At last Wednesday’s Housing Advisory Forum we were given the latest statistics for rent arrears for those affected by the ‘bedroom tax’. Under new Housing Benefit regulations tenants in receipt of HB were deemed to be ‘under-occupying’ if they had ‘spare’ bedrooms. The number of Council tenants on housing benefit considered to be ‘under-occupying’ has fallen from 1,095 in April 2013, to 835 today. When the ‘bedroom tax’ was introduced 368 of the 1,095 were already in arrears to the tune of £108,286. On May 18th 2014 the number in arrears was 394. That the increase has been relatively slight is both the result of

  • 140 tenants having ‘downsized’ in order to avoid having to pay the 14% or 25% of their rent, and
  • the payment of Discretionary Housing Payments (a grant from central government) to some tenants affected.

However, the 394 in arrears still represents 47% of those still subject to the ‘bedroom tax’.

There are also 377 Housing Association tenants affected, giving a combined figure for the town of 1212 having their housing benefit cut.

During the course of the last year DHP payments have gone to 951 tenants to the value of £363,128. (DHP can be paid to Council tenants, Housing Association tenants or private sector tenants.) £288,048 was paid out to 798 tenants ‘under-occupying’.

Rent arrears for 2013-14 for Council tenants overall were £632,000, an increase of £123,000 over the previous year. The 394 tenants under-occupying owe £116,000, an average of £294.

The original DHP government grant for 2012-13 was £281,000 though the Council managed to get two top-ups providing an extra £70,000 from the Minister. So the final payments only exceeded the grant by £12,000. The Council had set aside a reserve fund of £420,000 from the Housing Revenue Account, so very little of this was used. This year’s government grant is £319,890, lower than the amount paid out in 2013-14 . Whether the Council will be able to get any additional grant during the course of the year remains to be seen.

Without the DHP payments arrears would have been much higher. Obviously it is preferable that Swindon Council has given out all its grant, unlike some Councils. However, even those people who have received a grant have had the anxiety of going through the process of applying for it (sometimes more than once). Initially DHP payments were only given out for three months. Those who haven’t received DHP have somehow had to struggle to get by, often with as little the £72 a week, or £54 for those under 25, available to those on Job Seekers Allowance.

We know of people who have had to rely on their aged parents to help them out by a contribution from their pension, or other family members. We know that others have not put their heating on because they cannot afford it. It has been a traumatic experience for tenants, many of whom have never before been in debt in their lives. We know tenants who are on medication as a result of the stress. The threat of losing your home is no small matter. Many of those who have moved have done so against their will, often leaving long-term homes, and communities that they had no wish to leave.

Whilst the DHP will continue, tenants have had to apply again this year. The uncertainty remains. There is no guarantee that you will get one. Whilst the numbers affected have gone down, we should remember that some tenants on HB who are currently unaffected, could be in future when their family composition changes. The loss of a family member, whether by death, or a child leaving home, will mean that more people will be deemed to be ‘under-occupying’.

Last year Swindon Tenants Campaign Group collected over 2,200 signatures to a petition calling on Swindon Council to press the government to repeal the ‘under-occupation’ regulations. The Conservative group voted that down when it was debated at a full Council meeting. This was no surprise since they are reluctant to criticise their government publicly, even when they disagree with them.

Nationally, Labour has committed to repealing the legislation should it be elected. What the outcome of the General Election will be we cannot say. But the campaign against the ‘bedroom tax’ will continue until this iniquitous piece of legislation is repealed.

The ‘bedroom tax’ was supposed to be a means of ‘encouraging’ tenants into smaller properties or into work. In reality it is a means of pressuring tenants by giving them too little to live on. There was always a contradiction at the heart of the regulations between the declared intention to cut the HB bill and to induce tenants to ‘downsize’ in order to ‘make better use of the stock’. Those who move into a home of the ‘right’ size will have all their rent paid, so no HB will be saved. It’s only if tenants continue in their current home that HB will be saved as a result of the cut for ‘under-occupation’, in which case the property is not ‘freed’.

This year, already, there has been a greater influx of applications for DHP. Last year a lot of people did not know about it early on. How far it will stretch this year remains to be seen. We have been told that nobody affected by the ‘bedroom tax’ has been evicted. The Council discusses with each individual a weekly payment to address their arrears. However, for those who simply do not have enough money coming in (and who can really live on £72 or £54 a week) another year of HB cut will add to the pressure.

If £288,048 was paid out in DHP payments and £319,890 is available this year, plus the extra £420,000, then the question arises, could not everybody have a DHP payment, relieving them of the anxiety of struggling to raise the rent from insufficient income? We will see shortly how many DHP payments will be given in the first part of the new financial year. However, since the Council has voted through a reserve fund why not use it and relieve tenants of the stress of these circumstances?

Martin Wicks

June 17th 2014