At a time when the bedroom tax is coming to dominate debates about housing and fairness in our society, Liz Davies considers the options available to local councils in resisting this policy of central government.
Green Party-controlled Brighton & Hove Council has announced that it will not evict those council tenants in rent arrears because of the government’s bedroom tax.
The policy lasts for one year, to be reviewed in April 2014. It is tightly drawn – the council must be satisfied that all other avenues, such as moving to a smaller property, have been explored, that there are no suitable properties to transfer to and that arrears are solely due to the bedroom tax.
Some SNP councils in Scotland have adopted similar policies.
Shamefully no Labour council has said that it will do the same.
Agreed, it’s not an easy stand for councils to take. They did not dream up the bedroom tax – it’s a central government measure. Labour councils are opposed to the bedroom tax.
But it’s not clear whether an incoming Labour government in 2015 would repeal it, and given Labour’s recent policy statements on keeping spending down, particularly spending on welfare, it seems very unlikely.
All Labour councillors should commit themselves to lobbying Ed Miliband and Ed Balls now so that repeal of the bedroom tax is in Labour’s general election manifesto and they should say so now.
The question for Labour councils is whether – between now and 2015 – they authorise evictions of their tenants, saying: “There’s nothing we can do, it’s the government’s fault” or stand with their tenants and show that the bedroom tax is unworkable.
If they do, there’s a chance that we wouldn’t need to wait for a Labour government or hedge our bets on Balls’s spending restrictions.
Labour councillors argue that Brighton’s policy is, in effect, window-dressing.
They say that all Labour councils will only evict tenants as a last resort, that distinguishing those tenants who are in arrears solely because of the bedroom tax as opposed to other reasons is almost impossible, that direct payment of housing costs to tenants – when universal credit starts to be implemented nationally in October – will make it even more likely that tenants in poverty won’t pay their rent, and ask why should those unable to pay because of bedroom tax be privileged above those unable to pay for other reasons due to poverty.
They add that Labour councils will use discretionary housing benefit as much as they can to alleviate the tax, and that the priority should be practical effect for low-income households.
Perhaps. Although I think they overstate the difficulty in identifying arrears from bedroom tax, which would only have started from April this year.
The argument about other tenants in financial difficulties is unattractive – how does it help them to know that their neighbour is also being evicted?
But Labour councillors miss the central issue – invidious though the government’s other attacks on the poor are, the bedroom tax stands as the worst.
And, precisely because it is so appalling, there is already a substantial amount of opposition and media coverage, even before any tenant has faced eviction proceedings.
If tenants cannot rely on sympathetic Labour councils, can they rely on the courts to protect them?
The short answer is No. There are some high-profile judicial review challenges to some of the details of the bedroom tax – one case arguing that it fails to take account of a couple’s need to have a two-bedroom home where one of them is disabled has been heard and judgement is awaited.
But judicial review only challenges the details, not the policy itself.
High Court judges are reluctant to overturn a government’s decisions in the social welfare area – politics is for elected politicians.
They may interfere on the margins, for example around equality issues, but not to prevent or alleviate poverty.
Judges have not yet had to grapple with possession claims brought by landlords where the tenant is in arrears because of the bedroom tax.
When they do, the reality is that judges are likely to side with the council or housing association asking for the tenant’s eviction.
Normally, where the tenant can offer a financial package to assure the judge that the rent arrears will stop increasing, and she manages to pay her current rent plus even a small amount to her arrears, judges will often decide against eviction.
But where the tenant cannot afford to pay her current rent, which will be the case with bedroom tax arrears, judges will be reluctant to let the arrears increase.
Perhaps some judges will be persuaded, but they will be referred to the Court of Appeal.
So if legal remedies are no protection against this wicked tax, what protection is there?
The answer is politics and political campaigning.
Disabled People Against the Cuts and Benefit Justice have held imaginative protests against the tax.
Leeds Council has announced that it will do what it can to classify rooms as something other than bedrooms, so that tenants would not be considered to be underoccupying. But this tax is such an attack on the poor that it needs to be shown to be unworkable.
That means where there are evictions, they should be met with mass resistance. Mass resistance can keep someone in her home and also attract significant media attention.
If there are to be evictions, the councils carrying out the evictions can’t avoid responsibility.
I have never met a tenant who, faced with eviction by her council landlord, says: “Well, I understand it’s the government’s fault and not the council’s.”
Tenants, understandably, want their councils to protect them.
If Labour councils start to evict tenants for arrears due to the bedroom tax, they will be politically as responsible as the government which introduced it.
If we are to repeal the bedroom tax, it needs to be shown to be unworkable.
The alternative is waiting for the election of a Labour government in 2015 – which may or may not happen – and hoping that government will repeal the bedroom tax, which seems unlikely.
If the tax has been in effect for two years, it could easily fall down Labour’s list of priorities.
The time for the bedroom tax to be shown as unworkable is now.
There is widespread agreement that the government’s back-of-an-envelope notion that underoccupying tenants in social housing could just move to smaller properties is nonsense.
Either Labour councils stand shoulder to shoulder with tenants facing the bedroom tax, take the responsibility for not evicting them and insist that central government has to grapple with the consequences or councils will find that they make poor tenants homeless and they will then have to face the political responsibility for evictions.
This article was first published in the Morning Star. Liz Davies writes here in a personal capacity.