For my part, I wanted to know if UC is going to enable Housing Benefit claimants affected by Underoccupancy rules to earn their way out of hardship caused by having a spare room. If it doesn’t, or if UC fails altogether, the Bedroom Tax will remain a symbol of social injustice running like a theme through all welfare reform. If people cannot work their way out of increased hardship, or kowtow to new rules, people of all political persuasions should oppose a regime that says the weakest in our society is damned if it does (have a spare room) and damned if it doesn’t (or cannot) do anything about it.
Earn Your Way Around Bedroom Tax?
Clean Slate is the social enterprise I run to create and support paid work for long-term jobless people. I’ve been speaking to social landlords about ways to help people affected by the various benefit caps. Could we offer half a day’s paid work each week to cover tenants' shortfall in rent?
Apparently, not. Offsetting the new Housing Benefit cap is not currently an option because anyone on JSA will lose all but the first £5 from their other benefits when in paid employment. On ESA, some claimants lose all but the first £20. Others may be luckier but they’re not the focus of the DWP back-to-work stick. Like all benefit traps, it’s self-defeating. We find just half a day’s work is enough to re-activate jobseekers who learn what they have to offer and the general value of work.
Move Your Way Around Bedroom Tax?
What if householders say ‘Okay, this may be our family home, and maybe our kids might want to come home one day, after college or their next tour of duty, but because we need our rent paid or subsidised, we’ll move’? There’s no guarantee there’s a smaller place for them. Previous wisdom was that it was better to build social housing too big than too small. In parts of the North, for example, whole estates of 3-bed houses were built and smaller ‘units’ are few and far between.
What if properties are there but tenants can’t cover the cost of removals? For someone hard-pressed enough to need to move to side-step the bedroom tax, a few hundred quid plus the hassle of moving will put paid to the idea. Surely claimants putting themselves forward for a move should be exempt from the cap, if there’s simply nowhere or no means to allow them to move.
New rules free up claimants to be able to take in a lodger without it all counting as earned income. Under the Rent a Room Scheme, householders can charge up to £4,250 a year before paying tax but only the first £20 is overlooked by the DWP, who’ll deduct the rest from benefits as they would earned income. Luckily the average impact of underoccupancy is reckoned to be £14, so most people could make this work. But…
Where is the guidance to ensure householders protect themselves against risk when taking in a lodger? Where is the advice on checking with their landlord about whether renting a room breaches the terms of their tenancy agreement? Or help on checking the sub-tenant won’t rob or abuse them? Or support with the legals to make sure the lodger leaves if they fail to pay.
Rent a Room could be a massive boon to claimants and single people needing a roof over their head. It feels like a leap to think we’re returning to the days of Rising Damp and the norm of using ‘digs’ as the best hope of independence but if that’s where we’re heading, let’s make sure no-one’s exploited in the process.
Every loophole is being explored by social landlords around the country to find ways to protect tenants and, of course, rent payments against bedroom tax caps. Some have claimed bedrooms aren’t bedrooms at all. Frank Field even called for landlords to brick up doorways, the way homeowners did with windows in the 18th century to avoid the Window Tax, or to take down walls to make one room of two.
UC... It Might Just Work
I’m a fan of the principles behind Universal Credit. It does over-promise to simplify a complex system but I’m hopeful its promise to overcome the benefits trap will be borne out. It could give jobseekers a chance to be reactivated through small, practical steps and a whole lot of encouragement, the way we’ve tried at Clean Slate. UC is the only piece of the welfare reform agenda that can help claimants find the means to help themselves out of hardship – especially that created by new caps to welfare.
I’m under no illusions about Government pledges, especially when they’re reliant on human and IT systems and ambitious enough to replace numerous already imperfect systems and link up a number of departments along the way. But maybe, just maybe, UC can free jobseekers and employers from what Lord Freud described as a ‘tyranny’ of false barriers like the 16 hour rule and help us start helping claimants affected by the negative impact of reforms to help themselves.