While the ‘bedroom tax’ has only been in operation for three months, it is already causing hardship to some people with learning disabilities and their families, and is set to get worse in the coming months. Editor Dan Parton reports:

David (not his real name) who is 30 and has severe learning disabilities, has lived happily in his own three-bedroom home for the past eight years, but now his settled life is under threat because his housing benefit has been cut due to the removal of the spare room subsidy – better known as the ‘bedroom tax’ – and he is struggling to afford to continue living there.

His mother, Ruth (not her real name), takes up the story: “David has a spare bedroom because social services said he should share his home with another person with a learning disability but didn’t identify anyone to share with him. After a year in his house we decided David might as well use the spare bedroom as an activity room.”

But because of this perceived spare room David has had his housing benefit cut by £13.58 per week, leaving his income only marginally greater than his expenditure, according to Ruth.

“Due to rising costs – especially gas and electricity – and the fact that his benefits will not rise in line with inflation, and uncertainty about how his benefits are going to change, we think David will find it difficult to cope with his living costs,” she adds.

David’s situation is complicated by his disabilities. For instance, he currently has night-time sleep-in support paid for by the Independent Living Fund. But when that closes in 2015 social services have said that they will only fund half of his sleep-ins.

Social services have said he must move to one of their houses and share sleep-in support with another person with a learning disability, Ruth says.

But the local authority only has limited availability of housing and he would have to share a house. “We think David would find it very difficult to share a kitchen and garden, as he has some obsessive behaviours and in the past has become distressed by others invading his personal space. Also, any house needs to have various features to meet his needs, such as soundproofing so neighbours don’t complain about the noise he makes.”

This leaves David with few options, and Ruth admits to being worried about what the future holds. “Just when we thought David was happily settled with a lovely house and a brilliant support team we are once again thrown into a very complex and stressful situation!”
Effects being felt already
David’s situation is by no means unique. While the bedroom tax has only been in operation for three months, its effects are already being felt, according to Steve McIntosh, policy and public affairs manager at Carers UK.

“We are getting calls from people getting into debt, falling into rent arrears and are deeply worried that they are going to have their homes taken away from them because they can’t afford to cover the cost,” he says. “These are often families who are already under serious financial pressure and suddenly having to pay an extra £14 per week can tip them into substantial debt or financial crisis. Some families are saying they don’t see how they will be able to continue to care.”

The bedroom tax is expected to affect 660,000 claimants, of which 420,000 are disabled, according to the government’s own impact assessment.

The government did make some concessions for people with disabilities before the subsidy was introduced, including exempting households with disabled children who cannot share with a sibling, for instance if the disabled child needs medical attention during the night or has broken sleep that would disturb their sibling.

But these concessions did not go far enough, McIntosh says. For instance, the policy says that couples have to share, even if there is a disability within that couple that could mean they need to have separate rooms.

“Charities including Carers UK made the point that, whether it is for adaptive equipment, needing a specialist bed, needing medical equipment throughout the night or someone to come in to provide night-time care and support, it can be impossible for some couples to share and makes that additional room essential, as well as for carers to get some time off to sleep.

“We have also heard from families of disabled children under 18 who have additional rooms for a variety of reasons. For example, some children with autism have rooms with padded furniture and equipment so that they can be safe, but it is very different to their bedroom. Yet these rooms are being considered spare and they are facing additional charges as a result.

“For us, this fails to recognise the reality of learning disabilities and of caring.”

McIntosh recommends that anybody affected by the bedroom tax, who believes they have a case, should write to their local authority and challenge the decision.

However, the government retains its belief in the policy. A Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson said: “The reform of housing benefit in the social rented sector is essential.

The removal of the spare room subsidy is returning fairness to housing when in England alone there are nearly two million households on the social housing waiting list and over a quarter of a million tenants are living in overcrowded homes.

“However we are clear support must be in place for vulnerable people who may need it. We are giving local authorities £150 million

Discretionary Housing Payment funding this year to support vulnerable people and are working with councils and housing associations to ensure people have the help they need.”
Drop in the ocean
Of that fund, £25 million is available to disabled people living in properties that have been specially adapted. However, Mencap’s senior campaigns and policy manager, Dan Scorer, says that this is not enough.

“It is a drop in the ocean. When you work out how much that is for each of the 420,000 disabled people… it is only going to cover a small amount of the shortfall people will experience and it will run out,” he says. “It is a sticking plaster at most and isn’t going to change the situation, which is hundreds of thousands of disabled people hit by the bedroom tax being potentially left with virtually no money to live on.”

This could lead to people losing their homes in the coming months, Scorer adds. With housing associations and local authorities experiencing growing numbers of people in arrears because of the bedroom tax, they will have to make a decision about whether they try to work with people to keep them in their homes or whether, as has been reported, they start eviction proceedings when people are only in a relatively small amount of arrears.

“If more local authorities take that approach and make people homeless we are going to see an explosion in the cost of emergency short-term accommodation. This is already being reported in many London areas as a result of the overall benefit cap and the bedroom tax where increasing numbers of families are in short-term bed and breakfast/hotel accommodation because there isn’t the social housing available to accommodate them and people are increasingly being moved to other parts of the country.

“For someone with a learning disability to be faced with being moved hundreds of miles away from their previous home, their family, their support network and the areas they are used to could be absolutely devastating.”

Of course, if people move to a different local authority area, it would also mean their social care package would have to be re-assessed. With each local authority having its own assessment criteria, it means their support package could change.

Hope for concessions
There is some hope of further concessions for disabled people being made to the bedroom tax, but this is dependent on the result of a judicial review, which is set to report back this summer.

“We are hoping that the judgement is going to say that the policy is discriminatory [and] fails to take account of the needs of disabled people,” says Scorer.

He hopes that if the review does raise concerns about specific areas of the policy relating to people with disabilities the government will be compelled to respond and adjust the policy.

However, whether this happens remains to be seen. Without it, it seems that the effects of the bedroom tax could have far-reaching consequences for many people with learning disabilities.

“Some people will find their local areas do have housing options available for them so if they are hit by the bedroom tax they can move into a smaller place,” says Scorer. “But the government’s own impact assessment acknowledged that there is a massive national shortage of particularly one-bedroom properties for people to move into.

“So the question is where are people going to go? There may be a significant number of people moving out of the social housing sector into the private rented sector, which will ultimately will cost more because rents are higher.

“It is quite a grim picture. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of households containing disabled people being affected by this and people facing very limited options because the housing stock is not there for people to downsize into. People are facing a stark choice between hardship and potentially moving to a new area and losing their support networks.”
A brief guide to the bedroom tax
The new housing benefit rules affect people in the social housing sector who rent a property from a local authority, housing association or other registered housing provider.

Tenants of a working age who are ‘under-occupying’ a property by having a spare bedroom(s) will have their housing benefit reduced. Those who have one spare bedroom have their housing benefit cut by 14% and those who have two or more spare receive a 25% cut.

Tenants are allowed one bedroom each for:
•Themselves or a couple if they live with someone
•A person aged 16 or over
•Two children of the same sex aged under 16
•Two children of either sex aged under 10
•Any other child – but not a foster child nor a child whose main home is elsewhere
•Non-resident carer(s) providing overnight care.
There are exemptions:
•Living in a shared ownership property
•Living in council-arranged temporary accommodation because they have been homeless
•Living in “exempt” supported accommodation
•Living in “non-mainstream” accommodation, such as a houseboat or mobile home
•A child with a disability who cannot share with a sibling because of the severity of their disability, although local authorities make individual decisions in these cases.

This feature first appeared in the July/August edition of Learning Disability Today, before the High Court judgement.
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