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“The sins of the spare bedroom”

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“It feels right that winter is still here. A warm, fresh April full of sun, green shoots and promise would be a jarring background against which to begin the programme of cuts the government has deemed necessary to save the economy.

It would take the entire magazine to list them all, and I have but a page, so let’s take the one that has garnered most of the headlines: the bedroom tax. This is a new requirement that anyone living in social housing who has a spare bedroom moves to a smaller home so they are no longer wastefully underoccupying a property. The government estimates that this will save £480million in housing benefit. Fair enough, you might think. Why, after all, should people rattle about in giant homes paid for by the state?

Well, to begin with, there simply aren’t enough smaller social housing properties to move into. The National Housing Federation estimates that there are 180,000 households underoccupying two-bed homes but only about 85,000 one-bed places become available every year. So people will be forced to move into the more expensive private rental sector, increasing the housing benefit bill. Or they will have to find the extra money – £14 a week on average, a sum crippling to many – so they can stay put.

Charities are warning that this is likely to result in people going into debt, extending their original, temporary problem (most people are on housing benefit only during short-term unemployment or illness) and costing the state more in the end. So it won’t work. It can’t work. The maths doesn’t add up. But the government is forging ahead. In addition, the original policy made no exception for foster parents, for disabled people who need a ‘spare’ room for medical equipment or carers, for divorced parents whose children stay with them only part of the week or for those serving overseas who stay at home when on leave.

Think about what that means for a moment. Less about its effects, which are – I think – too obviously malign to need further detailing here, than about the fact that such a policy, covering such people, ever came into existence at all. It means that at no point did anyone, in the long, long chain of command, committees and consideration, notice or care how unfair or immoral it was.

We are painting a picture of a country divided into strivers and skivers

What does that tell us about the collective arrogance, stupidity, carelessness or cruelty of our leaders? But the biggest problem may be the fact there’s a good chance that none of the above has really altered our view of the underlying principle – that a spare room in a taxpayer-funded property is an unaffordable and undeserved luxury. But why is this?

Perhaps it is because most of us (according to a recent poll by the TUC) estimate that about 40% of benefits are paid to unemployed people. In fact, the actual figure is 3% (most people on benefits are employed and most of the annual £150billion welfare spending goes to pensioners). Or perhaps it’s another prevalent belief that around a third of benefit claims are fraudulent. In fact, the government estimates that figure at 0.7%, with the £1.2billion those claims cost wildly exceeded by the amount genuine claimants are underpaid (because they are embarrassed to claim or by official error). Or, of course by the £10billion a year that the richest companies and individuals here legally and illegally avoid paying in tax.

The government works very hard to make sure we don’t know all of this. Instead of publicising facts, it works up convenient fictions, filling its rhetoric and our minds with references to ‘scroungers’, feverishly painting a picture of a country sharply divided between ‘strivers and skivers’. The media aids and abets it by giving disproportionate column inches to the handful of people who appear to prove the truth of these assertions, no matter how untrue they actually are. But untrue they are. We are being fed a lie that benefits no one except those who already have all that they need but want more – in the form of tax cuts funded by public sector savings, or rent from people forced into private properties. In that sense, it can work. It will work. That’s why the government is forging ahead. And that’s why we must object.”

Email Lucy at lucy.mangan@stylist. co.uk or tweet her @LucyMangan

Additional image credit: Rex

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