The removal of the government’s so-called spare room subsidy, known as the bedroom tax to its critics, was a prominent topic of discussion during this week’s party conference in Glasgow.
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, lost a key vote after a debate that saw party members lining up to attack the imposition of the bedroom tax and its impact on “vulnerable” people.
The debate came as new figures from the union-funded, anti-cuts campaign group False Economy – compiled from Freedom of Information Act responses from local authorities – show that 50,000 households have fallen behind on their council house rent since the bedroom tax was introduced in April.
Only 116 of 160 councils in England, Scotland and Wales provided figures, so the real number of those affected is certain to be far higher than 50,000, with many of those in arrears now facing eviction.
And a survey of 51 housing associations in England by the National Housing Federation, also published this week, found that half of residents affected by the bedroom tax had been unable to pay their rent between April and June.
But some Liberal Democrat party figures, including Clegg, defended the withdrawal of the spare room subsidy at the conference this week.
Clegg said he had “intervened” to ensure the government “massively increased” the budget for discretionary housing payments (DHPs), which are used to support tenants affected by the policy.
But many party members were not convinced.
Kirsty Lowe, a disabled party member from Paisley and Renfrewshire, who works part-time, told the bedroom tax debate that she had been left “shattered” by the many changes to her income in recent months.
She said she was “not alone” and that two-thirds of the households that would be affected by the bedroom tax would contain a disabled person.
She said: “This is an utterly unfair system, attacking the most vulnerable people in our society.”
The bedroom tax housing regulations came into force on 1 April and financially punish tenants in social housing who are assessed as “under-occupying” their homes.
But Lowe said the regulations take “no account of the real needs of disabled people”, and of the fact that many have adapted homes or need more room for impairment-related reasons, although she accepted that some people had secured exemptions.
She said it was “bad policy, written by people with no understanding of what it is to be disabled, what it is like to have limited income, limited mobility, limited opportunities for work, limited lifestyles”.
Richard Kemp, leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Liverpool city council, said: “This is a reprehensible piece of legislation in implementation, although it is fine in principle… The way to deal with this problem is to build more housing.”
He wrote later in a blog that although the motion, agreed overwhelmingly – he said it appeared to be by about 300 votes to one – was to call for a review, in practice it was now party policy to demand that the bedroom tax be scrapped.
David Buxton, the first Deaf BSL-user to be elected as a local councillor, and now the prospective parliamentary candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn in north London, told Disability News Service (DNS): “I think the grassroots members were not happy when the coalition policy came out.
“A lot of people were taken off-guard, didn’t realise that disabled people having two- or three-bedroom flats specifically designed [for them] becomes [a tax] that they have to pay.
“Within the party we recognise that the money was found to try to offset that damage, but that means the concept wasn’t right.”
He said he had heard of a Deaf woman with additional impairments, from north London, who wants to move to a smaller home but relies on local support networks.
The only way she can avoid paying the bedroom tax is by moving out of the area and away from those support networks.
Buxton said: “The council are just saying, ‘You have to pay the tax if you want to stay.’
“She would be happy to move locally to a smaller place but they can’t find accommodation, and yet they punish her. Grassroots members are concerned about those kinds of issues.”
The disabled Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Lloyd told DNS he was “reasonably comfortable” with the bedroom tax, as long as there continue to be appropriate “caveats”.
He was one of several party members who suggested that some Labour councils could be holding back DHPs to those in need of support, in order to make political capital from the policy’s unpopularity.
He said: “I believe some Labour councils are deliberately not spending all their DHP allocation.”
He pointed to government figures which he said showed that many Labour councils handed back thousands of pounds in unspent DHPs to DWP last year, before the bedroom tax came into force, and he said his “hunch” was that this would happen this year.
Other party members also raised this possibility during the bedroom tax debate.
Julie Porksen, from Northumbria, said it was “shocking” that some Labour councils were not using the DHPs they had been given, for “political gains”, while Prue Bray, from Berkshire, said that some councils had “not been generous in their awarding of DHPs and some for the most cynical of reasons”.
A party spokeswoman told DNS: “Obviously we want [councils] to make use of their discretionary funds and we would condemn acting politically over their allocation. We have not seen any figures [but] if people are saying it is happening then it probably is.”
Lloyd said he believed the imposition of the bedroom tax could be releasing extra space for families in need. “I am hearing that in some authorities, as a consequence of moving to flats as opposed to three-bedroom houses, people are freeing up that property.
“I am hearing that… that is giving more space for families for the first time in years. I need to see how true that is.”
Lord German, the party’s spokesman in the Lords, told DNS that he accepted that there were “transitional problems” with what he called “the subsidy claw-back”.
He said later at a fringe meeting: “It always struck me as very strange that we could exempt families with a disabled child, but not a disabled adult. It does seem to me we could have exempted that group.”
But he said the government had found an extra £150 million on top of the annual £68 million budget for DHPs.
He added: “Of course it is not going to be absolutely all of the money that was taken out of the system. You cannot escape the fact that we need to reduce the budget and reduce it quite dramatically.”
18 September 2013