Of all the welfare changes introduced in Great Britain since 2010, it is the Bedroom Tax that has perhaps attracted the most attention. The patent unfairness and arbitrary nature of the policy, along with its arresting tabloid moniker (officially it is the ‘Social Sector Size Criteria’), has provoked much interest. Social tenants on housing benefit deemed to have one spare bedroom lose 14% of their entitlement, with two or more spare bedrooms triggering a 25% cut in payments. For low-income families already struggling to make ends meet, these are punitive sanctions.
Social tenants in GB have now been subject to the Bedroom Tax for three years. But in Northern Ireland we rightly resolved to use our social security powers to take a different approach. The Fresh Start Agreement resolved the welfare reform conundrum by agreeing to legislate for GB policies, but with full mitigation until March 2020. Its text was explicit: ‘It has been agreed that the social sector size criteria – the so called bedroom tax – will not apply, as agreed by the Executive.’
However while the Assembly has passed legislation to mitigate the household benefit cap and other policies, legislating for Bedroom Tax mitigation had yet to be completed. This leaves us with the prospect of 34,000 households facing significant shortfalls averaging £15 per week in their housing benefit when the policy takes effect on 20 February, the ‘go live’ date already stipulated in separate legislation. Communities Minister Paul Givan assures us the Department for Communities is exploring every possible option to provide the promised mitigation, in the absence of a functioning Executive and Assembly.
Predictably the issue is becoming a political football.
In the midst of such pre-electioneering, we must not lose sight of the low-income households who will suffer if this is not quickly resolved. Advice agency Housing Rights is rightly calling on our politicians to do whatever it takes to sort out the matter. If NI Executive ministers cannot act to resolve this, it is incumbent on James Brokenshire and the UK Government to legislate at Westminster to delay the introduction of the Bedroom Tax. Although they might be reluctant to shield Northern Ireland from a policy they have subjected the rest of the UK to, the British Government must fulfil the commitments they made, in agreeing Fresh Start, for specific welfare arrangements for this place. Our political leaders here and in GB must not be let off the hook.
Housing Rights has suggested that if a solution to facilitate mitigation payments cannot be found, the Housing Executive and housing associations will have to consider our options. Of course we will do that. However, as independent social enterprises, housing associations’ viability depends on collecting rent due in full. Our sector is striving to meet rapidly increasing NI Executive targets for much-needed new social homes. In this we match government investment pound-for-pound through private borrowing, delivering twice as many homes as could be built with public money alone. Therefore, although NIFHA members’ social purpose is at the heart of all they do, housing associations are unlikely to be able to waive the rent shortfalls 7,000 sector tenants will face if the promised mitigation fails to materialise.
For the sake of tenants, we very much hope our leaders will find a solution and landlords will not be placed in an invidious position. However even if the Bedroom Tax is sorted, at least until 2020, there are new welfare challenges that will have to be addressed by whoever is governing after the Assembly elections. For example, Northern Ireland will be expected to follow GB in implementing the capping of housing benefit at the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) levels that determine payments in the private rented sector (PRS). Huge numbers of social tenants in NI could be penalised by this policy, which, unlike the Bedroom Tax, will apply to pensioners as well as working age households.
So implementing welfare reform here will continue to pose huge challenges for whoever is governing. But for the sake of our some of our poorest families, commitments that have been made to protect vulnerable people must be honoured, by the local, British and Irish politicians who agreed the Fresh Start.
Cameron Watt is Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations (NIFHA).