Disabled people across the country are facing a “serious and real risk” of eviction because of the government’s “bedroom tax”, according to lawyers representing 10 disabled people and their families in a key court case.
The warning came as the high court began a three-day hearing into the 10 claims brought against the housing benefit regulations that came into force on 1 April.
The claimants are all arguing that the regulations discriminate against people who need larger accommodation because of their impairment.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission has “intervened” in the case, to argue that the new regulations could breach the Human Rights Act, the UK government’s duties under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the Equality Act’s public sector equality duty.
Government figures suggest that more than 400,000 disabled people will be hit by the introduction of the bedroom tax, which will see tenants in social housing punished financially if they are assessed as “under-occupying” their homes.
But campaigners believe the true numbers will be even higher, as the government figures only relate to disabled people who claim disability benefits.
Several of the families taking cases have fled serious domestic violence, one couple have been told their son will need to go into residential care if they are forced into smaller accommodation, one husband has to sleep in a separate bedroom from his disabled wife for health reasons, while another uses a tiny “spare” bedroom to store his hoist, powerchair and shower seat.
Another claimant, Mervyn Drage, lives in a three-bedroom flat in a high-rise tower block, and has lived there for 19 years.
His mental health problems are exacerbated by stress, anxiety and changes to routine, and he feels safe and settled in the flat and is “very anxious” about the prospect of being forced to move.
Ellen Clifford, a member of the steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), warned that there were many cases like that of Stephanie Bottrill – a disabled woman who died after leaving a suicide note blaming the extra £20 a week she was told to pay through the bedroom tax – of disabled people who were not receiving disability benefits.
Clifford said: “These disabled people are often isolated. They don’t have support networks and they are not going to be in touch with people to help them to see this is unfair and that they do not need to worry.”
Clifford spoke on Monday (13 May) at a meeting organised by the national Benefit Justice Campaign in south London, and told campaigners of the need to put pressure on local authorities to make commitments not to carry out any bedroom tax-related evictions, and to “redesignate” spare bedrooms.
She said: “The first stage is to try to put pressure on councils to commit to no evictions.
“Some councils have committed to redesignated bedrooms and some housing associations have.
“There are stages before we get to protecting people from eviction. There is stuff that can be done.”
She said later: “With the bedroom tax our message is that we can beat it. It is not workable and we must put pressure on councils and housing associations not to implement it.
“The most important thing for me about the Benefit Justice Campaign is to mobilise communities to get in touch with people. People who are alone are very scared and frightened.”
She said councils were themselves “in crisis” and the funding the government has provided for discretionary housing payments to help some people affected by the bedroom tax “is not going to last”.
DPAC believes the bedroom tax needs to be scrapped and that “concerted campaigning” – similar to the widespread and successful resistance to the poll tax in the 1980s – was needed “to force a u-turn”.
But she said: “The message for disabled people from DPAC is not to despair if they cannot pay and cannot move and start to get into arrears. This rotten policy is unworkable. People who are worried or frightened need to seek support but not panic.”
Anne McMurdie, from Public Law Solicitors, who are representing three of the claimants, said the case was “extraordinarily significant”, and was also about the cumulative impact of government cuts to disabled people’s benefits and services.
Speaking before the case began, she said: “It is significant because this really is about the extent to which it is lawful for this kind of weight of cuts to fall on disabled people.”
She said the imposition of the bedroom tax was clearly discriminatory because if disabled people need extra bedrooms for impairment-related reasons, the council would not pay for them.
“Why should disabled people have to make up the shortfall which arises, solely as a result of their disability?
“We have a situation where people are going to have rent arrears, they are on benefits, they are not going to make up the difference.”
She said that councils and social housing bodies had policies that eventually lead to evictions once tenants are in arrears.
She added: “They will then have to be rehoused and will probably have to go back into the same size accommodation. The cost to the public purse is extraordinary. Local authorities are already under pressure.
“There is a serious and real risk of disabled people being evicted. It is absolutely what is going to happen.”
16 May 2013