’t just reaffirm the existing human rights of disabled people but:

“sets out the practical action that is required to remove barriers and put in place the support to make the human rights of persons with disabilities an everyday reality.”

Because the emphasis of the Convention goes beyond protection of rights to actively promoting them, it goes further than human rights treaties normally do by requiring States to actively:

“establish a domestic framework to promote and monitor implementation of the Convention including designated leadership within the Government, an independent framework to promote, protect and monitor implementation, and the active involvement of civil society—and disabled people’s organisations in particular—in both implementation and monitoring.”

A quick reminder. Our Government has just published a response to the WOW Petition saying it can’t be expected to conduct a full impact assessment of its social security reforms on disabled people. Michael Meacher MP has also reported that he found it impossible to arrange a meeting between interested parties and Iain Duncan Smith or Mark Hoban.

The Convention includes (Article 3) general principles and governments’ interpretation of the rest of the Convention should have regard to these principles:

– “Respect for the inherent dignity, individual autonomy (including the freedom to make one’s own choices), and independence of persons;
– Non-discrimination;
– Full and effective participation and inclusion in society;
– Respect for difference and acceptance of persons with disabilities as part of human diversity and humanity.”

Next, Article 4 lays out the obligations member States agree to abide by. These general obligations “explicitly recognise that States are under an obligation to take positive actions in order to comply with the Convention” and include obligations:

– “To ensure and promote the full realisation of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all persons with disabilities without discrimination of any kind on the basis of disability;
– To adopt all appropriate legislative, administrative and other measures for the implementation of the rights in the Convention;
– To take all appropriate measures (including legislation) to modify or abolish existing laws, regulations, customs and practices that constitute discrimination against persons with disabilities;
– To take into account the protection and promotion of human rights of persons with disabilities in all policies and programmes;
– To ensure that public authorities and institutions act in conformity with the Convention;
– To take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination on the basis of disability by any person, organisation or private enterprise;
– To take measures to the maximum of its available resources with a view to achieving progressively the full realisation of the economic, social and cultural rights in the Convention;
– To consult closely with and actively involve persons with disabilities, through their representative organisations, in the development and implementation of legislation and policies to implement the Convention, and in other decision-making processes concerning issues relating to persons with disabilities.

Are you finding it hard to believe that not only did the UK sign this Convention but it actively campaigned for its signature by other countries, let alone that it was a cross-party effort?

Article 19 is more specific:
“States Parties to the present Convention recognize the equal right of all persons with disabilities to live in the community, with choices equal to others, and shall take effective and appropriate measures to facilitate full enjoyment by persons with disabilities of this right and their full inclusion and participation in the community, including by ensuring that:
a) Persons with disabilities have the opportunity to choose their place of residence and where and with whom they live on an equal basis with others and are not obliged to live in a particular living arrangement;
b) Persons with disabilities have access to a range of in-home, residential and other community support services, including personal assistance necessary to support living and inclusion in the community, and to prevent isolation or segregation from the community;
c) Community services and facilities for the general population are available on an equal basis to persons with disabilities and are responsive to their needs.”

The Committee says:
“Of particular importance is the elimination of living arrangements that segregate and isolate people with disabilities (e.g. institutionalisation), unless that choice is made by the disabled person. Article 19 thus requires States Parties to ensure that people with disabilities are able to live in the community with accommodation options equal to others, and that these options support the inclusion and participation of people with disabilities in the life of the community. Article 19 requires that States ensure that disabled people have the opportunity to choose with whom they live on an equal basis with others.”
“In order to realise these freedoms, States Parties are obliged to ensure that disabled people have access to a range of support services that they may require in order to live freely in the community, and to avoid isolation and segregation from the community. The Convention also requires that steps are taken to ensure that mainstream community services and facilities must be available to disabled people on an equal basis with others and responsive to their needs.”

The UK Government itself has defined independent living as
“all disabled people having the same choice, control and freedom as any other citizen—at home, at work, and as members of the community. This does not necessarily mean disabled people ‘doing everything for themselves’, but it does mean that any practical assistance people need should be based on their own choices and aspirations”.

