No room at the inn - the bedroom tax up close and personal

Andy_Flannagan_Shoot0108.jpgFor the last four years my wife Jen and I have been trying to help build community on our council block in South London. It has been a long road, but a fantastic one. 

As part of our desire to actually DWELL in our block rather than just use it as a base, we knew we would need some rhythms to stop us sliding into box-set selfishness. We were inspired by an incredible bunch of folks we met in Australia called ‘Urban Neighbours of Hope’ ( who have a rhythm whereby every week they eat a meal at some point with some folks in their immediate locality. We thought we probably won’t manage once a week, but we could manage once a fortnight. 

So for the last four and a half years we have shared meals with our neighbours (now friends) on the block. After ‘date night’ it is the first thing that goes in our diaries as non-negotiable. For the first few months it was hard work. We didn’t get too many return invites, and conversation didn’t always flow easily, as people from vastly different cultural, ethnic and economic backgrounds were mixing often for the first time. 

But four years later we are now regularly having parties, BBQs, and working together to improve the block. The transformation has been a beautiful thing to watch, and I will tell you more about it another time, but bearing in mind the debate in Parliament today, I mention it only as context, as I couldn’t allow our friends’ story to remain untold. I’ll call them Steve and Gemma. 

Steve and Gemma have been key to the developing community, always offering to cook or host. But they don’t live on the Andy_Flannagan_Shoot0011.jpgblock any more. They had to move out. And why did they have to move out? The bedroom tax. They couldn’t afford the extra rent they were going to be charged for their spare room (which was uninhabitable anyway due to damp from an unfixed leaky roof). So they have had to move to another flat, which is perfectly nice, but is a long way from the community that they have been part of building. They are now a long way from people that care about them, and help them in times of sickness or challenges with family. The change will make them more state-dependent rather than less state-dependent. Above all we are sad, because our friends are not just around the corner anymore. It gets me wondering how many other communities are being fractured in the name of efficiency. 

When human relationships are abstracted from economic transactions, pretty shocking things can happen. People are exploited. The sub-prime mortgage crisis has left us in no doubt of that truth. 

The Bedroom Tax feels like a housing plan dreamt up by management consultants in a drive towards profit and loss efficiency. Well-meaning perhaps, but wrong-headed in the extreme. It’s a startling insight into a potential future where hedge fund managers run public services for maximum efficiency rather than, oh what’s the phrase… public service.

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commented 2014-01-10 17:22:48 +0000 · Flag
some quick responses – as i said earlier any figure of ‘rich’ can#t take into account people’s different needs nor the very crippling differences in housing costs – which is of course the whole issue behind the bedroom tax and caps on housing benefit which i think unfairly punishes those living in the south and those in areas with little suitable accommodation.

my point about the bible passages is not to claim people are not poor or that we live in a world not dominated by the consequences of our broken relationship with God, rather that these are things God wants us to work to change not things we are supposed to accept.

finally you are of course right that many people would not like my suggestions because they wan their differentials and high pay and bonuses. and indeed communism doesn’t work for this very reason – but i think as a Christian i should challenge that selfishness and see if the dream of a world in which the Utopian statement ‘from each according to their ability to each according to their need’ might be realized sparks some people to work for it. the statement is of course Karl Marx – who i think got the vision right but the remedy horribly wrong – communism doesn’t work – (i think we can agree on that) what is needed is God to change people, and those people to change society.
commented 2014-01-06 12:31:51 +0000 · Flag
Steve – thank you for your definition of “rich” I absolutely would agree that NO-ONE is worth a salary of £1,000,000 a year and that includes bankers, footballers, celebs etc., and the disgusting “bankers bonuses” are obscene, pure greed and a disgrace. I don’t think you and I would be on opposite sides on that one? When you refer to households I take it you mean a married couple – not shared occupancy households – £150.000 while very nice indeed is not great riches they may have children and large morgages. £50.000 p.a. may be comfortable but is certainly NOT riches in my book. I would say here that if folk are going to provide their own accomadation and not rely on social housing then a proper salary is required, otherwise there will be even more pressure on social housing. The problem is that humankind is by nature envious and anyone with a bigger income then “I” is by definition overpaid. Differentials are necessary just ask the unions who are VERY keen to maintain those for their members. And aspiration to work hard and rise up the ladder is surely beneficial. The alternative, which I feel you might support, is Communism, and we have seen the abject misery people living under such regimes have had to endure; the E. Europians who have flocked to this country are witness to that fact. (and even in countries that claim to practice communism operate by the mantra – fair shares for all – as long as I get the biggest share).

