Reforms made by the government last year to the housing benefit system in England, Wales and Scotland have caused ëfinancial hardship and distressí for disabled individuals who rely on the welfare entitlements, a committee of MPís have identified.
The ëbedroom taxí, as it has been informally branded by critics, was implemented last year and substantially reduced the level of benefits any household can receive if they have a spare room.
The Work and Pensions Committee have argued that the reforms have inadvertently had a ësevere effectí on the lives of vulnerable individuals, such as disabled people, rather than damaging the groups of welfare abusers that it was aimed at.
They have called for the government to reconsider the policy, and change it so those who are disabled and have a spare room in their houses for storage purposes, are made exempt from the new policy.
The government has defended the policy, arguing that it is bringing balance back to the welfare system, and reducing the ëdependency cultureí that has developed over the years due to the welfare state.
Under the new policy, anyone who is provided social housing and has a spare bedroom is entitled to 14% less in their housing benefit payments, whilst those with two or more excess rooms receive 25% less than normal.
The policy has been an area of huge political contention in recent times, with Labour, charity groups and members of the clergy arguing that it is a misguided and unnecessarily severe measure that is forcing innocent people out their homes, whilst the government has argued that it is a beneficial and necessary move to reduce the public spending bill, save taxpayers £1 million each day, and change the ëdependency cultureí that has developed across the UK.
And whilst the Committee accepted that a change to the housing benefit system was necessary and has had a positive effect on incentivising work and reducing government expenditure they have argued that nevertheless it needs to be modified to be more flexible, in order to protect inadvertently affected groups such as disabled people.
Chairwoman, Labour MP Dame Anne Begg, said: “The government has reformed the housing cost support system with the aim of reducing benefit expenditure and incentivising people to enter work.
“But vulnerable groups who were not the intended targets of the reforms and are not able to respond by moving house or finding a job are suffering as a result.
“The government’s reforms are causing severe financial hardship and distress to vulnerable groups, including disabled people.”
She added: “Using housing stock more efficiently and reducing overcrowding are understandable goals.”
Dame Anne identified that around 60-70% of the households that have been impacted by the reform have a disabled person living in them, and have been unable to move to a new property following the policies implementation, due to their underlying ailments.
She said: “So, they have to remain in their homes with no option but to have their housing benefit reduced.”
However, the government has defended the policy, arguing that money saved from the housing benefit reform would be reallocated to councils in order to give protection to vulnerable groups, such as pensioners and disabled people.
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said: “Our reforms are necessary to restore fairness to the system and make a better use of social housing. Unreformed, the housing benefit bill would have grown to £26bn in 2013-14.
“We have given councils £345m since reforms came in last year to support vulnerable groups, especially disabled people.
“The removal of the spare room subsidy means we still pay the majority of most claimants’ rent. But we are saving the taxpayer £1m a day which was being paid for extra bedrooms and are freeing up bigger homes for people forced to live in cramped, overcrowded accommodation.”
Labour have criticised the lack of flexibility within the policy, and have highlighted that many disabled people have been unfairly penalised as a collateral consequence of the reforms, despite needing the extra room for storage purposes.
Rachel Reeves, shadow work and pensions secretary, said: ‘It’s completely unfair that so many are charged for the space they use to store essential medical equipment such as dialysis machines.”
The church has also voiced their discontent against the tax, though their criticisms have been more broadly based on the impact it has had on the poor in general, rather than just disabled people.
The Archbishop of Wales organised a rally in Cardiff against the policy, and wrote an open letter that argued that it had forced people out their homes and hugely reduced the standard of life that parents are giving to their children.
ìThis tax is depriving those in need of the means to live at the most basic level, of the means to bring up their children, and is creating insecurity and debt. The mark of a civilised society is how well it looks after its poorest and most vulnerable people. Turfing families out of their homes because they canít pay or forcing them to squeeze into every available inch of space are policies which should have no place in Wales today,î he wrote.
Whilst the informal tag ëbedroom taxí, is misleading, as the reform is not a tax but more a reduction in benefit entitlements, it is still becoming apparent that there are major deficiencies within the policy that need addressing.
BBC research indicated that just 6% of people have moved following the policies introduction, whilst 60 to 70% of those who have been affected are disabled. This suggests that the policy has erroneously hit a group of people who were not the target of the government when they instigated the reforms.
Whilst the governmentís goal to reduce the public spending deficit substantially, and change the mentality of society away from welfare dependency is commendable, and has been accepted on more moderate grounds across the political spectrum, it will have to consider the committeeís proposals to make it more flexible for disabled people in order to detract the criticism it is receiving at present.
Implementing a form of protection for disabled people from the policy will not only appease those political groups who have consistently pointed out the reality of the reforms knock on effects, but it will be the right thing to do, as no group should suffer as a collateral consequence of too rigidly pursuing an economic goal, such as the governmentís relentless pursuit to bring down the public spending deficit.