The Committee discovered that the Government didn’t understand the legal status of the Convention. I’m going to indulge myself by going into this issue a bit further. The then Disabilities Minister (Maria Miller) said that she thought that the Convention was “soft law” in oral evidence. Her reply to the question “Is it hard law or soft law?” was

“the UN Convention is soft law—if one uses those terms—because it is a Convention that does not have legal standing, but it is very much a Convention which every Department is signed up to […] it does drive at the heart of our approach although technically […] it is a soft law approach.”

That’s absolutely incorrect and the Committee took the step of taking legal advice on the question. It summarised its advice and conclusions following that advice. I won’t quote it because I’m not so self-indulgent as all that. To sum it up:
– The Convention is binding international law—i.e. “hard” law.
– It is an international treaty willingly entered into by State Parties and is subject to the law of treaties and the principle that States enter into international agreements and implement those obligations in good faith.
– Since Parliament ratified the Convention on 8 June 2009, the UK has had “hard” international law obligations under it.
– The European Court of Human Rights has begun to take note of the Convention when it interprets the European Convention on Human Rights.
– The UK Courts are required by the Human Rights Act 1998 to take account of ECtHR case law and the Government is bound by its judgments in cases against the UK.
– The Convention wasn’t just ratified by individual states. The EU ratified it as a separate body and is therefore required to interpret EU law and regulation compatibly with the Convention.

Very much hard law. In a generous move, the Committee suggested that perhaps Maria Miller’s mis-step arose out of her not understanding what the terms “hard law” and “soft law” actually mean. The Committee suggests that her confusion over whether the treaty is “hard law” which must be complied with lies in her department’s failure to grasp that the lack of an individual right to bring a claim under it is an entirely different thing to “soft law”. It’s true that it’s not possible to just sue the Government for non-compliance with the Convention. If you bring another claim (say for judicial review of a particular policy like the Bedroom Tax) the UK Courts are required to have regard to the provisions of the Convention in deciding the claim though. It’s the fact that the Government is required to comply with the Convention that makes it “hard law”. The status of the Convention and the way in which is can be enforced are the same as the status of the European Convention of Human Rights and the method of its enforcement before the introduction of the Human Rights Act 1998. Since the Human Rights Act was introduced, it has been possible for individuals to bring direct claims in the UK Courts for breach of the European Convention of Human Rights but that doesn’t mean the Government wasn’t required to comply with the ECHR before 1998 or that UK Courts didn’t take it into account when deciding cases which rose human rights issues before 1998. My inner lawyer finds it hard to believe a Disabilities Minister could make such an obvious mistake when we have decades of international treaties in the human rights sphere to look back on. In practice though, I’m beyond being surprised by the utter stupidity of statements coming out of Government. Anyway, the bottom line is that the Government does have to comply with the Convention and UK Courts are required to have regard to the Convention in any cases involving human rights which fall within its remit.

The Committee went on to consider the obligations of “progressive realisation and non-retrogression”. These are extremely important issues due to the nature of the “reforms” the Government is making:

“As we pointed out in our recent Report on the Welfare Reform Bill, where international human rights treaties protect social, economic and cultural rights, the State is under a particular type of legal obligation: it must take deliberate, concrete and targeted steps towards the realisation of those rights ‘to the maximum extent of their available resources.'”

So, the UK is required to keep up forward motion and not slip backwards in its treatment of disabled people. In the era of austerity, the issue of available resources is vitally important and the Committee wasn’t about to simply assume that the argument that the UK needs to save money justifies departure from the Convention. I couldn’t put this any better than the Committee so I’m just going to quote the whole explanation:

