The under-occupancy penalty – or ‘Bedroom Tax’ as it became known – was proposed at the beginning of the Coalition Government, as part of the 2010 emergency budget.
Osborne made the proposal as part of a broader attempt to limit housing benefit spending, stating that, “spending on housing benefit has risen from £14 billion ten years ago to £21 billion today. That is close to a 50 per cent increase over and above inflation. Costs are completely out of control. We now spend more on housing benefit than we do on the police and on universities combined”. The reforms announced aimed to reduce spending on housing benefit by £1.8b per year, or 7 percent of the total budget – this included the aim of “limiting social tenants’ entitlement to appropriately sized homes”.
The proposal was to reduce a proportion of a family’s housing benefit for each ‘spare room’ that they had (14% reduction for one ‘spare room’, and 25% for two). A spare room was considered any room that went beyond one for every two adults, one for every two same-sex children (or mixed-sex for under-10-year-olds), or one for every child aged 10 or over.
Given that the penalty for so-called ‘under-occupancy’ was a reduction in housing benefit, resulting in the possibility of eviction if rents could not subsequently be paid, the proposal was widely considered to be punitive. This was compounded by the fact that the definition of an unused room was difficult to pin down, in many cases resulting in penalties for disabled residents who required an additional room in order to be able to house equipment related to their disability, or in some cases to recently bereaved parents, or those with a very small ‘spare room’ that could not be used as a bedroom due to its size. The initiative was therefore widely perceived to be both punitive but also highly targeted in that it would only hit a small minority of housing benefit claimants who were particularly vulnerable.
Severity: the bedroom tax represented a significant reduction in housing benefit (potentially up to 25%) and relied upon a low threshold for what counted as a ‘spare room’ – we therefore consider it to be high in terms of severity.
Target: the tax was very focused on a relatively small group of outsiders – i.e. those already on a sufficiently low income that they qualified for bedroom tax, and then also those who were in a situation where they had an additional room (which, for reasons noted above, was often some of the most vulnerable of the existing housing benefit claimants).
Target: outsiders (highly regressive)
Public opposition. The so-called bedroom tax faced considerable public opposition from its inception as a proposal, during its passage through parliament, and upon its implementation. A wave of protests took place throughout early early-2013 (i.e. on the eve of its implementation). This included a protest of 2500 people in Glasgow, 1000 outside Downing Street, and in many other cities across the country (including London, Leeds, Cardiff, Manchester and Birmingham).
photo (Glasgow) – source
Protests continued into 2014, with the Anti-Bedroom Tax and Benefits Justice Federation co-organising a National Stop the War on Benefits workshop with Disabled People Against Cuts in November 2014. The workshop also included members of the high-profile and ultimately successful Focus E15 group, which went on to challenge attempts by private landlords to evict them – in part through militant forms of opposition that included occupations of their homes. The Government also faced criticisms from the UN, on the grounds that it undermined the right to housing.
public opposition (non-disruptive): substantial
public opposition (disruptive): limited
Militant refusal. In some instances campaigners were able to directly prevent the implementation of the worst effects of the Bedroom Tax. For instance, Coventry Against the Bedroom Tax were able to put in place a practice of adopting anti-eviction blockades if/when residents faced eviction as a result of the net increase in the cost of renting associated with the reduction of housing benefit that the Bedroom Tax created. In 2015 they were successfully able to prevent the eviction of a resident of Coventry, through a combination of blockading the house in order to prevent the eviction, and the adverse publicity that it created for the housing association seeking to carry out the eviction.
