Was the aim of the bedroom tax always to shift debt from the government to benefit claimants?

The bedroom tax might be the clearest example of the coalition punishing the poor for the financial crisis.

The bedroom tax might be the clearest example of the coalition punishing the poor for the financial crisis

It was claimed by the government that the bedroom tax had two aims – to reduce spending on benefits and to help the 300,000 people living in overcrowded accommodation by incentivising those tenants ‘over occupying’ to move to smaller homes.

But the maths didn’t add up.

When the policy was first proposed, critics pointed out that there were not enough homes for the so-called ‘over occupiers’ to move to. There were only 85,000 one bedroom social properties available in England, and 180,000 social tenants “under-occupying” two-bedroom houses. That’s quite a large gap.

Hardly surprising then, that research carried out by the BBC a year after the tax was implemented showed that only 6 per cent of people affected by it have moved home. There are simply not the homes for them to move to.

Despite this, the Conservatives gleefully claimed a victory for the tax, saying that it saved the government the conveniently round figure of a million pounds per day.

As professor Rebecca Tunstall, director of the centre for housing policy at the University of York, told the New Statesman:

“There were two major aims to this policy – one was to encourage people to move, and the other was to save money for the government in housing benefit payments. But those two aims are mutually exclusive.”

The government saves money from the people who have no choice but to stay where they are.

And what happens when people with a low income have that income cut? They go into arrears on their rent.

According to the BBC, this is what’s happened to a third of tenants affected by the tax. The debt has been successfully shifted from the government to benefit claimants.

Could this have been the main aim all along?

Supporters of the bedroom tax certainly focused on the under-occupancy issue. Ian Duncan Smith, for example, pointed out how unfair it was on those who did not have a spare bedroom:

“It is unfair on taxpayers, it is unfair on those in over-crowded accommodation and it is unfair that one group of housing benefit tenants cannot have spare bedrooms and another group are subsidised.”

Yet it’s unlikely that the government did their housing sums wrong and genuinely believed the main outcome of the tax would be people moving home. It seems more likely that focusing on the ‘unfair’ behaviour of benefit claimants suited their rhetoric of vilifying a certain section of the general public.

Without discussing the possibility that an increase in homelessness caused by the tax could result in it saving the government no money at all, how ethical is it for a government to shift debt on to the general public?

There is a faint silver lining to this deplorable tax, however, and that is the creativity it has brought out in campaigners.

In North London, for example, one group of artists are protesting by putting on an exhibition inspired by the bedroom tax, hosted in a bedroom subject to the tax. The 27-year occupier is moving out for a week and will be exhibiting art along with other artists, all inspired by the tax. The exhibition will be free and also show short films on the housing shortage so that local people can visit and learn more about it.

It seems the bedroom tax might be the clearest example of the coalition government punishing the poor for the financial crisis, but there are always ways to fight back.

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