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50,000 more homes hit by Britain's bedroom tax, as scientists warn of COVID-19 risk

Soaring benefits claims since the start of the pandemic have resulted in a jump in households affected by the controversial ‘spare room’ penalty

Chaminda Jayanetti
23 February 2021, 2.32pm
A protest in Croydon, south London, against the introduction of the bedroom tax in 2013
Dominic Lipinski/PA Archive/PA Images

The number of households in Great Britain hit by the bedroom tax has risen by nearly 50,000 during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to figures published today by the Department for Work and Pensions.

The rise comes amid warnings from government scientific advisers that the rule, which reduces support payments to social housing tenants if their property is classed as having a spare bedroom, makes it harder for people to self-isolate and prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

In March 2020, 444,756 households were affected by the rule, which the government calls "removal of the spare room subsidy". By November – the most recent month for which data is available – that figure had risen by 10%, to 491,765.

The bedroom tax, which was introduced amid a storm of controversy in 2013, applies to council and housing association tenants who receive either old-style housing benefit or housing costs payments under the newer Universal Credit system.

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The rise is entirely due to the huge increase in the number of people claiming Universal Credit since the beginning of the pandemic. The proportion of claimants in social housing who are classed as having spare bedrooms – has remained broadly the same, at a rate of one in five.

Between March and November last year, the number of Universal Credit claimants affected by the bedroom tax rose by 40%, from 170,342 to 238,748. There was also a drop in the number of bedroom tax cases amongst households on housing benefit, from 274,414 to 253,017, as some tenants were moved from the older system onto Universal Credit.

When the bedroom tax was introduced, the government said it would encourage benefit claimants to find work or move to smaller accommodation, enabling more efficient use of the social housing stock. However, critics argued there was a severe shortage of available social housing.

More recently, the pandemic has made it harder for tenants to either move house or find work, with unemployment rocketing. In November, the government’s scientific advisory body SAGE warned that the bedroom tax could be hastening the spread of COVID-19, because it has “limited the amount of space available to families in social housing”, making it harder for infected people to self-isolate.

Extra space, said the report, “can be crucial if, for example, members of the family return home (e.g. adult children returning, as happens in times of economic downturn), or there is a need for a carer to stay.

“The emphasis on within-household isolation during the pandemic is rendered much more of a challenge where there is no spare room.”

The government calculates whether a property has spare bedrooms by comparing the number of occupants to the number of bedrooms. Specific rules determine whether children are expected to share a room. The housing costs payment is cut by 14% if a tenant has one designated spare bedroom, and 25% if they have two or more.

The Scottish and Northern Irish governments fully mitigate the benefit shortfalls incurred by tenants hit by the bedroom tax, but this is not the case in England and Wales.

A spokesperson for the Department of Work and Pensions told openDemocracy, “We are committed to supporting the lowest-paid families through the pandemic, which is why we’re spending hundreds of billions to safeguard jobs, boosting welfare support by billions and have introduced the Covid Winter Grant Scheme to help vulnerable families.  

“The removal of the spare room subsidy has been an important tool to help to manage housing support expenditure and enable mobility within the social rented sector.”

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