Sunday, 12 May 2013

Green Bedroom Tax "no evictions" policy examined

Last week's Brighton Green Party claims to lead the country with a"radical" "no evictions" policy to the Bedroom Tax are set out in a council document on 8th May Housing Committee meeting:

Although it makes for a good headline the "no evictions" policy doesn't guarantee that if Bedroom Tax arrears are a factor people won't be evicted, it says that if Bedroom Tax is "solely due to the under-occupancy penalty" then there will be no evictions. 

Looking at the policy in the cold light of day, the view is that it will be unlikely - due to the range of benefit changes coming in at once - if people are protected.  If they are then, it will only apply to an extremely small group of people.

Camden has contacted a number of authorities reportedly agreeing “no eviction” policies. In all cases we have confirmed that in actual fact their policy is very similar to ours – offer every support possible: income maximisation, incentives to downsize, employment and skills advice and training before considering eviction as a final course of action. Camden's far reaching mitigation package can be viewed here.  

We have yet to have any such cases, and remember - the impact of other changes, especially in the private rented sector is likely to be far higher

There are already lots of tenants who were in arrears before the Bedroom Tax came in, such as those people who are already on housing benefit and seeing their housing support go down in really low paid jobs are right up against it.

So we asked ourselves - even if this was legal: is it fair to exempt one group, as opposed to all others? How effective could that be?  Is there a risk of leading people down a blind alley, rather than a workable policy?

According to the latest statistics published on Camden's welfare site
Bedroom Tax hit areas of council and social housing in Camden hardest

- 1944 council and social tenant households have been affected. 
- Most council tenants are under-occupying by 1 bedroom, for which average loss in benefit is£16.47/week.
- A further 20% are under-occupying by 2 bedrooms, with an average loss of £31.10/week.

Camden, with a high amount of council and social housing, is right at the front line.

It's clearly not as simple as saying to people that they should downsize - there clearly aren't the properties on the market to do that.  

If a only third of households moved, we would need an 308 one bedroom properties; 153 two beds; 36 three beds and 7 four beds to come onto the market.

The likelihood is that people in this situation will be forced further into poverty and debt, because they can't move to smaller council housing and can't move to the private rented sector locally.  This points to people sinking further into arrears which could culminate in evictions at some point in the future. 

Councils deal with rent arrears all the time.  Camden already has comprehensive policies established on late payment and debt.  

Like other Labour councils in London and across the country, we have said what we think we can deliver for the widest group of people : that eviction is only ever used as a very last resort in rent arrears cases (whether Bedroom Tax or not) and we work with other social and private landlords within the borough to ensure that evictions for rent arrears are prevented wherever possible.  

As with other councils, there are already protocols in place for the use of bailiffs for Council Tax (now charged on the poorest) or rent arrears. In all cases we attempt to make arrangements to pay affordable amounts or recover amounts directly from benefit payments rather than use bailiff an further court action. 

After raiding their housing repairs budgets, Brighton Council has set aside £70,000 to cover shortfalls from people "solely" evicted as a result of the Tax, suggesting that they think that a relatively small number of the 1000 impacted will actually fall into this category.  With substantially larger housing stock and repairs backlogs, it is unlikely London or councils with major inner cities will be able to do this.  In any case it appears that any change in Housing Revenue Account (HRA) policy, has to be agreed by the Secretary of State (at 3.11). 

Also I query how it would work - eviction orders I have seen to do with general rents involve individuals with several thousands in arrears who have consistently flouted reasonable repayment orders and not communicated with the council.  Losing £11 a week is just over £600 a year - so it would take several years before the sums added up, and yet the policy set out by Brighton only lasts for a year.

Of course, with other Labour councillors I do sympathise with any council wanting to come up with solutions.   But it’s not fair on every other council or social housing tenant who gets into financial arrears - because they’ve lost a job, or that they have a large family and have been hit by other welfare changes - that one group should be protected.

Exempting various groups from the new Council Tax Reduction Scheme each authority had to put in place last year carried with it quite a rigorous Equality Impact Assessment. Offering a no-eviction guarantee only to a specific group could carry the risk of challenge.  

Knowing this, I do question the motives of the Green's spinning the "no evictions" policy in this way - it does look like posturing, given the similarity with other councils' policies which don't call themselves "no eviction".

The Greens have pointed to the cross-party support for the "no evictions" policy at the housing meeting last week - I suspect faced with an up-or-down vote councillors went with the report.  Indeed Labour's Warren Morgan (@warrenmorgan) has just tweeted "support for report does not mean policy of non eviction effective or realistic." 

But ultimately those of us against the Bedroom Tax shouldn't be trying to jockey for position with faux-radical solutions (evidence from other councils (e.g. Liverpool, Camden, OxfordEdinburgh) suggests the Bedroom Tax "no evictions" call is a overt tactic to create 'red water' between the Greens and Labourshould be campaigning against the Government which introduced this particularly unfair measure and doing what we can to help people cope.

Update 29th May:  Rebel Brighton Green councillor Ben Duncan in his well-publicised spat with his own Party impliedly questions the effectiveness 'no eviction' policy in his statement in today's Argus:  

Jason Kitcat’s policies have time and time again betrayed working people, city residents – and the electoral interests of the Green Party of England and Wales. Whether it’s refusing to rule out cutting pay of unionised staff or evicting council tenants who fall into arrears because the nasty Tories have cut their benefits; championing the erection of a 140-metre high metal viewing platform on the seafront (committing millions in public money to the project); cosying up to local privatisers of public services; publicly championing tax-dodging Apple products; bullying and lying to colleagues - I could go on but, well, I’m sure you get the picture.”

3 comments:

  1. Labour introduced the Bedroom tax with the same criteria in the private rental sector. It is unlikely that Labour will repeal the Bedroom tax for either sectors.
    A shadow cabinet member, Helen Goodman said Labour would keep the Bedroom tax.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AO-91baVvHI&feature=youtube_gdata_player
    @jastilley

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  2. Word has it the Labour Party will soon announce that it will repeal the policy, if for no other reason than it will cost much more to enforce than it would save.

    The councillor should be aware that in addition to the case of Brighton, all SNP councils, and at least 2 labour/snp coalitions have adopted 'no evictions' policies. Doncaster (also labour) has put aside 1/2 of the total rent shortfall (£1m) in hardship payments for those affected. Other Labour run LAs are also working out ways practical ways to protect tenants such as reclassifying bedrooms. The list of councils actively working to protect tenants is growing, and so picking holes in the LAs who are making concrete commitments starts to look a rather weasely approach.

    Importantly these concrete commitments remove a little of the massive strain that tenants are under, and by providing some reassurances they will prevent further tragedies.

    And of course its a massively unpopular policy, and if those labour councillors want to be re-elected they really ought to think about who elected them.

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