“the duty of progressive realisation entails a strong presumption against retrogressive measures. In its General Comment on the scope of the UN Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights right to an adequate standard of living and to social security, the ICESCR explained:
‘There is a strong presumption that retrogressive measures taken in relation to the right to social security are prohibited under the Covenant. If any deliberately retrogressive measures are taken, the State party has the burden of proving that they have been introduced after the most careful consideration of all alternatives and that they are duly justified by reference to the totality of the rights provided for in the Covenant, in the context of the full use of the maximum available resources of the State party. The [ICESCR] will look carefully at whether:
(a) there was reasonable justification for the action;
(b) alternatives were comprehensively examined;
(c) there was genuine participation of affected groups in examining the proposed measures and alternatives;
(d) the measures were directly or indirectly discriminatory;
(e) the measures will have a sustained impact on the realization of the right to social security, an unreasonable impact on acquired social security rights or whether an individual or group is deprived of access to the minimum essential level of social security; and
(f) whether there was an independent review of the measures at the national level.’
So, while the principle of progressive realisation within available resources affords States a degree of flexibility in achieving the objectives of the Convention, it does not absolve States of the responsibility to take active steps to protect and fulfil those rights. “Retrogressive” measures, that is, measures which represent a backwards step in terms of the realisation of the rights concerned, require strict justification and even then are not permissible if they are incompatible with the “core obligations”. Although States are free to secure their minimum obligations through a variety of means, those obligations have a “minimum core”, and any failure to meet the minimum standards envisaged will be in violation of the international standards which the United Kingdom has accepted.”

Both the Joint Select Committee and the ICESCR have considered the extent to which social security is an element in achieving the aims of the Convention and the Committee quoted the ICESCR again:
“The right to social security is of central importance in guaranteeing human dignity for all persons when they are faced with circumstances that deprive them of their capacity to fully realise their Covenant rights. To demonstrate compliance with their general and specific obligations, States parties must show that they have taken the necessary steps towards the realisation of the right to social security within their maximum resources, and have guaranteed that the right is enjoyed without discrimination and equally by men and women”.

Violations of this principle would include, for example:
“the adoption of deliberately retrogressive measures incompatible with the core obligations […] the formal repeal or suspension of legislation necessary for the continued enjoyment of the right to social security; […] active denial of the rights of women or particular individuals or groups. Violations through acts of omission can occur when the State party fails to take sufficient and appropriate action to realise the right to social security. In the context of social security, examples of such violations include the failure to take appropriate steps towards the full realisation of everyone’s right to social security; the failure to enforce relevant laws or put into effect policies designed to implement the right to social security […]”

The Committee also noted that the ICESCR had made a statement on the right to housing:
“a general decline in living and housing conditions, directly attributable to policy and legislative decisions by the States parties, and in the absence of accompanying compensatory measures, would be inconsistent with the obligations under the Covenant”.

Finally, the Committee reported that the ICESCR:
“has also emphasised the particular responsibility on states to ensure that the most vulnerable do not bear a disproportionate burden at times of public spending cuts:
‘The [ICESCR] wishes to emphasize, however, that even where the available resources are demonstrably inadequate, the obligation remains for a State party to strive to ensure the widest possible enjoyment of the relevant rights under the prevailing circumstances. Moreover, the obligations to monitor the extent of the realization, or more especially of the non-realization, of economic, social and cultural rights, and to devise strategies and programmes for their promotion, are not in any way eliminated as a result of resource constraints […] Similarly, the [ICESCR] underlines the fact that even in times of severe resources constraints whether caused by a process of adjustment, of economic recession, or by other factors the vulnerable members of society can and indeed must be protected by the adoption of relatively low-cost targeted programmes.'”

I can’t speak for all disabled people (and I’m fortunate not to be affected by the cuts themselves at the moment, although I’m conscious they could form part of my future) but I don’t think we expect fairytale lives. What disabled people are losing now are some of their most basic rights and there is no way it could be said that many disabled people will be able to live independent, fulfilling lives as all of the “reforms” take effect. On 1 March 2012, this was the reported reality for disabled people in the UK:
“The most recent evidence, from the ODI’s Life Opportunities Survey, confirms that… 16% of adults with impairments experienced barriers to education and training, 57% experienced barriers to employment (compared with 26% of those without impairments), 75% experienced barriers to using transport (compared with 60%), 44% of households with at least one person with an impairment experienced barriers to economic life and living standards (compared with 29%) and 82% experienced barriers in leisure, social and cultural activities (compared with 78%).We note the significant disadvantage to disabled people which persists in relation to choice and control and levels of participation in economic and social life and the impact this has on their economic and social well-being, and on what many of our witnesses considered to be their enjoyment of basic human rights. We therefore welcome the Government’s recognition that more progress is required to promote disabled people’s right to independent living.”

