Labour chose the bedroom tax as the subject of its latest opposition day debate, and many MPs used the cases of disabled constituents to illustrate why it should be scrapped.
From 1 April this year, tenants in social housing have been punished financially through the bedroom tax if they are assessed as “under-occupying” their homes.
But many Conservative MPs defended the policy by claiming that the government was trying to ease overcrowding and cut the housing waiting-list.
Others argued that those in need could ask for discretionary housing payments (DHPs) from their local council, as the government had trebled the DHP budget this year to £180 million.
The disabled Labour MP Dame Anne Begg, who chairs the Commons work and pensions select committee, described the bedroom tax as “a pernicious and vindictive measure that blames people and is causing a huge amount of distress”.
She described the case of a 37-year-old merchant seaman who was allocated a two-bedroom ground-floor flat after becoming disabled in a car accident, but who had since been hit by the bedroom tax.
Dame Anne suggested that the government should at least extend exemptions to homes adapted for disabled families, and to cases where it was unreasonable for a couple to share a bed or bedroom because one or both had an impairment.
She said: “No matter how much money is made available, it is wrong that they must apply for a discretionary payment, and the word ‘discretionary’ is the key, because it means that they will not necessarily get the money.”
The Green MP Caroline Lucas said there were 300 council tenants in arrears in her Brighton and Hove constituency who had not been in arrears before the bedroom tax was introduced, and 205 of them were disabled people.
Kate Green, the new shadow minister for disabled people, said that although disabled children with medium and high-level care needs were now protected from the bedroom tax – after the government was forced into action by the loss of a high-profile court case – those with mobility needs and lower care needs were not.
And she said that it was a “disgrace” that many local authorities were treating disability living allowance as income when calculating entitlement to DHPs.
She added: “There is no protection if someone needs extra space for equipment or because they have had their home adapted, as was the case for the Rutherford family who were required to install a hoist, wider doors and a wet room for their 13-year-old son, Warren, yet are not protected from the bedroom tax.
“Mr Randall from Basildon has been told by his council that it will not move him to a smaller property as it has not been and cannot be adapted, yet he is being hit by the bedroom tax in his current property on which adaptations have been made.”
But Steve Webb, the Liberal Democrat pensions minister, standing in for Conservative work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, said: “The Labour party’s position is incoherent. It states that social tenants should not have to pay towards an extra bedroom, but that private tenants should.
“We have heard cases of people who need extra bedrooms, for example for dialysis machines. Social tenants need an extra room for that machine, but private tenants should have to pay for it. Surely some mistake.”
He said that MPs who bring up individual cases “should be holding their local authorities to account”, as the government had “given local authorities the money to help people in need”.
“If they have exhausted, or if they anticipate exhausting, their discretionary housing payments budgets, they can come to the government for a top-up. So far, barely a dozen local authorities have asked for additional funding.”
Meanwhile, Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) said that two-thirds of those asking for advice about the bedroom tax so far have been disabled people, and another 10 per cent have been caring for a disabled person.
In the first six months after the measure was introduced in April, 1,600 Scots sought advice on the issue from their local Citizens Advice Bureau.
Margaret Lynch, chief executive of CAS, said: “Most of the people we have seen are unable to work for health reasons, so were already living in poverty even before this measure came in.
“Many had already seen their income shrink over the last few years because of the harsh changes to disability benefits.
“With the bedroom tax, they are now experiencing a further cut of around £11 a week on average.”
She said the bedroom tax was having “just the impact that many feared it would. It is causing huge distress and pain – principally with people who were already suffering severe hardship”.
14 November 2013