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The Welsh Assembly has called for the abolition of the controversial ‘bedroom tax’, just one year after the “perverse” housing policy was first introduced.

Members voted 32-16 in favour of a Plaid Cymru motion, backed by Labour, calling on the UK government to scrap the so-called ‘bedroom tax’, despite opposition from both Conservative and Liberal Democrat members of the Welsh Assembly.

Welfare reforms introduced by the coalition government in April 2013 mean that social housing tenants in receipt of Housing Benefit, and who are deemed to be under-occupying their home, must contribute toward their rent through a deduction in the amount of Housing Benefit they are entitled to or move to a smaller property. Those affected by the policy lose 14% of their Housing Benefit entitlement on average, but some could lose as much as 25%.

Plaid Cymru say figures show that the ‘bedroom tax’, or under-occupation penalty, has led to an increase in the number of households in Wales experiencing financial difficulties and problems in keeping up with their rent payments.

Plaid also say that there has been a noticeable rise in evictions and repossessions since the ‘bedroom tax’ was introduced in Wales “with more and more people being forced into homelessness” and an “increase in empty social homes”.

Opening the debate in the Welsh Assembly yesterday (7 May 2014), Housing Spokesperson Jocelyn Davies said:

“It has been just over a year since the introduction of the bedroom tax, or the removal of the spare room subsidy if you are a sensitive soul, a year during which we have witnessed the senseless suffering of some of the most vulnerable people in our society, thanks to a policy that seems to take an almost perverse delight in causing distress, upset and hardship. It is a year that has unambiguously demonstrated that the bedroom tax is failing to achieve its stated aims, and that its aims were misguided and poorly judged to begin with.

“I have spoken in this Chamber many times about the bedroom tax, and I should not think that there is any doubt here about my views. However, I will keep speaking out until we have done all that we can to help those who have been affected, and I will keep speaking out until the bedroom tax has been abolished for good.

“I will be generous. While watching the UK Government implementing this policy, it is tempting to think that it is displaying astonishing cruelty. Instead, I will give it the benefit of the doubt and assume that it has demonstrated a fundamental lack of understanding of housing in this country, and a failure to think through the consequences of its policy.

“The bedroom tax was initially brought in to cut the housing benefit bill. The UK Government estimated that it would save £500 million a year. Evidence now suggests that its estimates were wildly over-optimistic. Researchers at the University of York have said that the Government overestimated the savings by at least 40%.

“Any savings have almost been entirely negated by the costs that are transferred on to local authorities, housing associations, the health service and other public services. In Wales, the estimated saving to the Treasury from imposing the bedroom tax was £22.4 million, but I estimate that the Treasury could lose between £400,000 and £500,000 from the extra housing benefit caused if people affected by the bedroom tax moved into the private rented sector. Local authorities and housing associations will also spend many millions on evicting, re-housing, and re-adapting properties to meet the needs of disabled people. The only way that there are savings is if tenants stay put and cough up themselves.

“This is, of course, without taking into account other costs—the costs of the stress on the families suddenly finding themselves unable to pay their rent, the stress of receiving threats of eviction through the post, the stress of being asked to move from a family home to somewhere new, and the stress of leaving behind community, family and friends. It is hard to quantify these costs, but we must take them into account. Also, where is the human dignity in proving that you are one of the deserving poor?

“There has been a huge rise in demand for the discretionary housing payments to help families facing eviction and homelessness as a result of the bedroom tax. Local councils in Wales have experienced an unprecedented 250% rise in applications. This is entirely unsustainable. Discretionary housing payments were never intended to offer long-term support for those who are unable to pay their rent, and the funds available are a limited resource. To use the simile that has been used by many others, it is like a plaster to treat a gunshot wound. I am pleased that the Lib Dem side of the Government has been able to insist on increased discretionary housing payments, but let us not forget that was funded by increasing the bedroom tax overall for the tenants who have to pay it. It is not new money.

“Almost two thirds of homes affected by the bedroom tax include someone with a disability. In many cases, those extra bedrooms, which the UK Government seems to view as an unacceptable luxury, are used to store medical equipment, to accommodate carers, or are too small for bedroom use in any case. Ten per cent of homes have been adapted to suit the needs of those living in them, at great expense. I know that Lindsay Whittle will be setting out that in greater depth later.

