March 31, 2013 by Nash Riggins
In March 2012, Work & Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith championed a welfare reform bill that sought to implement the most ambitious overhaul of the UK’s welfare system in 60 years. Smith’s proposal, which later received the government’s royal seal of approval, was signed into law as Westminster’s Welfare Reform Act 2012. It was billed as a restoration of the UK’s welfare system to “one that is fair for society”, and promised to lift 900,000 adults and children out of poverty – whilst improving the lives of 2.8 million low income households.
One year on, the Welfare Reform Act is finally set to be implemented in full – and one aspect in particular is threatening to drastically expose an ever-widening gap in the UK’s poverty divide: the government’s ‘bedroom tax’.
Under the scheme, families who live in social housing units that have one spare bedroom will be penalised for ‘under-occupying’ their government-allocated property. This will materialise in the form of an overall cut in their housing benefits by 14% – while families who live in properties with two or more unoccupied rooms will see their benefits slashed by up to 25%.
The tax – which is being diplomatically referred to by MPs as the ‘spare room subsidy’ – is apparently set to save the UK government at least £480m per year on its welfare bill. Yet on the eve of its implementation, many critics are calling into question whether this savings is worth the societal ramifications.
Iain Duncan Smith proclaimed that his Welfare Reform Act would lift as many as 900,000 people out of poverty – yet as his government’s bedroom tax prepares to slash the benefits of an estimated 660,000 households, one can’t help but wonder exactly who Westminster was planning on helping by implementing money-saving measures such as their ‘spare room subsidy’. According to some 3,000 Scots, the answer is quite straightforward.
On Saturday morning, the drums of war pounded throughout Glasgow’s city centre, as thousands poured into George Square in order to express their disdain for this heavily contested aspect of Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms. Some bore banners calling for Scots to wage war against Westminster – whilst more still cited the government’s greed and lack of compassion for its people as the underlying rationale behind the bedroom tax. Dozens of single interest groups were represented, ranging from anti-nuclear activists to human rights groups – never mind a healthy dash of seasoned conspiracy theorists. Yet these starkly diverse groups made their common cause clear as voices of thousands broke into song: “Tory scum, off our backs / axe, axe the bedroom tax!’
The display was only one of an estimated 56 similar demonstrations throughout the UK; however, Saturday’s protest in Glasgow was undeniably the nation’s largest. It drew throngs of Glaswegians from all walks of life – some of which will be more affected by Monday’s tax than others.
“This tax doesn’t directly affect me, but I’m absolutely disgusted with what the government is doing to the people of Scotland,” said Jane Silver, a primary teacher based in Royston. “I teach in a very socially deprived area of Glasgow, and this tax will have a detrimental effect on the families of many of my pupils – that’s why I’m protesting against it.”
According to Peter O’Neill, a Welfare Resource Officer for Western Barton Council, the tax is simply the last straw in a long line of completely avoidable welfare cuts.
“This tax is a step too far. I mean, we’ve already had 20% cuts in welfare thus far, but this bedroom tax is really going to hit people hard,” O’Neill said, hardly audible over the crowd’s chants. “And what really irks me is how the press have really hidden it – you get the wee anecdotal stories here and there about how the UK’s welfare bill is completely out of control, and so the majority of people, especially middle class people, don’t seem to realise the dire positions that people are really in.”
Dire positions, indeed. Just three feet away, a father of two – who was quite clearly already down on his luck – expressed exactly what Monday’s tax would mean for him.
“Thanks to this tax, I can’t afford to live in a council house anymore, because the housing benefits I’d receive are actually lower than the taxes I’d receive,” he said. “I’m sick and tired of being messed about. English welfare reforms have left me homeless twice, and are sticking me in a position where I’ve had to starve in order to feed my kids. Now this bedroom tax is keeping us from getting a roof over our heads. Where are all the people like me supposed to go?”
Standing next to the man were the Shepherds – a couple who was informed last month that they would now be charged £49 per month for their two bedroom flat, because government policy apparently now dictates that a ‘couple’ has use of only one bedroom in their home.
“We need that room,” they said. “But because we’re married, we’re not allowed to have two bedrooms in our house now. They may as well make us pay for using our kitchen, too!”
Father Charlie Struthers voiced his concern that the tax was set to unfairly discriminate against single and separated parents.
“I’ve got a daughter, and she lives with me more than she does her mother,” Struthers said. “But her mother claims all of the child benefits, and my daughter doesn’t even get to claim her ESA. Her mother gets £10 per week for putting a roof over my daughter’s head, and now the government is charging me £8 per week in tax because apparently I ‘don’t need’ a bedroom that my daughter sleeps in almost every night. It’s absolutely disgraceful, and it’s just another chance to squeeze money from the nation’s plebs.”