I must say that your figures that the average household has an income of £20.000 after tax makes me realise how deprived I am! – my disposal income is much, much less than that – I should be foaming at the mouth and living on bread and water, shivering and barefoot. I am certainly not, I am content and budget properly, and I am thankful. The problem with this sites’ attitude to welfare is that they are not prepared to take a balanced view and differentiate between those who CAN’T support themselves, through no fault of their own, and who should be supported properly; and those who WON’T – well why should they work when someone else will provide for them – why work if you don’t have to.

The Genesis quote still holds true as a fact, that through the fall mankind has sinned and sin separates from a Holy God, I see nowhere in scripture where that statement has been rescinded. God’s Kingdom will only be established when He comes to reign. The reference to the poor only refers to Judas in one out of three passages, John, in the other two there was a general protest. The comment about Judas was not spoken by the Lord but was a comment by the writer of the Gospel – John – in retrospect. You don’t comment on 1 Tim. 5:8. Did Jesus really say rich people were UNABLE – prevented – from entering the Kingdom of God? — I don’t think so!; He did say how hard it is, but that is not the same, the reason it is hard is LOVE of riches. Since riches are not a fixed point how will you determine who can enter the Kingdom and who can’t. And being poor isn’t a qualification either. There will be rich and poor in Heaven and sadly rich and poor outside, but that will not be dependant on how much cash they have but their relationship with the Lord Jesus.
commented 2014-01-05 18:08:12 +0000 · Flag
Ruth – OK misunderstanding on the first point – i didn’t say that elderly people being under pressure was irrelevant i said that using that as an argument about the experience of people on benefits was irrelevant – sorry for the confusion – internet communication not always easy to get right.

the reason it is as you say unlikely that people will not live on the minimum is that we live in society that is highly individualistic and selfish. i think the growing gap between rich and poor demonstrates this.

you ask what is rich? well definitely anyone on the equivalent of £100.000 or more a year and that is probably generous – as the average wage is around £25,000 (which of course means most people earn less than that) perhaps anyone on £50,000 or more per year is rich, but that is debatable for several reasons. There are in reality all sorts of factors affecting people’s expenditure that make that too simplistic and one can’t simply set a figure in that way without taking account of dependents and working partners etc! you really want an indicator of disposable household income.

government figures give average household income after tax as £20,000 per anum – but of course cost of living varies so this not a true indicator of disposable income – the top 50% between them have an after tax income of around 150,000 per anum – 5% of the population earning over 100,000 per anum pre tax and 1% over £1,000,000 per anum. if that income where shared out everyone could have an after tax income of about 50,000 per anum a houshold. it isn’t going to happen but i twould be good if it did in my opinion

lastly your scripture quotes are out of context and miss- used – in Genesis it says that you will earn bread by the sweat of your brow as a statement of the bad state people are in because of their breaking of their relationships with God, each other and creation – this is a statement of what is an evil reality that Christianity is about bringing to an end – that is is a reality also means we need to work but there is no virtue in such a state it is to be viewed as a curse not a moral imperative. Jesus says ‘the poor will always be with you’ after Judas has complained that a woman has anointed Jesus with costly perfume – the text is careful to point out that Judas complained that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor because he was greedy and wanted the money for himself not because he cared for the poor – Jesus response is not a statement that God thinks there should be poor people but to point out that we give gifts to those we love freely today when they are with us and should do this even though there are poor people – the poor will be there tomorrow for us to give to as well. lastly with all of these you have to add the number of times Jesus said the rich we people unable to enter God’s Kingdom that God blessed the poor and sent the rich away etc etc.

