Monday, 30 September 2013

It's not the Bedroom Tax, stupid!

It's not a tax
It's neither a "spare room subsidy" nor a "bedroom tax", it's a benefit cut.  It's not a subsidy because a subsidy is something paid to you in order to gain a benefit (real or perceived or, indeed, imaginary) for society and it's not a tax because a tax is something you pay to government to allow it to pay, in turn, for societal benefits.  It's a cut to a welfare benefit, those tiny payments we collectively make to ensure that our society does not break down.

Calling it a tax lets the politicians off the hook.  Those who are cutting benefits want to pretend they are cutting a subsidy, those who are opposing want to call it a tax.  It's not a subsidy; there is no societal benefit in someone having spare bedrooms (nor is there likely to be much of a personal advantage, given the extra costs inherent in having extra rooms in your house) and there has never been an argument put forward for one.  It's  not a tax; there is no payment from the welfare recipient to government here and to suggest that there it is a tax is to suggest that the recipients have an income from which can be deducted a tax.  "Bedroom tax" is a handy short-hand but hides the horror of the policy of cutting Housing Benefit.  When did we collectively lose the ability to see and call it for what it is?  It's a benefit cut and it's an attack on the most vulnerable members of our society.  At the heart of this policy debate is a void where humanity should be.

The cutting
The principle behind welfare benefits, surely, is that we do not leave any member of society without the means to afford the basics of survival; shelter, warmth, food, clothing.  The amounts paid do not add up to a living, merely survival and it cannot be easy even to survive on those amounts.  Nowhere can I find any research done by the UK Government into how much it costs to survive in any of our communities nor what benefits might accrue to society from paying them or varying the payments up or down.  I can find plenty that successive governments have said about the costs of welfare, nothing about the effects of investing these resources in people and communities.

The cuts to these benefits which have been implemented and those still planned surely slice into the very heart of the principle behind them. Without any indication of the effects on people, both those receiving the welfare payments and those of us lucky enough to be in work, or on the communities in which we all live, the UK Government bill for welfare is to be cut.  10% is the target because that is the general target across UK Government departments.  We are beginning to see some of the effects of some of these benefit cuts but there are still more to come - more cuts and more deleterious effects.

Housing Benefit cut
Why, though, has the opposition to these cuts focused so strongly on the cut to Housing Benefit and, to a great extent, ignored the other cuts?  A jaundiced observer might suggest that it's because evictions are a striking visual for media coverage while the effects of other cuts are less obvious and harder to see, or that the heuristic "bedroom tax" makes for a good soundbite.  It may be that the Westminster political game is more easily played where no flank is left open for the opposition to attack; no opportunity to be called profligate or the dreaded "tax and spend" label applied.  The twisted logic of the search for a political soft spot in attack and the determination to armour every inch in defence leaves politics sclerotic and the people ignored.  Principle has been abandoned in the heat of the scuffle in Westminster and democracy is the poorer for it.  Budgets drive policy instead of policy driving budgets and the order is "we shall spend this, what can we do with it?" rather than "this is what we need to do, how much do we have to find?"

The history of this Housing Benefit cut shows this.  It was introduced under the Labour Government of Tony Blair with pilot schemes starting in late 2003 and went national under the Labour Government of Gordon Brown for private sector tenants and is still called Local housing Allowance for tenants in the private sector.  The Tory / Lib Dem Government of David Cameron and Nick Clegg extended its reach to the social rented sector and this has become the policy football.  Interestingly, it was the Tory/Lib Dem Government which introduced the extra bedroom for a carer in the year before they extended it to social rented housing.

Along the way the justification has always been cutting expenditure on Housing Benefit, sometimes joined by a diversionary hint at fairness.  An example of the latter is the decision of the Labour Government to limit the number of bedrooms that can be paid for to five, the then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, James Purnell saying that it was being limited because some people out of work were staying in houses they could not afford if they were in work.  This, of course, missed the point that some Housing Benefit claimants are in work but cannot afford their rent.  It also ignores the fact that limiting household bedrooms may lead to overcrowding.

While making the latest round of Housing Benefit cuts in this sequence, the current UK Government offered up resources to local authorities to make discretionary payments to support households adversely affected by these changes.  This was a fraction of the money it was cutting from Housing Benefit provision, of course, and it transferred responsibility for sorting out the mess created from Whitehall to town hall.  In Scotland COSLA and the Scottish Government came to an agreement to fund the shortfall from their own limited budgets, the Scottish Government providing half of the money from its scarce resources, Scotland's councils finding the rest from within theirs.

Some Scottish councils have updated their policies and pledged to ensure that they will do whatever they can to avoid evicting tenants who fall into arrears as a result of this Housing Benefit cut, others have still to commit.

Labour's Bill
Labour repeatedly called for the Scottish Government to support its Bill to mitigate the effects of this Housing Benefit cut.  Neither the Bill nor a proposal for such a Bill existed for months after such calls started and, while the proposal has appeared (strangely, lodged nearly a fortnight after I pointed out that it didn't exist and quite clearly written in a hurry) there is still no Bill in spite of the proposed change being a simple one to write.

The proposal as written is an exercise in political posturing but I thought it worth taking a look at it in any case.  The proposal is that the 2001 Housing Act be amended so that arrears resulting from the cut in Housing Benefit would be disregarded by the court for the purposes of eviction proceedings, with the tenant proving how much of the arrears was caused by the benefit cut.

