What was most shocking about David Cameron’s defence of the “bedroom tax” and its impact on disabled people – at prime minister’s question’s this week – was that he seemed to believe what he was saying.
It was deeply unnerving to watch our prime minister defend the indefensible, and to do it with the conviction of a student in a school debating society balloon debate arguing to keep Gandhi in the basket.
Cameron told MPs that people with “severely disabled children” and those who need round-the-clock care would all be “exempt” from changes to what he likes to call the “spare room subsidy”, when it comes into effect next month.
The changes will see housing benefit for those in social housing cut by 14 per cent if a household is found to have an unoccupied bedroom, and by 25 per cent if they have two or more unoccupied bedrooms. Children under 16 of the same gender – and all children under 10 – will be expected to share a bedroom.
Cameron tried evasion, he tried bluster, he even flirted with some facts, but he didn’t tell MPs the whole story about the changes, as a Department for Work and Pensions spokeswoman confirmed to me later.
Although some families with children with high support needs will be exempt from the new regulation – if their council decides it would be unreasonable for a child to share a bedroom with a sibling for impairment-related reasons – this exemption is only at the discretion of the local authority, the DWP spokeswoman confirmed.
But what really made the prime minister’s defence so misleading was that this exemption for “severely disabled children” was the result of a court victory last year by disabled people and their families over the Department for Work and Pensions, a success the DWP will try to persuade the Supreme Court to overturn later this year.
Cameron’s round-the-clock care defence was just as full of holes. Only disabled people who need a spare room for an overnight paid care worker will be exempt from the bedroom tax, while those who rely on partners or other family carers for their support will still lose out.
The prime minister had to defend his government’s position because he and his fellow ministers have repeatedly pledged that, despite the brutality of their cuts, they will protect “the vulnerable”.
But whatever the impact of the abolition of Cameron’s “spare room subsidy”, “the vulnerable” will certainly not be protected. Instead, this latest cut will hit disabled people, and it will hit them hard.
The National Housing Federation says 230,000 disability living allowance claimants will lose an average of £728 per year in housing benefit (a total of about £167 million).
The government has offered just £30 million extra (to share with foster carers) to help disabled people in adapted properties hit by the bedroom tax.
One of the lawyers seeking a judicial review of the bedroom tax – on behalf of 10 individuals and families – says it will have a “catastrophic impact” on thousands of disabled children and adults.
The cuts, according to that solicitor, and – let’s be honest – almost everyone in the country who is not accepting a coalition paycheck, directly discriminate against disabled people.
Inclusion London, in its submission to the consultation on the future of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s disability committee, warns that the under-occupation penalty (the bedroom tax) will have serious, lasting effects.
It will force disabled people who cannot afford the increase in the rent they will have to pay to move to less expensive areas, and potentially lose their jobs, their local support networks, their care packages, and contact with family and friends.
Tens of thousands of disabled people could fall further into debt.
Anne McMurdie, from Public Law Solicitors, another of the lawyers representing disabled claimants seeking a judicial review of the bedroom tax, says the long-term impact is likely to include the costs of rehousing, extra respite care, people being forced to move into residential accommodation, and expensive adaptations to people’s new homes.
And let’s not forget that these are disabled people who may soon be losing some or all of the support they currently rely on to meet some of their impairment-related costs, because of the cuts and reforms to disability living allowance.
Cameron’s creative use of what we journalists like to call “facts” didn’t end with housing benefit. He went further. He even tried to argue that the government was not cutting spending on disabled people’s benefits.
“There is no cut in the money going to the disabled,” he said.
That must be news to George Osborne, who has yet to come across a disability benefit that doesn’t make him want to run to his cellar and oil his axe.
Bizarrely, Tory chairman Grant Shapps – interviewed for an excellent You and Yours piece on the bedroom tax – appeared to have forgotten all about last year’s housing benefit court victory over the government, even though he was housing minister at the time.
Shapps, a close ally of Cameron, told the BBC’s Peter White that there were discretionary payments available for councils to give families with disabled children.
But he didn’t mention the court case, perhaps because if he had done so, it might have drawn attention to the fact that the government is trying to overturn the protection that court victory is now providing many families with disabled children.
The same disabled children David Cameron professes to be protecting from the cuts.
My dictionary defines a lie as “an untrue or deceptive statement deliberately used to mislead”.
I’ll leave it to others to decide whether David Cameron’s defence of the bedroom tax on Wednesday falls into that category.
John Pring, editor, Disability News Service