Militant refusal: limited
The opposition to the Bedroom Tax created considerable consternation amongst the political elite. A number of Conservative MPs were worried about the impact that it was having upon their constituents, thereby creating internal opposition and divisions. For instance, Matthew D’Ancona notes how Ian Duncan Smith, ‘often found that Tory colleagues who called for tough measures in general were the most squeamish about specific savings. It was one thing to call for IDS to slash the overall bill. But many Tory MPs were unnerved by (for instance) the new under-occupancy penalty – or ‘bedroom tax’ – that took effect from April 2013 and filled surgeries with troubled constituencies, fearful that they would have to move house because they had a spare room and could not afford the extra payment. The case of Stephanie Bottrill, a Solihull grandmother, who had committed suicide in May and left a note blaming the bedroom tax, sent a shiver through the ranks of every party’ (p.334).
Perhaps of greater threat to the stability of the Coalition Government, the Liberal Democrats became increasingly critical of the policy – eventually agreeing to oppose it. In 2014, moreover, a private members’ bill was proposed in parliament by Liberal Democrat MP, Andrew George, witnessing the Liberal Democrats support the Bill to scrap the tax – ensuring that it overwhelmingly passed through the second reading in parliament (although its implementation was subsequently blocked by the Government). This therefore represented considerable inter-elite division, indirectly arising in response to the instances of refusal detailed above.
The implementation of the scheme also proved problem-prone – with a technical detail found in regulations published nearly twenty years earlier creating an unanticipated loophole exempting around 5% of benefit recipients who were due to pay the bedroom tax – a loophole that could not be ignored once its details went viral on social media.
In January 2016 an appeal court ruled that the bedroom tax was discriminatory in two cases due to its impact on vulnerable people.
As noted above, in some instances evictions were also able to be prevented – thereby preventing the full impact of the Bedroom Tax from being felt in the most extreme cases where it risked leading to homelessness.
Despite these problems, the bedroom tax continues to be adopted and in most cases implemented – as such, the obstacles that arose were not substantial in that they did not impede the adoption of the measure. The main obstacle witnessed, therefore, was the internal division that instances of refusal indirectly created – both between the Conservatives and their Lib Dem coalition partners; and in some cases within the Conservative Party. Indeed, eventually it became so unpopular that even senior Conservatives began to question it. For instance, Clare Foges (ex-speech writer for David Cameron) wrote in 2015, after the general election, that ‘It [the Bedroom Tax] is not working as had been hoped and will remain a fly in the one-nation ointment. Have a principled mea culpa moment and move on’. This came amid claims that ‘Privately every Conservative minister now admits it is a bad policy.’
Obstacles: indirect (inter-elite divisions)
Consent seeking – One of the key ways in which the Government sought to meet popular opposition to the Bedroom Tax was through a consistent attempt to deploy a discourse highlighting the avoidance of wasted public spending. This included the attempt to shift common terminology – from ‘Bedroom Tax’ towards a language depicting the ‘removal of the spare room subsidy’.
Concessions – In the run-up to the implementation of the ‘tax’, moreover, Ian Duncan Smith was forced to offer a series of (albeit relatively minor) concessions that represented a ‘partial U-turn to exempt foster carers and parents of teenage armed forces personnel from the charge, just three weeks before it is due to come into force’ – resulting in the policy being accused by the Labour opposition of being in ‘total chaos’.
The protests and negative publicity associated with the Bedroom Tax ensured that what was widely accepted as necessary when it was initially introduced had within a year become opposed by most respondents to surveys.
Despite the low popularity for the scheme, the consequences felt by the government were limited and mainly confined to the way in which they contributed to the reputation of the government as being anti-poor, which had a subsequent effect upon the sense in which the government felt able to adopt other measures to produce a reduction in public spending (see above). Further, the legal opposition faced by the tax has thus far been appealed by the government and so its impact (despite the adverse ruling) has thus far (Feb 2016) not been significant in terms of the ability to continue to implement the scheme. We therefore consider there to have been consequences as a result of the bedroom tax, but that these were mild.
Sum: only indirect obstacles (inter-elite divisions and a vote against the tax in parliament), limited concessions and only mild consequences (mainly in terms of impact on reputation of government) – slightly patchy, but almost full adoption (0.5+1+0.5=2)