The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government has announced that it intends to change the eligibility criteria for housing benefit, a means-tested aid for those living in rented accommodation. Under the plans to be implemented in April, social housing tenants will face a reduction in their entitlement if they are assessed as living in housing beyond their needs. But the government’s proposal to reform social security payments to disadvantaged households has caused a storm within and without Westminster, with opposition parties across the UK condemning the proposals.

The new rules will mean that households which are classified as having more bedrooms than occupants will see a reduction in housing benefit, a penalty referred to by the government as an “under-occupancy charge.” Houses containing one spare bedroom will face an average charge of £14 per week, while a penalty of around £25 per week will apply to households with two or more unoccupied bedrooms. In addition, the regulations will mean that two children under the age of ten of any gender will be allocated one room between them; while children of the same gender will be required to share a room until one of them turns sixteen.

The changes will affect around 660,000 households – approximately one-third of all working-age claimants of housing benefit who live in social housing. Hardest hit will be young families, with parents facing an average annual bill of £728 if they choose not to have their children share a bedroom. As for students, the government maintains that their families will be unaffected, as students will be classified as occupying a room, so long as they spend at least two weeks per year at home.

Criticism of the policy has been fierce, with Labour denouncing the charge as a “bedroom tax” on the poorest and most vulnerable in society.  In Scotland, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has attacked the charge as “pernicious”, promising that the SNP would abolish the benefit cut in an independent Scotland. However, the Conservatives contend that it is a matter of fairness; that those who cannot afford to own a house with a spare room should not subsidise those who receive state-supported housing.

Under pressure, Welfare Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has announced that there will be a rethink on the effect of the policy on households with disabled residents, and has promised to introduce a discretionary fund for those in exceptional circumstances. It remains to be seen whether this pledge will pacify the critics.

 

Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons

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