Bedroom tax: the housing benefit reform explained

Move intended to reduce £23bn housing benefit bill and free up homes has faced criticism, but what has it achieved?

How does it work?

As part of a host of benefit changes introduced on 1 April 2013 under the Welfare Reform Act 2012, the government removed what it called the spare room subsidy. Under the changes, tenants in social housing have their benefit reduced by 14% if they have a spare bedroom or 25% if they have two or more. Two children under 16 of same gender are expected to share one bedroom as are two children under 10, regardless of gender. On average, a tenant affected by the bedroom tax is losing between £14 and £25 a week.

What was it meant to achieve?

The government said the move was intended to cut the £23bn housing benefit bill and free up housing to help 300,000 people living in overcrowded accommodation. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) set a target of 30% of social housing tenants affected by the changes to move home by 2017.

Why was it criticised?

Labour dubbed it the bedroom tax and said it would hit some of the most vulnerable people in society hardest. Among those said to be unfairly affected were disabled people and foster carers. In response, the work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, announced that foster carers and parents of teenage armed forces personnel would be exempt from the charge, just three weeks before it was due to come into force. People can apply for a discretionary housing payment from their council to help them get by if badly affected by the changes but the funding available is limited and there have been numerous cases of people in apparently desperate circumstances being turned down.

In September 2013, the UN special investigator on housing, Raquel Rolnik, told the government it should scrap the bedroom tax, after hearing “shocking” accounts of how the policy was affecting vulnerable citizens during a visit to the UK, prompting a furious response from the Conservatives. In the same month, Ed Miliband committed a future Labour government to abolishing the bedroom tax.

What has it achieved in practice?

About 6% of benefit claimants affected by the bedroom tax have moved as a result of the benefit changes, according to figures released to the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act.

They showed that in November 2013, 498,000 social housing tenants in England, Scotland and Wales were having their benefits reduced under the policy. This figure was 50,000 down on numbers affected in the first month of the policy’s operation, suggesting that tens of thousands of tenants had moved to smaller accommodation. Changes to housing benefit in the social rented sector are expected to save £490m in 2013-14 and about £1bn by the end of 2014-15, more than £1.3m a day, the DWP said.

A survey for the National Housing Federation found that 66% of housing association residents hit by the bedroom tax were in arrears and more than one in seven (15%) had received a letter warning them they were at risk of eviction. There have been a number of legal challenges,predominately by disabled people denied entitlement to a separate room under the changes. There is an exemption for a disabled tenant of partner if they have a non-resident carer who provides them with overnight care.