“Of course, the Government’s position is that those who find themselves unable to pay their rent should move and downsize to accommodation of an appropriate size. This demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of the current social housing stock. There simply are not the smaller houses available for people to move into, and in many places the waiting list for one and two-bedroomed homes is impossibly long, as demand soars.

“So, there is nowhere to go. Families are forced to accept the bedroom tax, finding themselves struggling to make ends meet on their already meagre budgets, which are being chipped away. People are going without what we would consider to be essentials, and are selling their possessions just to get by. It is no wonder that 78% of landlords have seen an increase in rent arrears fuelled by the bedroom tax. By October last year, 15% of households hit by the bedroom tax had received an eviction risk letter and were in danger of losing their homes. Possession claims in the last two quarters of last year were around 28% higher than in the previous year.

“Community Housing Cymru has reported a surge in empty homes, as housing associations struggle to let the larger homes. To solve the problem of under-occupancy we now have houses sitting empty. After six months, there were around 727 extra void properties in Wales. That figure clearly shows the utter failure to think through the consequences. So, we have a crisis in this country. We live in a wealthy, modern country, yet a rising number of people are having to use food banks to avoid starvation. There has been a tenfold increase in food bank use since 2010. Now, the bedroom tax treats those that are the most vulnerable with, I think, contempt. It is a failed policy.

“The obvious response, of course, is, ‘It’s not our problem; it’s out of our hands and beyond our control’, but while people in Wales are suffering under this policy, it is our problem. While the costs of dealing with the consequences of the tax are passed on to local authorities, housing associations and the health service, it is our problem. So, today, I call on the Welsh Government to do what it can to mitigate the effects of the bedroom tax. I think that the Welsh Government could, particularly, be prepared to help disabled people and their families—the financial benefits there are obvious, as it would save money that would otherwise have to be spent re-adapting homes to make them suitable if people are forced to move. The Government also needs to ensure that people have access to the best independent advice services to help them to navigate the complex benefits system. As benefits come into effect, it is more important than ever that everyone is able to access the support they are entitled to, ensuring that the ‘Your Benefits are Changing’ campaign reaches all affected tenants.

“The Government should put together the financial case for abolition based on the Welsh experience. It should put together a strategy to assist tenants through to successful appeals in order to get the entire housing sector supporting those efforts. It should also present the moral argument against this policy, which now seems to be a badge of honour for specific Ministers. The Government here should be leading our housing sector in coping with the bedroom tax.

“These days, it is getting harder than ever to find anyone willing to speak out in favour of the bedroom tax, but we might hear one or two this afternoon. Any initial support for reducing the housing benefit bill has melted away in the face of widespread evidence that this tax is not only causing harm, but also failing to save money. Opposition to the bedroom tax is widespread, and is not limited to political radicals: Church of England bishops and Conservative councillors have added their voices to those of many campaigners up and down the country fighting for the abolition of this policy. We must add our voices to the mix and make a stand for the abolition of the bedroom tax.”

Tory Shadow Housing minister, Mark Isherwood, criticised the Labour Party for their “scandulous” inability to build enough social homes:

“The removal of the spare room subsidy is a response to the scandalously small number of social homes built by Labour and the consequent increases in waiting lists, overcrowding and hidden homelessness. Under the last UK Labour Government, local authority waiting lists in England nearly doubled as the number of social homes for rent was cut by 421,000. In Wales, the number of social homes for rent at devolved level was cut by 29,000 during the first three terms of Labour-led Welsh Government as the supply of new social homes was slashed by 71%. When the Labour UK Government introduced what it now calls the bedroom tax in April 2008 for housing benefit recipients in the private rented sector, it said that the ‘new system comprises a flat-rate benefit according to household size and location’.

“Labour’s local housing allowance rules imposed a size criterion restricting claimants to one bedroom per specified occupier, and the DWP specifies now that the criteria introduced for housing benefit in the social rented sector are measured against the same size criteria already used in local housing allowance.”

Housing Minister Carl Sargeant said:

“I believe that it’s only a matter time before the whole policy comes crashing down round the UK Government’s feet”.

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