David Cameron calls it the “spare room subsidy”. Almost everyone else calls it the “bedroom tax” – a cut to housing benefit for working-age council or housing association tenants with “spare” bedrooms.
The Prime Minister has slipped up on the details before, as we found in an earlier FactCheck. Today he was accused of getting it wrong again in response to awkward questions about the plight of disabled claimants and the parters who care for them.
Mr Cameron failed the FactCheck test in March when questioned about some of the detail of the new rule changes.
He suggested, wrongly, that everyone who needs round-the-clock care and all disabled children were exempt from the Housing Benefit cut.
In fact, this was always likely to be a policy that affected disabled people disproportionately, and it was always likely that safeguards designed to protect them would be inadequate.
The government’s own impact assessments predicted that nearly two-thirds of benefits claimants affected – 420,000 people out of 660,000 – would be disabled.
While there has been some softening of the impact for disabled people, the measures don’t help everyone:
Councils have some discretion over whether disabled children are eligible for their own bedrooms, but there’s no blanket exemption.
Local authorities also have £150m a year to hand out in the form of discretionary payments to help the most disadvantaged. Of that, £25m is designed to stop disabled people having to move out of homes adapted at the public expense to suit their needs.
This is only enough to help around one in 10 of the disabled people likely to be affected by the change.
Bedrooms used by live-in carers and overnight help for people who need round-the-clock care are exempt too. But crucially, this isn’t true of people who care for their partner or spouse.
This was the specific scenario put to the Prime Minister today by Labour MP Alison Seabeck – who talked about a woman looking after a husband with Parkinson’s disease.
According to Ms Seabeck, the couple in question “moved to a two bedroom property because he found it impossible to sleep when they were sharing a room”.
But under the change the couple face cuts to their housing benefit.
Other people we know will be affected include families with severely disabled children who have a spare room for a carers to stay overnight, but don’t use the room every night.
It’s cases like these that make the Prime Minister’s claim that “anyone who needs to have a carer sleeping in another bedroom is exempt” ring hollow.
There is mounting evidence that disabled claimants and their carers are failing to convince councils to give them hardship money.
The Papworth Trust and the National Housing Federation surveyed 24 councils and found that disabled people have been refused payments in almost a third.
Nine out of ten of people who were turned down said they had been forced to cut back on paying for necessities like food and bills.
In a separate survey, the charity Carers UK interviewed 101 carers affected by the new policy.
Some 56 per cent had applied for emergency payments from their local council, and only 23 per cent received some money (less than half of those who asked for it). Only one in ten carers were getting support from their council for a full year.
Of those not getting a discretionary payment, 75 per cent said they were cutting back on essentials like food and heating.
Mr Cameron is guilty, not for the first time, of exaggerating the built-in protections for the most vulnerable claimants.
People who use a spare room to store medical equipment or for the occasional accommodation of an overnight carer are not protected.
Carers who look after a spouse or partner but need to sleep in a separate room are also not exempt from the “bedroom tax”.
The government has put aside some extra money to help the most vulnerable people, but there is mounting evidence that councils are not making discretionary payments to some of them.
By Patrick Worrall
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