That's a procedure that would take extra court time and create extra legal fees on both sides and would, as laid out in the proposal, leave landlords to pursue that debt as any other debt would be pursued.  I find myself wondering how many Housing Benefit tenants have the wherewithal to pay off other debts, no matter how accrued, but I also know that most social landlords work hard to find solutions before even considering eviction and the route to court is not an easy path for them to take.

Housing associations in Scotland run very tight ships.  They keep their rents low by keeping good control of their voids (empty houses) and doing all they can to make sure that tenants keep up with rental payments and by keeping management costs down, these are not businesses, they are not seeking to make profits.  Of all of the professional housing officers I know and have known who work in housing associations I cannot think of one who goes willingly to evict a tenant and I cannot think of one who does not try to resolve tenancy issues at the earliest stage.  To take that commitment and throw it back in their faces by insinuating that they would do otherwise is insulting and demeans those who have suggested it.

On top of that the additional costs to housing associations has to be considered.  When a housing association faces additional costs by an eviction process being dragged out, knocking its voids out of control and increasing legal fees its costs go up and it will be forced to put rents up, affecting all of its tenants.  Since most tenants of housing associations are at the lower end of the income scale, this would have a serious effect on other tenants who would see more of their wages going to cover housing costs.

This facile and disingenuous proposal is political campaigning, not an attempt to find a solution.  It is the armour of saying "we tried to do something" and the seeking of a soft spot with "they wouldn't join us in the thing we sought to do", it is a moral fraud by the bankrupt and a clear example of what is so clearly wrong with the politics in Westminster and we can do without it being imported.

Devolving Housing Benefit
The UK Government recently leaked a proposal to devolve control of Housing Benefit to Scotland if there was a No vote in the independence referendum.  Leaving aside the fact that Scotland would take control of Housing Benefit after a yes vote anyway, the case for accepting this at face value is flawed.  There is a general consensus in Scottish politics that this benefit cut is wrong - a consensus which is increasingly being mirrored in England - the SNP pledged some time ago to restore the payments after independence when Scotland has control of her own resources and Labour eventually came on board last week with Ed Miliband finally being forced into saying it.  He should have said it much earlier but he was balancing the armouring against being called profligate with the possible political advantage (I bet Labour spends a fortune on polling before making a decision like that) and there appear to be suggestions that it may not be among the first priorities if Labour wins a UK General Election at some point in the future.  Both parties are on the same side of the argument, though, so where's the problem with devolving it?

Let's assume that the money spent on Housing Benefit at the time of this change would also come to Scotland (and there is no guarantee of that).  That would mean that the cuts were already made to the budget so any Scottish Government intending to reverse the cuts would have to find additional money from elsewhere in the Scottish budget.  Given that the Scottish budget is not exactly flush with spare cash, what would it cut?  Health, education, social work, justice, local government finance, pensioner bus passes, what should be cut to put extra money into Housing Benefit?  Given that some of these areas will be under additional pressure as a result of the less mentioned benefit cuts and the collateral effects of benefit cuts, where is the money to come from?  Unless Scotland takes control of finances and can adjust the whole raft of government spending and financing where do we find the resource.

It is an example of the UK Government armouring itself against the charge that it is imposing this cut on Scotland and seeking an opposition soft spot by offering control over the policy without control over the budget.  It's a political bear trap with still no thought given to the issue of how to house those who cannot afford to house themselves.

A devolution issue
The Housing Benefit cut and the political manoeuvring around make up an example of just what is wrong with devolution.  Policy control without revenue control is a power mirage.  While changes can be made they are far less significant than they could be with the ability to vary the revenue and expenditure streams to adapt public spending to suit the policy intentions.

Without the flexibility to change the large areas of expenditure still controlled in London Scottish resources cannot be directed to best serve the people who live here.  Similarly, without the flexibility to adjust where all the income streams are coming from the burden cannot be lifted from those who can't afford it.

I see Labour activists often calling for the SNP Scottish Government to mitigate the effects of this cut, saying that this was why the Scottish Parliament was reconvened.  Much as I marvel at their lack of ambition for Holyrood, even with the limited power it has, and wonder why this is the one benefit cut that they want mitigated, I find myself wondering a few things -

Why should a Government just mitigate what is being done to the people who elected it rather than trying to change the circumstances that are causing the pain?  Mitigation is only a reduction in severity - if your hand was burning on a cooker top would you just put ice on top to mitigate the pain or would you take your hand away?

If Holyrood had been here with these powers in the 1980s and had mitigated the effects of the then UK Government would we still have half of Ravenscraig?  Would it have been able to afford to have mitigated that at all?

If the next UK Government target is cutting benefit payments to young single people, should we mitigate that as well?

Should the Scottish Government be mitigating the cuts to the armed services in Scotland by setting up a rival army?

How do we mitigate against the effects in Scotland of the UK Government's asylum and refugee policies?

How do we mitigate against the UK Government abandoning the ECHR?

The Scottish Government is already mitigating against the damaging economic policies of the UK Government but it can't do enough, it doesn't have the power nor the resources to do enough.  Should Scotland just shrug our shoulders and say we tried?

How do we mitigate against the void at the centre of policy making where humanity should be and how do we mitigate against a damaged political system that poisons the well of democracy?

It's time to stop mitigating and start acting.

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