Nearly exactly a year later Zoe Williams drew a stark picture of what life is becoming for the most severely disabled people in the UK today. It seems to me that the Government’s continued failure to engage with disability rights activists and even interested mps and to take measures to assess the impact of its reforms on disabled people can’t be justified in the context of the Convention. If you’re wondering why I haven’t said that the reforms themselves breach the Convention, I believe that some or all of them probably do but the proper first step is engagement with disabled people and a full impact assessment to prove it. That’s the bare minimum the Government should be doing right now, today, and it should suspend all further reforms until it has done so. I believe that if the Government took that step, it would have to change course.

The Bedroom Tax

The bedroom tax. Apart from the financial and social problems it will create, I couldn’t help wondering how it could be expected achieve anything other than making a large number of people poorer. There have been so many personal stories, particularly involving disability but the question I kept coming back to was, what the hell is the point? That’s what sent me looking for more information. The Government’s stated aim is not to reallocate resources more effectively but to cut the cost of housing benefit. The fact that this change is only being put in place for working age people in receipt of housing benefit underlines this point. Retired people who are underoccupying are completely unaffected. A property is underoccupied if there are any bedrooms left over after:-
A. an adult couple sharing one room
B. two mixed sex children under 10 sharing
C. one or two same sex children under 21 sharing.
There are rules about the number of nights in a year someone lives in the property so university students living part of the year away from home or an adult child working away (eg. servicemen) wouldn’t be entitled to a room to come home to. For parents with joint residence or overnight contact with their children after a relationship breakdown, the answer is apparently that their children can sleep on a sofa bed. So, the very definition of under occupancy hurts parents of students, servicemen & (largely) fathers who want a relationship with their kids. The Government that talks about fairness in the context of graduates having to move in with their parents wants to penalise those very parents while their children do degrees if those parents happen to be on lower incomes. The Government’s stance is also at odds with its stated belief in the importance of stability and community. Families with boys and girls will, now and then again when their children reach the age of 10, potentially face the disruption of moving to a new school catchment area. The fairness comes shining through…

I took a look at North Herts Homes response to the Consultation on underoccupancy to find out more. North Herts excludes Stevenage and is the very small tip of the iceberg, being a small and relatively well off area. In 2010 approximately 1400 (non-privately owned) households of working age in North Herts were underoccupying. Although this is a fairly small statistical sample, I decided to blog on North Herts because North Herts Homes took its obligations seriously and commissioned a comprehensive report (nb. Pdf) through Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research as a response to the Government’s consultation. I think social landlords are probably right to take reasonable measures to redistribute social housing stock but the bedroom tax will achieve very little in this respect. In its introduction the NHH paper explains:
“from April 2013 social tenants of working age will only be able to claim housing benefit for the size of home they are deemed to need. The majority of social tenants receive housing benefit and many start to under-occupy homes when their children leave home which can be some years before they retire. This means that there will potentially be large numbers of tenants unable to afford their rent unless they can move to smaller homes.It is therefore extremely timely to start to look to improving systems for downsizing now, ahead of the housing benefit cuts.”

