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The Court of Appeal has ruled that the spare room subsidy – or ‘bedroom tax’ – discriminated against a victim of domestic violence and the family of a teenager with disabilities.
The Court dealt with two appeals together and found that both were unlawful. The first appeal concerned a woman known only as ‘A’ for legal reasons, who has a panic room in her house. In the second, Paul and Susan Rutherford care for their severely disabled grandson, who requires overnight care.
The ‘bedroom tax’ was introduced in 2013 and cuts the benefits of social housing tenants who have an ‘extra’ bedroom – one where someone does not regularly sleep in. It aims to encourage people to move to smaller houses, which would bring savings to the housing benefit bill.
Paul and Susan Rutherford care for Warren in a specially-adapted three bedroom bungalow in Pembrokeshire. Warren has a rare genetic disorder, Potokoi-Shaffer Syndrome, and is unable to walk, talk or feed himself and requires 24 hour care. In the judgement, the Court found that the ‘bedroom tax’ discriminates against disabled children in breach of the Human Rights Act.
The Rutherfords have disabilities themselves and can only care for Warren with the help of paid carers who stay overnight on a regular basis. The couple was hit by the bedroom tax for their third bedroom, which they need for the carers to stay in overnight and for storing disability equipment for Warren. The current regulations allow for an additional bedroom if a disabled adult requires overnight care but not for a disabled child in the same situation. The Court found that this unlawfully discriminates against disabled children and cannot be justified.
Lord Thomas CJ found that the failure of the Secretary of State, Iain Duncan Smith, to make provision in the regulations for overnight carers of disabled children amounted to unlawful discrimination contrary to Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It was “very difficult to justify the treatment within the same regulation of carers for disabled children and disabled adults, where precisely the opposite result is achieved: provision for the carers of disabled adults but not for the carers of disabled children.” The Secretary of State had also failed to have regard to the best interests of disabled children when devising the regulations.
Mike Spencer, solicitor at the Child Poverty Action Group, who acts for the Rutherfords, said: “We are delighted that disabled children will finally be entitled to the same treatment as disabled adults. It is absurd to have a situation where children like Warren might have to go into residential care at vast cost to the taxpayer because their families cannot pay for the housing they need. Instead of putting this family through the ordeal of a further appeal, the government should now think seriously about amending the regulations to protect severely disabled children.”
Meanwhile, A’s case concerned the effect of the policy on women living in ‘Sanctuary Scheme’ homes – properties which are specially adapted because of risks to the lives and physical safety of women and children who live in them.
Under the ‘bedroom tax’, A and her son are only entitled to receive housing benefit for a 2-bedroom property. However, they live in a 3-bedroom property that has been adapted for them by the police pursuant to a Sanctuary Scheme, because her life and physical safety are at risk from her ex-partner who has a history of serious violence.
A has had a ‘panic space’ installed in her home, as well as a specialist ‘sanctuary system’. This includes expensive reinforced doors, electric alarms, a marker on the house and alarms linked to the police station. Nevertheless, her housing benefit has been reduced by 14%.
Her legal team argued that the Secretary of State, Iain Duncan Smith, had failed to take into account the disproportionate impact of the ‘bedroom tax’ upon victims of domestic violence, who are overwhelmingly women, and in particular those in Sanctuary Scheme homes.
The Department for Work and Pensions said the government “fundamentally” disagrees with the Court’s decisions, and will appeal to the Supreme Court, according to the BBC.
Beatrice Barleon, policy manager at learning disability charity Mencap, welcomed the decision: “The removal of the spare bedroom subsidy, also known as the ‘bedroom tax’, is another example of the government failing to take into account the specific needs of disabled people. Many people with a learning disability have additional physical and health needs and need extra rooms for equipment or for support workers who are essential to maintain their health and safety.
“Disabled people were hit by £18 billion worth of cuts in the last Parliament, and this government is continuing to take away the support disabled people rely on to maintain their health and access their community.
“We urge the government to listen to this ruling and accept that this policy is discriminating against disabled people, at a time when their support is being taken away from all angles with cuts to social care and benefits.”
Heléna Herklots, chief executive of Carers UK, also urged the government to amend the regulations: “This policy is having a catastrophic impact on families, many of whom are already struggling practically, emotionally and financially to care for seriously-ill or disabled loved ones.
“Our research shows that those carers who are affected by the bedroom tax are being left unable to pay their electricity and heating bills and some families are falling behind on their rent and facing eviction.
“The policy is clearly having a devastating impact on vulnerable families and the government cannot allow this to continue.”