guess we are not going to agree – but happy to debate
commented 2014-01-05 13:30:42 +0000 · Flag
Steve – this thread is becoming a bit repetetive so I will be brief – you did say that the fact that the elderly are under pressure was an irrelevance, which demonstrates to me a lack of concern. It would of course be excellent if everyone was able to live above the minimum. However that is not very likely. However society does have a responsibility to ensure the GENUINE poor and needy are cushioned and provided for. That as far as I am concerned does NOT mean that society has to finance those who won’t work. WE hear time and time again that incomers are needed here to fill the jobs that Brits WON’T do as they are beneath them. And welfare was is not intended to provide un-necessary luxuries, nor should it.

Karens complaint that – No take aways, no meals out, no this, no that – really is an irrelevance. These are extras and, although very nice not necsessary to a good life. Nor are large T.V.s . smart phones, I-Pads etc.

Scripture does say that by the sweat of his brow a man shall eat bread AND a man who neglects to provide for his family is worse than an infidel, and Jesus said that the poor would always be with us. there is balance my friend.

BTW PLEASE tell us what in your opinion is rich. What level of income is wealth – please do say so that we can know your values.
commented 2014-01-05 12:57:44 +0000 · Flag
Ruth – nothing in my post suggested i had no concern for older people – i would like all people to live above the minimum regardless of who they are or what they have done – i do not think there is a trade off between the incomes of pensioners and the benefits we pay to those in need. the trade off is between how we tax the rich and how we support the poor – if pensioners are poor they need support just as much as anyone else. the people who should pay are the rich who pay far too little in taxes – we live in a society in which the gap between rich and poor is increasing and as a Christian i find that something completely unacceptable. i agree hear with Karen – no-one deserves to be paid many times more that the average whatever they have done and however talented they are.

your posts seem to imply that you are making a distinction between the those deserving a reasonable standard of living and those who do not deserve this. my Christian understanding is that all people made as they are in God’s image are of equal value and deserve a life that is more than the bear minimum – regardless of what they have contributed economically to society. i want also to try to help all people reach their full potential and play their part in building a society we can all be proud to live in, but ensuring some people are made to live on the minimum is not part of that.
commented 2014-01-03 23:17:02 +0000 · Flag
Steve – the fact that older folk, who have worked hard all their lives and paid their dues to society, is of no concern to you just about says it all doesn’t it. And you obviously think that you are entitled to a higher standard of living than them, and your assumption that these older folk choose to deny thenselves is rubbish and you of course know it. Welfare benefit was intended to support the genuinely needy, not to provide holidays, bottles of wine, meals out etc. etc as Karen suggests. If anyone wants the extras of life they should earn them not sponge on those that do. Your lumping together of the very sick with criminals is vile, and no I wouldn’t expect you to be happy confined to a hospital bed, although whether you would be happy in prison or not I wouldn’t know.
commented 2014-01-03 14:50:09 +0000 · Flag
thanks Karen – it’s a very long time since i lived on benefits myself – and found that they wouldn’t pay for even half of the rent on a two bed flat i and my wife lived in – the cheapest we could find but could afford till the company we worked for went bankrupt. so your personal story helps flesh out the contemporary reality.