That sounds very much like “how are we going to clean up after the Government” to me. NHH say that they don’t consider the real problem with allocation of housing stock to lie in underoccupancy by one bedroom and explain why:
“A household with one more bedroom than they would require to meet this standard is therefore “under-occupying” by one bedroom. However, this situation is extremely common and occurs even among many social tenants who have recently been allocated their property. For instance, many housing associations allocate a three bedroomed property to a household with a boy and a girl even if both are under ten, to avoid later overcrowding when one of them reaches the age of ten. Similarly, a household with two or more children each with their own bedroom are unlikely to regard themselves as under-occupying, regardless of the age or sex of their children. In older age groups too, people often like to have a spare room for visiting relatives. In North Hertfordshire (as is common elsewhere) households downsizing from a four bedroomed property would be allowed a two bedroomed home, though they remain technically under-occupying by one room unless they have children.”
“Extremely common”. NHH holds perfectly reasonable views on allocation and underoccupying, and says other social landlords do as well. Is the Government going to penalise the individuals allocated houses based on the common sense approach of social landlords laid out by NHH in this Report? Well…yes…obviously, if the individuals in question are working age. NHH decided to focus its attention on households underoccupying by two or more bedrooms, because it feels that that’s where the practical unfairness lies, where housing stock could properly be redistributed.

In 2003, NHH bought up the Council’s housing stock so the number of people living in properties owned by social landlords in North Herts has increased quite dramatically since the 2001 census. In 2001, 29% of Council tenants were underoccupying by two or more rooms and 29.4% were underocupying by 1 or more rooms. Meanwhile, 21.5% of NHH tenants were underoccupying by two or more rooms and 33.5% were underoccupying by one or more room. In the East of England the social landlord figures were 14.8% underoccupying by two or more rooms and 26% underoccupying by one or more room. In England as a whole, the figures were 14.6% and 25.7%. In England alone 784,308 people were underoccupying council houses by one or more bedrooms and 318,191 people were underoccupying other social landlord accomodation by one or more bedroom in 2001 (those figures include people aged over 65). 44.9% of all people underoccupying in North Herts in 2001 were over retirement age. None of them are affected by the new bedroom tax because only working age people receive housing benefit. Studies since 2001 (Survey of English Housing (SEH15) and English Housing Survey (2008)) show the figures on underoccupancy as a proportion of all council and social landlord housing are pretty much unchanged between 2001 and 2008. The timing of the census means that NHH had to use information from the 2001 census and then use other more recent but less comprehensive reports to determine the extent of underoccupancy across the country and in NHH.

I also looked at a second social landlord in North Herts, Howard Cottage. Howard Cottage is the UK’s oldest housing association and has 1500 homes. As far as I can see, Howard Cottage haven’t produced a formal, detailed response to the bedroom tax like NHH did but they did put out a newsletter last summer to their tenants, still hoping that the reforms might not be implemented in their entirety, saying:
“I can see why the Government is doing this. But there is still a mismatch between what people need and what’s available in their local area –effectively, they may be very willing to move, but without a property to move into, they are stuck. The National Housing Federation has been campaigning to increase the under-occupancy limit from one to two bedrooms, meaning people could under-occupy by one bedroom and still receive benefit.”
Howard Cottage tenants are my neighbours. I mean that literally. They own properties in my street and the streets either side and several streets beyond that. I’m pretty sure they own the houses that back on to mine. They own homes in the streets that I hobbled along in Windowdressing Politik. Within metres of my home on April 1 people will be making “tough choices”, to borrow a favourite phrase from the Coalition. Although “choice” seems a ridiculous word to use in the circumstances. The Government says people have one but coercion would be more appropriate and make no mistake. They’re not making those “choices” to redistribute housing stock. They’re making them because the Government wants to cut benefits. I believe there is a strong ideological motive too. The Government would apparently like me to say my neighbours don’t deserve what I have. I won’t. They do.

