The ‘bedroom tax’ applies only to people of working age. But it catches some people who would previously have received the state pension at 60. So for instance we have heard from a female tenant who is 59, turns 60 in November, but will not receive a state pension until 2015. We’ll call her Sheila. She was a single mum who has worked all her life but was made redundant early in 2011 and since then has had to claim benefits. Her financial plight is reflected in the fact that she had to get rid of her car because she could not afford to run it.

She is desperately keen to get a job but despite her best efforts she has been unable to get one. Like many people of her age she has suffered age discrimination in the job process.

“One in particular, a reception job, advised me that they very rarely employed people of my age to deal face to face with the general public. That was before we began the interview. Others have asked how I would cope working in ‘a young and dynamic environment’. I have also met other people who are in my age group and even slightly younger who are finding it impossible to get work because they also encounter age discrimination.”

Sheila says “I have lived in this house, which is my home, for 16 years. I have always paid my rent and had my house fully occupied until 2009 when my family left home.” Her son, his partner and her granddaughter lived with her but now have their own home.

So she is a single person in a 3 bedroom Council house. If she were a little older she would not face having her benefits cut – pensioners are excluded. She was born a little ‘too late’ being caught by the change in the state pension age for women. She considers herself “Too old to be employed but too young to be safeguarded from the bedroom tax and being classed as an OAP. Because this pension age has now changed I find myself in no mans land. ”

What does she have to live on? She is on income based job seekers allowance. With £71 a week she is supposed to pay household bills, eat and clothe herself. From next April she will have to pay the Council the 25% cut she will suffer in her Housing Benefit because she is “underoccupying” her home. “This has to be one of the most unjust laws ever created and I would like to think the court of human rights would agree,” she says.

Could she not ‘downsize’? Well, she has lived in her current house for 16 years. She has invested time and money in improving it and not surprisingly she considers it to be her home. She’s happy with the area she lives in. She feels it’s a decent place to live.

“Also now being on my own I feel safe as I know people, I can walk to the shops and my son’s home, if I needed to, is in walking distance. I walk my dog every night around 10-10.30pm and have no fear of being out at that time.”

She has been advised by the Council that she will have to put her name forward for an exchange or a transfer into a smaller property or she will have to pay the tax in April.

“I don’t want to be forced out of my home and it is feels awful to even attempt to begin looking. But I wonder what will happen to anyone who cannot find a smaller property and cannot find the extra money. Are we all to be evicted or prosecuted? The courts will be even busier and cost the council and council tax payer even more money.”

Even if Sheila asks for a move (she only ‘qualifies’ for a one bedroom property according to the ‘bedroom standard’) it might take years before she is offered one because she is one of 775 households which the Council estimates would have to move to a one bedroom property in order not to suffer a cut in their Housing Benefit. However, last year the Council only gave 104 one bedroom tenancies, so even if they did not give tenancies to people on the housing waiting list it could take the best part of eight years to move all the existing tenants who are deemed only to need one bedroom.

Given the shortage of accommodation of the ‘right size’ if Sheila was offered an alternative she might have to move away from the area that she is comfortable with, leaving her neighbours and friends, without knowing what life would be like in an area she didn’t know.

It might fundamentally alter (and potentially worsen) the quality of her life.

If she was offered a one bedroom flat, it would, of course, cost a lot of money to move since her furniture and other belongings would probably be too big for a one bedroom property.1 Of course, Sheila does not have the money to cover such expense.

Sheila will lose over £20 from her £71 because she has two “spare” bedrooms. She will also face losing more of this miserable sum that she is expected to live on. The government is scrapping Council Tax benefit in April 2013 replacing it with a grant to Councils which will cover only 90% of the bill. Councils will have to decide who qualifies for it. However, they will not be allowed to reduce support for “vulnerable” people and pensioners. The exclusion of pensioners will mean that claimants of working age will be hit especially hard, with 20-30% cuts expected. As Sheila and people like her are neither “vulnerable” nor pensioners, she will have to pay out more money from her already reduced job seekers allowance. So she and others will face a double blow.

“I find it sinister that the government is setting a law that reeks of age discrimination. Logically when you think about it they must be aware that the majority of people that will be affected will be in my age bracket. The older person whose family has grown up and moved on, the older person who is unemployed and experiences employment attitudes of being too old to be offered a job. We are a group of forgotten people in this country who seem to have no voice. Regarded as too old to work but too young to retire. How can any government expect the job market to adhere to age laws when it is introducing the bedroom tax law that targets the very people they say should not be discriminated against?”

“I feel so strongly about this not just for myself but for everyone else this is affecting and I am fearful of my future. People like myself are not scroungers and trying to survive on benefits is living hell.”

Sheila has considered taking in a lodger but currently she would lose money from her jobseekers allowance.

She represents one group of people who will be affected by the bedroom tax. We will look at examples of other groups in future articles. Suffice it to say that her example shows the callous and inhuman nature of the policy of the coalition government. When the Council tax cut kicks in she will face living on less than £50 a week. The rich, in contrast, will be facing tax cuts provided care of what Tory MP Nadine Dorries described as “arrogant rich boys who don’t know the price of milk”.

The bedroom tax is explained as a means of making ‘better use’ of the scarce social housing stock. It cannot work because there are too few homes for people in need of housing, and there are not enough homes of the ‘right’ size. Instead of penalising the poor for a shortage which is not their fault the government should facilitate a new Council house building programme to address the shortage of ‘social housing’.

1 We recently received an email from another tenant who said she had moved from a 3 bedroom house to a two bedroom flat. “This has been quite a large expense as nothing fitted from the house – carpets, curtains, decorating, restoring garden etc.”

Martin Wicks

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