Ruth we are all aware that there are people in various parts of the world who would like to have a meal a day and more than the clothes they stand up in – actually so would some of the homeless in Britain – but the minimum one needs to just about stay alive and what one needs to have a modicum of self-esteem are not the same thing – you argument that some older people now can’t enjoy these things is also completely irrelevant – people seriously ill in hospital don’t either or people in prison does this mean all of us should be happy to live like they do? it is fine to chose not to spend money on the things that lift life above the basic level – it is not fine then to tell others they can’t have that choice unless there really is no option – as in the cases above where that choice can’t be exercised.
commented 2014-01-03 14:10:10 +0000 · Flag
Karen – No take-aways, no meals out, no coffee out, no birthday nights out, or presents, no trips to the beach, no holidays, no magazines, no newspapers, no bottles of wine etc. none of these are essential to life, they are added extras. A coffee with friends at home is just as pleasant, and many retired people don’t have ANY of the above in spite of working all their lives and paying taxes. Personally I can’t remember the last time I walked along a beach BUT my life isn’t ruined over that. The lack of the above doesn’t equate with a very poor quality of life. Life is what you make it, simple living isn’t deprivation.
commented 2014-01-03 12:30:27 +0000 · Flag
I’m interested by both sets of reactions to this article. Having lived on benefits for several years, and now working, I have a lot of experience of the issues. I also live on a public housing estate in inner-city London. It’s true that living on benefits long-term does contribute to low self-esteem – partly because your income is so low that you have no choices and a very poor quality of life, and partly because your life is controlled by Jobcentre Plus, where you are treated like a low-life and a criminal. Not a great combination, really.

It’s also true that those NOT on Jobseekers Allowance have to ‘make do’ in a way that some people on benefits, particularly those from a several-generation public housing background, rankle at. The idea that it’s ‘their’ (the local authority’s) job to ensure your happiness was very surprising to me, having grown up in private housing myself.

However, the claim that “a welfare income of 26k p.a. and more is not unusual” needs to be challenged. If you are living on £56.80 (under 25) or £71.70 p/w – which includes all household bills, food, clothing, travel and everything else – of course you can’t afford to pay £550 per month rent and £77 per month council tax, which is what I now pay. (I received a higher income as I have children). Could you live on £71.70 per week? Not just for one week but for an entire year? So no take-aways, no meals out, no coffee out with friends (£2.50?!!!), no birthday nights out or presents or trips to the beach or holidays or magazines or quality newspapers, or a bottle of wine…or anything, really.

Your income doesn’t increase at all – what increases or decreases is your housing benefit, depending on how much your rent is, which is where the £26,000 fallacy comes from. That’s not the fault of the tenant – they don’t control rents. I say a fallacy, as the Daily Mail, etc, seem to conveniently forget that a large chunk of the benefit bill goes on those who are working – to top-up rents with housing benefit, and to top-up incomes with tax credits. These people are also ‘benefit scroungers’, if that’s the label you like. You can use exactly the same argument for those who are on a low income – get training, get educated, get a better job and stop scrounging off those who are well-off. Until the only people not bringing shame on society are the very rich. And where does that leave us?

Ultimately, having worked in a number of different organisations, I remain totally unconvinced that people are worth what they earn. Those who rake-in far more than they need should take a more balanced view of themselves and ask whether they are really so valuable to society. And those who are supposed to be grateful for their £56.80/£71.70 – God bless you all. You are worth as much as anyone else.
commented 2013-11-18 18:37:02 +0000 · Flag
i do suspect we aren’t going to agree – i am also amused by your view that i must be on the far left as opposed to your being just right of centre – all rather subjective – i would consider myself further left than Tony Blair but nowhere near far left – indeed when i was party politically active back in the 1980s i was removed from my post as local chair of the Labour Party Young Socialists on the grounds that i was too moderate – well it was the era of the militant tendency ;o)

that aside i do want people to come off benefits – being on benefits long term helps get people into a cycle of low esteem that makes it harder for them not easier. i just don’t think making being on benefits worse and worse an experience actually helps incentivise people to come off benefits. i am talking here not just about the bedroom surcharge but also about the way back to work programmes are run etc. i also agree that we should not provide social housing to those who can afford a market rent (and in cases of potential homelessness also can get accommodation they can afford being able to afford a market rent is little help if there are no properties at that rent!)

there are indeed families with several generations who have not worked – do you personally know any of these well? do you know their stories and how they have come to live in a cycle of benefit dependency? they do indeed need to break out of that cycle but the lives of those i have known have been complex and difficult, often involving ill health and other issues that mean what they need is care and hope before they will be able to be part of the work force. often they also lack good education and training.

