Taxing Bedrooms and the Cult of Un-Evidence

by Ken Gibb

There were co-ordinated protests around Britain last weekend demonstrating against the introduction of the under-occupation charge, widely known as the ‘bedroom tax’. The media have picked up on the issue and no longer is it only the housing professions, anti-poverty and welfare rights groups beating the drum. However, as Alex Marsh (1) pointed out recently, the new-found interest in housing benefit has come too late to prevent the likely chaos the ‘reforms’ will engender.

For anyone left who missed the controversy, the reforms will reduce the housing benefit received by working age social tenants by 14% if they under-occupy one room and by 25% if they have two or more ‘excess’ rooms.

The DWP do not like it being called a bedroom tax but Richard Best, who popularized the term, argued that it is like a tax because most people who find themselves under-occupying cannot readily downsize because of the general lack of smaller sized units. Bigger properties reflect a long-term strategy across the sector (and housing system more generally) to get rid of one bedroom properties and indeed commonly to promote the use of a spare room in housing allocations for many years).

The cut to HB is hardly voluntary and is just what it looks like: an austerity tax on the poor. And when those who are able to move downsize into the rental market, their rents and housing benefit bills are probably going to be considerably higher than if they had stayed in larger social rented housing.

There has been comparison made with the politics of the poll tax, particularly in terms of resistance and potential damage to the government. I am not so sure – the benefit reforms remain the politically popular part of the austerity programme (for now, at least – it may be a bit different if the introduction of the universal credit is as difficult as many imagine it will be).

Two politicians today illustrated the ‘quality’ of the debate. The Chancellor of the Exchequer extended the ‘deserving versus undeserving poor’ dualism, to imply that, ‘generous’ state benefits were linked  to a notorious recent multiple murder. David Davis claimed that one in two out of hundred children born to benefit-dependent families came into the world for the additional benefit income they provide for their parents.

Stop and think about these statements for a minute. How do they know these contentions to be facts? On what empirical basis could such a thing be stated and known? To me this is the nadir of the reaction against evidence in policy. Yes, there are all sorts of problems with evidence-based policy, which can be guilty of many abuses and misuses. But the continued development of policy and policy platforms on a basis of positively rejecting evidence and relying on belief, anecdote and frankly faulty and wrong-headed analysis is profoundly depressing. We have reached the stage where single cases or indeed theoretical cases of maximum benefit income that could be earned are being treated as benchmarks in debates rather than as the extremes and end of spectrum cases that they clearly are. Worst of all, hardly anyone questions this anymore.

At the same tine, there is, of course, evidence. Colleagues of mine in Glasgow contributed to the latest Breadline Britain study that has in many respects confirmed the common sense view that inequality and material poverty is worsening (in an already highly unequal pre-austere UK society). The study leader, Dave Gordon from the University of Bristol, was quoted in the study press release as saying the results painted a bleak portrait. One in three people in the UK endure ‘significant difficulties’ and one in four have an ‘unacceptably low standard of living’.  The study team argues that things will only get worse as benefits fall cumulatively in real terms. (2)

The benefits system is of course critical to the daily management of poverty for millions of people. Housing benefit in particular is also an in-work benefit. Working low-income households rely on it. In an era of economic stagnation and considerable reliance on low paid work – these under-occupation charges are inherently non-marginal and will undoubtedly contribute to disincentivising work. That can’t be right?