I don’t have empirical evidence for my belief that there is a nasty underlying ideology at play, or at least not the extent of the nastiness but here’s where I’m coming from. My last home was a railway workers cottage built in the 1890s. That road was another mix of private and social landlord housing. In the 1901 census it had nine people living in it. Since then, the second bedroom has been cut in half to make room for the luxury of an indoor bathroom. That left the second bedroom with just enough room for a single bed and a bookcase. The same can be said of many Victorian two-up two-downs. Some built a bathroom onto the kitchen but many cut that second bedroom in half. Bunk beds would be the only answer. (Who pays for the bunk beds if a family with two children moves into a similar property?) My current house was built in the 1920s. A Labour doorstepper told me that in the 1950s this was a slum. The old timers who’ve lived here since then describe rat infestations. One’s earliest memory is rats being burned just after they moved in. I know it might sound like hyperbole but I can’t get the thought out of my mind that the Government doesn’t believe people on Housing Benefit deserve these homes and ultimately doesn’t give a damn if we turn back towards serious levels of overcrowding. They want the private sector to make as much money as possible off people like me and they want people who need the support of Housing Benefit to live in the poorest possible accomodation the Government can get away with. In this respect, I believe they’re worse than Thatcher, even thought her aspirational programme of Council house purchasing is a serious contributing factor to our current lack of suitable council/social landlord accommodation and is a good lesson in how far ahead governments need to plan when setting policy. At least she was offering a carrot with that policy though. With the current Government, it’s all stick. Thatcher wasn’t driving people out of their council houses. I believe the current Government would gladly turn people out of their council and social landlord-owned houses to free them up for the private sector and that its idea of reasonable living standards would be unrecognisable to people like Ebeneezer Howard (who pioneered Letchworth Garden City).

There is also another issue at play here. The fact is that the bedroom tax penalises both unemployed people and low paid workers but the headlines, by focussing entirely on the bedroom tax, have missed the issue of allocation rules to favour employed applicants for housing (Ed Miliband supports this policy too), which would hammer the unemployed and disabled people (who the Government repeatedly claims aren’t being targeted by bedroom tax where they’re unable to work). Once again, we are faced with the concept of the deserving poor. The Government’s Consultation included these two questions:
“12. Does your allocation scheme already provide for some priority to be given to people who are in work, seeking work, or otherwise contributing to the community? If so, how does your scheme provide for this?

13. If not, do you intend to revise your allocation scheme to provide for more priority to be given to people who are in work, seeking work, or otherwise contributing to the community? If so, what changes might you be considering?”

Shelter’s Response to the Government consultations says:
“We are concerned that reasonable preference could be further undermined by the guidance on giving priority to those in low paid employment or employment-related training…or who are deemed to be contributing to the community even where they are not in a reasonable preference category. This creates a further shift towards allocating housing on the basis of whether it is considered deserved rather than needed. There are many reasons that people who fall within the medical or welfare reasonable preference categories will be unable to work, such as serious illness, disability, age-related infirmity or caring for a relative. People may not be undertaking formal voluntary work but may well be contributing to their community in informal ways, such as providing support to neighbours.”

So what will happen next? We don’t have enough houses of the right size to make this work. You already know that. North Herts Homes are clearly trying to find a way to help their tenants and it sounds very much as if they believe they will have to address underoccupancy among pensioners in order to redistribute their housing stock. House swap programmes are all well and good but they won’t help if the houses aren’t the right size. I’ve already seen that one social landlord elsewhere is removing box/cot rooms from its definition of bedrooms to limit the harm done and this is an important measure for houses originally built without indoor plumbing. As for Howard Cottage, many of its houses were deliberately intended to provide a better quality of life than this Government seems to consider fit when they were built. Howard Cottage, the oldest housing association in the UK, was a vital part of what made Letchworth Garden City such an important social experiment but the days of improving quality of life and living standards are apparently over. Moving to private rented accommodation does seem a likely choice for some tenants and (as just about everyone has already said) without rent controls that’s likely to push the cost of Housing Benefit up. And what will social landlords do when people start moving out? We’d end up with vacant homes which could be sold off in the end, although I would imagine social landlords will advertise for people currently in privately rented accomodation to apply for the newly vacant properties. Everyone moving will be very hard pressed to find the money for the move and I hope that NHH and others will be able to find a way to help with this. And what will happen to Council tenants outside of North Herts? I suspect it will depend on which political party controls the Council in question. For my money, I think we’re on the road to a rise in the number of households with three generations under one roof, not least because I saw somewhere they’re moving on to a pensioners with a similar, non-housing benefit version of this policy in the not so distant future.

Finally, speaking of ideology, I’m taking odds on how long it takes the tabloids to claim the bedroom tax will lead to an isolated baby boom…think about it. I’m not joking. I honestly think it’s only a matter of time.