Take it over: Uptown Court, 103 spare rooms. Recently purchased for just £35 million by unnamed Indian billionaire

Welfare cuts: Housing should be a basic human right

The cuts to housing benefit are cruel and irrational, says Michael Copestake

Could you live on £53 per week? Many in this country, because of unemployment, disability or incapacity, or even low-paid, part-time employment in a world of extortionate living costs, are already barely surviving on something like this, give or take a few quid. The changes to the welfare system being pushed through by the Conservative-led coalition government only look like adding to this growing accumulation of social penury and misery.

Incidentally, the minister most directly responsible for the changes to housing benefit (HB), council tax benefit, etc thinks that he could. “If I had to, I would,” a confident Iain Duncan Smith told listeners to BBC Radio 4. Indeed IDS has since boasted that he knows precisely what it is like to be on the breadline from personal experience, having been unemployed himself on two occasions. What a man of the people!

However, amusing though it may be to poke fun at the often very well-off leaders of the government, it is a mistake to follow this route in terms of the ‘fairness’ of austerity. What if the Conservative Party were represented by people who went to comprehensive school and small trades people who better embodied the ideology of ‘striving’ to implement cuts? What about when we are on the receiving end of Labour austerity? It is a class question, not a question of individual hypocrites.

The most immediate cause for the latest wave of fury against the government’s austerity programme is the ‘bedroom tax’ that from now on is to be levied on tenants in state-owned or housing association accommodation who are deemed to be receiving more HB than they ‘deserve’, given that they live somewhere that has an alleged ‘spare’ room.

Listening to the men from the ministry, it all sounds so fair. Don’t you know that in the private sector you can’t claim HB for more than a single room per adult? Why should the people in state-owned housing be so much more privileged? A simple bit of regulatory alignment that will increase the amount of fairness and decrease the size of the deficit. What’s not to like?

Both of these excuses, and they are the flimsiest of excuses, are risible. In no sense can one conceive that this part of the austerity programme will make even a dent in the deficit (and we reject austerity point blank anyhow), and in no sense can the measures being implemented be considered ‘fair’ - a malleable concept which is completely in the eye of the beholder. We say it is not fair that those in private accommodation, rented or bought, are exploited by landlords and banks. We say it is not fair to engage in ‘downward levelling’. Ironically this was one of the main accusations that used to get thrown at the those who advocate communism. Under capitalism it has become a badge of merit in a world of market failure.

What is it?

The bedroom tax will affect around 660,000 households, with two-thirds of those being hit by reductions in HB being disabled. Being found in possession of one ‘spare’ room will lead to a 14% reduction in HB for the tenant, with a 25% reduction for those with two or more ‘spare’ rooms. Government apologists claim it is unfair and iniquitous to have thousands of families stuck in overcrowded accommodation, whilst so many single people, couples or small families are swanning around in houses that may even have a whole extra room in addition to the living and sleeping area deemed necessary, with no account taken of whether or not this ‘spare’ room is actually in use - unless the person goes through an arduous complaints process to try and gain an exemption: for example, the room may be needed on medical grounds.

There are around 200,000 people in overcrowded state-owned housing, so in theory, assuming straight swaps with the ‘spare roomers’ could be arranged (which, obviously, is impossible), that would end the overcrowding, wouldn’t it? But what about the extra 400,000 people with nowhere smaller to move to? Would IDS ensure the extra accommodation was built, if he won’t now?

Why were so many people placed in accommodation with rooms allegedly ‘surplus’ to requirements in the first place? No surprises: part of the answer is that there was a shortage of accommodation of a more suitable size. So people are supposedly being ‘encouraged’ to move into housing which not only does not exist, but whose non-existence is the basis of the whole operation in the first place! This is an entirely irrational policy - at least from the point of view of solving housing problems. But, of course, that is not the real intention. The real intention is to reduce welfare to the bare minimum as part of an overall strategy of returning to some kind of ‘pristine’ capitalism.

Labour, sensing easy point-scoring, has called ‘bullshit’ on the whole thing. Through freedom of information requests Labour has ascertained that replacement accommodation of a smaller size only exists for one in every 20 of those who will be affected by the bedroom tax. For those who remain they face either a significant further reduction in an already precarious standard of living, or moving out into smaller accommodation in the private sector. Rents, of course, tend to be higher in the private sector than in state-owned housing, and the National Housing Association has calculated that even if only a small proportion of those presently on HB in state-owned housing move on to private-sector housing then the total cost of HB would increase. Add in the monstrous cost of administering this cruel wheeze, plus the costs of chasing people though the courts for rent arrears, and the idea that this will reduce the dreaded deficit by even a penny has to be laughed out of court.

Labour leader Ed Miliband has apparently instructed Labour-controlled councils to oppose the bedroom tax. Whether there is anything of substance behind this remains to be seen. In principle it should be easy enough for councils to get round it. The Labour council in Nottingham has simply reclassified several of its blocks of flats from ‘two-bed’ to ‘one-bed’ and will presumably keep tenants’ HB at the same level.

Housing benefit itself is administered and paid out by local councils but then claimed back from central government funds through the department for work and pensions, so in theory all councils could refuse to go along with the bedroom tax and simply keep reclaiming the same amount as before.

But there’s more

Harder to get around is one of the other measures being introduced in the name of austerity: the changes to council tax benefit. Whist the HB ‘reforms’ affect a large enough number of people, those related to CTB will hit a truly massive two million or so. Previously CTB was centrally administered and funded, subsidising a portion of the council tax of those on very low incomes. As of April 1, responsibility for the administration of CTB has been passed to local councils, along with a 10% cut in the money for funding it. The buck has been passed. There will be cuts.

Already councils are preparing for mass non-payment. Many people will simply be unable to pay the increased council tax bill, and more will seize the opportunity to refuse any increase that will further impoverish them. Again, it is obvious that the cost to local government of chasing through the courts everyone who cannot pay would massively outweigh the costs incurred by ignoring non-payment. But a failure to pursue non-payment would simply shift the black hole in local finances, and councils will end up making extra cuts in other services.

In addition to the attacks on HB and CTB, those on benefit are facing consistent below-inflation increases in what they receive. This comes on top of a possible freeze in the level of the minimum wage and, apparently now pushed back to September/October, the pride of IDS, his universal credits scheme. We can probably expect public anger to peak some time after that, given the degree of provocation all this represents to large numbers of workers beyond the ‘easy pickings’ of the present measures.

Despite everything, opinion polls still reveal consistent majorities in favour of cuts to welfare. Austerity is seen by a majority as necessary, even if people are not so sure it is working. If you accept the premises, this perception of necessity is correct: only so much of the deficit can be unwound through quantitative easing and devaluation (which hurts the whole class anyway, just less visibly).

The clear Marxist alternative we need is yet to enter the field. But one easy solution to the whole housing crisis is to occupy the millions of vacant properties, including, of course, whole swathes of Mayfair, Highgate, Hampstead, Chelae and Kensington, which has been snapped-up by ultra-rich Russian, Egyptian, Saudi, Italian, Greek, French billionaires looking for a bolthole for investment. Housing should be a basic human right. Something to be distributed on the basis of need. Not profit.