Separated family units aren’t the only ones who have cried discrimination. As Saturday’s protest turned into a full-fledged march through some of Glasgow’s busiest city streets, a procession of dozens of wheelchairs effectively took centre-stage.
In fact, the bedroom tax’s effect on disabled individuals has been a cause for great distress in many UK households. Critics have said that disabled citizens – including people who are living in adapted or specially designed properties – will be amongst the hardest hit, with an estimated 420,000 facing substantial weekly cuts. Many of these individuals cannot use ‘extra’ bedrooms in their allocated properties because they physically can’t reach the unused rooms. Apparently that isn’t enough to exempt them from being penalised for the room’s existence.
That being said, representatives from Scotland’s Socialist Party were keen to point out that Westminster had already made several concessions on who could be exempt from the bedroom tax – and it was the glimmer of these minor U-turns that drove Saturday’s protest.
“Iain Duncan Smith has been forced to make two embarrassing concessions,” one party spokesperson said. “Some foster carers will be exempted, along with some of those serving in armed forces – if they meet strict conditions. It shows we can force them back.”
Yet with a seemingly united presence of support from the country’s government officials, it’s hard to say just exactly who needs to be ‘forced back’.
Indeed, Socialist politician Tommy Sheridan turned out support the protest, while Labour MP Pamela Nash also joined protesters as their march came to an end in George Square.
“This is a disgraceful, badly thought-out policy and the Tory-led Government should do the right thing, admit that they got it completely wrong and abandon it immediately,” she said. “The Government wants people to give up their ‘spare’ rooms, but they have nowhere else to go.”
Ms Nash isn’t the only one who doubts the validity of Westminster’s Welfare Reform Act. Whilst the demonstration in Glasgow was in full heat, David Orr – the Chief Executive of the independent National Housing Federation – released a statement suggesting that not only would the bedroom tax push low-income families into homelessness, but would actually risk increasing the UK’s annual housing benefit bill by an alarming £23bn.
“The bedroom tax is one of these once-in-a-generation decisions that is wrong in every respect,” he said. “It’s bad policy, it’s bad economics, it’s bad for hundreds of thousands of ordinary people whose lives will be made difficult for no benefit – and I think it’s about to become profoundly bad politics.”
According to Mr Orr’s research, there are currently 180,000 families that are ‘under-occupying’ two bedroom homes – as there is a disproportionate number of smaller properties presently available in the social housing sector. In fact, last year only 85,000 one bedroom homes were made available for rent. According to the NHF, if all of these homes became occupied following the mass-exodus of people who will inevitably move to avoid the bedroom tax, the remaining 95,000 households will be faced with the choice of remaining where they are and facing massive cuts, or leaving to rent a home in the private sector. Assuming that a majority of said households choose the latter, the cost of housing benefit would then rise by around £143m per year.
Yet many protesters in Glasgow maintain that it is this very prospect of chasing tenants away from homes that has driven the government’s economic policy. Glasgow-local John McCaulley believes that these presumed mass-evictions are aimed at providing rich landowners with a series of lucrative development opportunities.
“Forget about myself, but we all know that a number of people are going to get evicted because of this tax,” McCaulley said Saturday. “In fact, the idea is to empty houses in order to sell them off. Overnight, these social housing projects are going to change hands and extort people. This is the real reason that the government has implemented this tax.”
Unsurprisingly, the Department for Work and Pensions has dismissed these claims, and released a statement Saturday once more defending Monday’s implementation of the tax.
“It’s only right that we bring fairness back to the system, when in Scotland alone there are 188,000 households on waiting lists and 60,000 living in overcrowded homes,” a spokesperson said. “We are giving councils £150m this year so that they can help their vulnerable tenants.”
Short, sweet and rather dismissive – given that over 56 cities across Britain have expressed their complete disgust about a government policy that not only risks displacing hundreds of thousands of low-income families, but might even lose the government money in the process.
Make no mistake, Monday’s bedroom tax will go ahead as planned; however, any government that’s willing to reject the will of such a large proportion of its people treads in dangerous waters indeed. As Scotland continues to drag on its seemingly never-ending debate over independence, this unjust tax is exactly the sort of ammunition that Scottish Nationalists so-crave. After all, it takes an extraordinarily controversial policy in order to unite Glasgow’s culturally eclectic population; however, it’s hard to recall any single issue in recent memory that’s rendered such an open display of unified rage amongst Glaswegians as that which was expressed over the weekend. With any luck, Westminster won’t make the mistake of taking that lightly.