Lockdown, learning, and the Bedroom Tax

By Bernadette Meaden
January 6, 2021

Almost every child under 11 in the UK has been born under a Conservative government. There are books to be written about how multiple Conservative policies have increased and entrenched disadvantage for children over the past decade,  but as we enter a third national lockdown, perhaps one policy which deserves to be specially highlighted is the Bedroom Tax

The media has rightly reported that children in low income families often don’t have the technology or internet access they need to take part in remote learning. There is however, another problem which will not be so easily solved – cramped housing conditions. And it has actually been government policy, doggedly pursued through the courts, to ensure that many disadvantaged children do not havetheir own bedroom.

The Bedroom Tax was part of the Welfare Reform Act 2012, and came into force in 2013. It introduced new rules on bedrooms for social housing tenants in receipt of benefits. Under these rules, two children under 16 of the same gender are expected to share one bedroom, as are two children under 10, regardless of gender. If these criteria are not met, a child’s bedroom is deemed a spare bedroom, a luxury to which they are not entitled, and the housing element of their parents’ benefit is cut. This can push struggling families further into poverty and debt. Yet politicians wedded to this policy now express concern for the life chances of the very children whom they were absolutely determined should not have a bedroom in which to study.

It was of course claimed that the purpose of the Bedroom Tax was to stop people occupying houses that were bigger than they needed. It would force them to move, so freeing those properties up for larger families. This justification was completely undermined by the fact that the policy only applied to those of working age, and not the older people who were more likely to be living in homes deemed ‘too big’ for their requirements. In reality, very few people moved home due to the bedroom tax, as very few suitable properties were available to move into.

In some areas, larger family homes lay empty because the families who could have made good use of them were now not entitled to that space, and so couldn’t afford the rent. Lisa Middleton, communications manager at a North West housing association, said: “There is a mis-match in housing.  The idea the tax would free up homes for people waiting has had the adverse effect because they are waiting longer…We have empty houses but people can’t afford to live in them.” 

This served to confirm the view that the policy was actually about saving money, and another manifestation of the punitive, social engineering approach to the size and structure of families in receipt of social security which lies behind many welfare reform policies. And any professed concern for the welfare of larger families lost all credibility when the Conservatives went on to introduce a two child limit on social security benefits.

Politicians who defend the bedroom tax no doubt live in spacious homes, where children sharing a bedroom might seem like no great hardship, if each child has their own desk, or other rooms they can retreat to for study purposes. But the reality for disadvantaged children in social housing is vividly illustrated by these details of a legal test case from Child Poverty Action Group, which concluded in 2019:

RH and her husband live in a three-bedroom housing association property with their two sons, aged 9 and 11. The two bedrooms occupied by the sons are very small with limited space and contain minimal furniture. In April 2013, Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council applied the bedroom tax and a 14 per cent reduction to their housing benefit for a room, deemed to be a ‘spare bedroom’, occupied by one of their two sons. The Council submits that the two boys should share one of the rooms.

The local authority conceded that bedroom 1 could not be used by both boys, as bunk beds – the only way two beds could fit in the room - would block light into the room. However, the local authority submits that bedroom 2 is suitable for both of the boys with the use of under the bed storage, wall organisers and other niche furniture items.

A tribunal then ruled that in fact neither of the rooms was big enough for two boys to share, so the bedroom tax should not apply. However, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions pursued this case all the way to the Court of Appeal.

The Court of Appeal found that the regulations' reference to a "bedroom" meant a room capable of being used as a bedroom and it was not possible to read anything further into this. Therefore, a room was a bedroom if it could be used as a bedroom by any one of the categories of persons. In RH's case, the fact that either of the rooms could have been used as a bedroom for one person meant that both were bedrooms under the regulations, so the two boys would be expected to share one of them, meaning that there was a spare room.

Imagine two boys, teenagers perhaps, sharing a room like this and trying to follow different lessons online. Even if they have the devices and adequate internet access, where is the physical space, the peace and quiet? Social housing does not tend to have what an estate agent would call ‘separate reception rooms’. There may be an open plan living area, with a washing machine, cooker, and all sorts of noises and activities going on to serve as distractions. Effective remote learning in such a home must be almost impossible.

So the next time politicians who supported the bedroom tax, and all the other policies currently creating child poverty, talk about disadvantaged children, they should really be asked what part they have played in creating or compounding that disadvantage.

* It is important to note that the devolved administrations of Scotland and Northern Ireland have in their own separate ways organised a mitigation of the Bedroom Tax, so this is predominantly an issue in England and Wales.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.