Jules Birch, Inside Housing
Northern Ireland could be set to scrap the bedroom tax as fears grow about the impact on tenants when it is imposed elsewhere from Monday.
The Northern Ireland Assembly has still not approved the Stormont Welfare Reform Bill and is not due to discuss it again until April 16.
However, housing organisations believe the Northern Ireland government is now increasingly likely to decide not to impose the size criteria despite the fact that it will have to meet the £17 million cost from elsewhere in its budget.
Thanks to its devolution settlement, Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that can go its own way on welfare reform. The government has already decided not to implement key elements of the universal credit, including direct payment of the housing element to tenants.
Until recently, campaigners believed the government would be forced to implement the bedroom tax because of the financial implications. However, political opinion has hardened against it in the wake of UK-wide media coverage of the impact on tenants and both Sinn Fein and the DUP have signalled their opposition.
The Welfare Reform Bill was delayed to allow an ad hoc committee to consider the equality and human rights aspects of the legislation. The Committee for Social Development published a report at the end of February recommending that the clause on the bedroom tax should not be implemented. It said 33,000 tenants would be affected, with landlords signalling that they could not provide alternative accommodation for tenants wanting to downsize.
It went on: ‘The committee also shared concerns of stakeholders that the segregated nature of our society may restrict options that people otherwise would have to move to areas where appropriate, but limited, housing may be available.’
An inter-departmental group is now considering the options and is due to report in April.
The Chartered Institute of Housing in Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations say 62 per cent of working-age households on housing benefit claimants in social housing could potentially be affected, compared to 33 per cent in Great Britain.
They have put forward a series of options including:
Not implementing the bedroom tax
Only applying it to new tenancies
Delaying it until alternative options for affected households can be affected
Only applying it to people who refuse a reasonable offer of smaller accommodation
Only applying it to people under-occupying by two or more bedrooms
Exempting disabled people who are living in specially adapted accommodation or who need an extra bedroom to facilitate their care and support.
Any of these changes would give tenants in Northern Ireland more protection than tenants in the rest of the UK. However, hopes are rising that the government will drop the bedroom tax completely.
The Welfare Reform Act covering the rest of the UK was passed in 2012 and different devolution arrangements mean Scotland and Wales have to follow Westminster’s lead.
However, the SNP government in Scotland has written to all social landlords urging them to prevent evictions of tenants with bedroom tax arrears, and the Labour government in Wales is being urged to create a Welfare Defence Programme to protect tenants.
In England several local authorities, including Darlington and Bristol, have also pledged there will be no evictions for bedroom tax arrears although it remains to be seen how this will work in practice.
Campaigning and legal action is set to continue up to and beyond Monday’s implementation date.
Yesterday the government failed in an attempt to block ten cases brought by three firms of solicitors and barristers at Doughty Street Chambers. The cases all involve disabled or abused children or disabled adults who have expertly assessed needs for their own bedrooms.
Leigh Day is acting for a severely disabled woman with spina bifida whose husband has to sleep in a separate bedroom and for a disabled widower with a disabled step daughter who cannot find smaller accommodation suitable for his wheelchair.
The cases will now be heard at an urgent three-day hearing at the divisional court in May.
Earlier today the National Housing Federation published a report raising serious doubts about whether the government will achieve its declared aims of tackling over-crowding, encouraging more efficient use of social housing and saving money. It highlights:
the mismatch in the north of England, where under-occupiers outnumber overcrowded families by three to one
the lack of smaller social homes for the 660,000 affected families to move to
the increased costs if they move to the private sector instead
the impact on disabled families in specially adapted properties and the costs to the taxpayer if they moved to smaller homes.
A survey by Inside Housing shows that just 1 per cent of tenants affected by the bedroom tax have moved so far, 13 per cent want to move but have not found anywhere and 46 per cent say they will stay and pay the extra.
And protestors will make their voice heard at demonstrations in 53 towns and cities across the country on Saturday.
The bedroom tax may be crumbling in Northern Ireland but the cracks in the policy are continuing to appear everywhere else too.