From: Inside out

Colin Wiles, Inside Housing


Over the past six weeks we have seen a succession of stories in the media about individual bedroom tax cases. It has dominated Prime Ministers’ Questions, there have been several public demonstrations (and more are planned), top celebrities have been tweeting about the tax, and the result has been what? A few minor concessions on children with disabilities, foster carers and armed forces personnel. The vast bulk of the bedroom tax regulations are still in force. With only 15 days to go until D-Day will anything change? I doubt it.

Over a month ago I wrote a blog here about the bedroom tax and said that “the government’s welfare reforms still have overwhelming public support. The striver/shirker rhetoric has popular appeal…Public opinion may shift if we see more hardship cases in the media but I doubt it, and it is always dangerous to make policy on the basis of individual cases. I still think most people support the basic principle that you should only get the benefit for what you need. The detailed arguments don’t concern them.”

This is confirmed by the latest polling from YouGov, carried out on the 7th and 8th of March. 49% of the public support the bedroom tax and 38% oppose it. Admittedly the question does not go into any technical detail, but given the torrent of media coverage in recent weeks it is telling that a majority of people still support the basic principle of the change.  In fact, both this and other polls show that there is still widespread public support for welfare reform. In the same poll 70% said they wanted cuts in overseas aid, 39% wanted cuts in welfare spending and only 3% wanted cuts in the NHSor education. The YOuGov article reports on other recent polls which found support for the notion that benefits are too generous and promote dependency. Even a poll for the TUC at the end of last year found that 59% felt that Britain had a culture of benefit dependency, whereas only 29% supported the present system. This is why, in my view, the government is unlikely to deviate too far from their chosen course. (Of course, the effectiveness of their policy changes and the intelligence of their approach is another matter entirely.)

But these polls also show that the public is ambivalent about cuts. They want to see continued support for the “deserving poor” – the elderly and people with genuine disabilities – but reductions for those they see as “undeserving”. There is strong support for the benefit cap and withdrawal of benefits for those who refuse to work and the public perception is still that a great deal of fraud and misrepresentation remains in the system. My experience of working with tenant groups backs this up. Many individuals express broad support for some of the changes, even for the bedroom tax, but always on the basis that someone else is affected and not them as individuals. The “shirkers” are always other people. “They can’t mean me surely?” Well yes, they do.

When animals are confined to a smaller space they often start fighting over space and resources. I don’t wish to be too biologically deterministic but this is exactly what is happening in the housing world right now. Some tenants support the principle of the bedroom tax because their daughter/ mother/friend is living in overcrowded property and they see Mrs Bloggs next door living alone in a three-bed house. The comments beneath this story from a West Midlands newspaper are typical (and I’ve read a lot of these articles I can assure you). Tenant is being set against tenant in the fight for a diminishing resource. It’s a classic case of divide and rule – setting up the shirkers against the strivers or the have-a-littles against the have-nots. The truth is that the bedroom tax, however unpalatable, is a diversion from the bigger picture. Tenants and landlords should be uniting around three fundamental issues – the lack of affordable housing supply, the lack of work that pays and the growing disparity between earnings and prices, including rents. People will only be lifted out of welfare dependency and poor housing when there is a growing economy with better paid jobs combined with a massive programme of housebuilding. This is the ground we should be campaigning on.