Is the government's 'bedroom tax' pushing people to the brink of eviction?

20 September 2013

Whether you call it the 'bedroom tax', 'spare room subsidy' or 'under-occupation of social housing reform' (and the terminology is hotly contested), the government's changes to housing benefit eligibility for claimants with a 'spare' room aren't showing any signs of leaving our front pages.

Yesterday's Independent emblazoned across page one: "Bedroom Tax: now 50,000 people are facing eviction". Today's Star also ran with "'Bedroom tax' leaves more than 50,000 facing eviction".

The new rules - which mean that Housing Benefit will be reduced for most working-age claimants renting socially who have at least one spare room in their property - came into effect from April this year.

50,000 in arrears

The figure comes from a series of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests made to local authorities across Britian by campaign group False Economy. It was a rare treat to find out the group had already published the data tables it had compiled based on its reponses from 114 of the authorities, so anyone interested could dig down to the details themselves.

The tables didn't make clear what questions the group had actually sent out, but a quick browse of a few example authorities' FOI sites revealed recent disclosures that contained exactly the same data from the research.

It asked authorities to "state the number of households in council housing in the local authority area that are affected by the 'bedroom tax' that are in arrears on their rent". To 'link' this to the introduction of the policy in April, it also asked: "please additionally state how many of these particular households (i.e. those affected by the bedroom tax who are currently in arrears) were already in arrears on 1st April 2013".

For each authority, excluding households already in arrears yielded an estimate of the number currently in arrears - the total across those providing data for council housing: 50,378. So the total could be higher considering the missing responses.

But these are 50,378 households, not people as suggested in the headlines.

50,000 facing eviction?

While it's possible to be evicted from a property for not paying rent, it's not as clear cut to conclude that this many also face eviction - at least imminently. False Economy tried to establish more by asking whether councils had a policy not to evict tenants in arrears due to the government's policy specifically.

Most had no 'non-eviction' policy, but 13 different councils suggested they did have such a policy, with conditions attached. For instance Highland council has agreed that "no Council tenants affected by the tax should be evicted from their homes in the first year of the tax because of rent arrears caused by the under-occupancy charges," provided they're doing what they can to keep up with payments.

The 13 councils with these add up to about 11,000 households affected since April, so these at least aren't clear-cut cases.

Confirming the link with the government's policy also isn't that simple. One council that didn't employ a 'non-eviction' policy said that it had 800 eviction proceedings that it had begun since April, but none were being taken "as a direct result of non-payment of the 'bedroom tax'". Others also showed no such cases.

It isn't possible to go through every council's reponse to assess what 'chances' tenants falling into arrears since the government's policy was introduced have of being evicted. Broadly speaking, while many households in arrears may face some prospect of eviction, the likelihood and imminence of this varies by the policies and conditions imposed by the local councils. There isn't any obvious evidence yet of widespread eviction proceedings already in motion as a direct result of the government's policy, although this isn't to say such evidence won't come to light in the future as the policy grows older.

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