in the end i think our main disagreement is the profile of those on benefits and therefore how the situation is solved. we both want i suspect the same end, people who don;t need benefits, but see the problem differently.
commented 2013-11-16 20:36:49 +0000 · Flag
Steve – Thank you for your detailed reply. I don’t know in which neighbourhoods you have ministered but I find it hard to believe that many of them are VICTIMS of the system. How do you arrive at that conclusion I wonder. The system doesn’t take people hostage, it provides very generous benefits, free housing, free nurserys, child benefit regardless of how many offspring there are, etc. a welfare income of 26k p.a. and more is not unusual. I do take exception to your statement that this government is to be blamed for trying to make the poor and vulnerable bear the burden, what burden? Requiring people to downsize from properties that are too large for their needs is not blame or victimisation in any sense of the words. Social housing is intended to meet NEED, it was never intended to be a house for life. Perhaps there should be regular assessmnets of income to ensure that no-one is recieving cheap housing when they could well pay a proper market rate. You seem to reject the idea that anyone is lazy or workshy, but I do know of households living on benefits where there hasn’t been a breadwinner in the family for 4 generations. Welfare has become their right and entitlement, paid for with taxes taken from ordinary hardworking folk. And there IS a lot of abuse by those who know how to work the system.

I don’t imagine that we shall ever agree on this subject, you appear to be on the FAR left, and I would describe myself as just right of centre. You take the view that the “rich” should fleeced which is standard for leftists. Much of the left wing views stem at base level from envy it seems to me. I and my late husband worked hard and supported ourselves, never rich even by your measure, and brought up our children to work hard also. As I have said those in genuine need should be cared for until they can get back on their feet. But the welfare state was not intended to featherbed the workshy or those who choose to live off the rest of society. I would say that it is just as well that most of us work and pay our taxes, the country would be in a very sorry state if we all sat on our bottoms holding out the begging bowl waiting for the state to house, clothe and feed us – punative rates of tax on those who work, as you suggest, would be self defeating.

You say that peole only thrive when they are given worth and dignity, of course that is true, so living on benefits only contributes to a lack or dignity wouldn’t you agree! Therefore encouraging people to become self supporting is a good thing isn’t it?
commented 2013-11-16 18:25:11 +0000 · Flag
Firstly i agree that all governments since Margaret Thatcher’s are responsible for failing to tackle the housing issue – it has to be handled nationally and that means national government needs to make sure it is handled and all recent governments have failed to do this. this government is to blame for trying to make the poor and vulnerable bear the burden through the policy we are discussing but other governments bear as much blame for the underlying problem

for much of my ministry i have lived and worked in neighbourhoods were many people are on benefits, the vast majority of them are victims of the system not people who are lazy or scrounging, many are so trodden down it is amazing they keep life together as well as they do. this government is spreading the myth that these people are somehow undeserving so it can get support to cynically cut benefits when what it needs to do (but ideologically won’t do) is raise taxes for the better off.

so you raise the question whose taxes? OK i have expertise in economics but not tax collection so if i were really sitting there deciding tax policy (which i am not nor like;y to be) i would have to check on practicalities. that said i think there should be graduated increases in tax rate over a set of income brackets the average wage is around £25,000 per anum so first gradient should probably be pegged at average wage plus £5,000 with further increases at every £50,000 earned beyond that. actually if i were really planning tax i would also in an ideal world scrap VAT (keeping only targeted sales taxes like alcohol, tobacco, petrol etc) now i know current EU policy would cause problems there. the burden would be shifted onto higher rates of income tax. i would also tax the ownership of second homes. i would not as you suggest i might link any tax to the ownership of first homes save stamp duty which i would set at a high rate say 300,000 taking many homes out of that. but this is getting too detailed

finally people only learn to thrive when they are given worth and dignity – a benefits system that says to people ‘you are on benefits – so be grateful for what you have and accept that as a result the government gets to make decisions about your life they wouldn’t if you had more money’ is not one that incentives people it’s one that dehumanizes people
commented 2013-11-15 15:47:02 +0000 · Flag
Steve Thank you for your comments but to blame, and then pass the problem on to this particular government is not just. Social housing has never been a fair allocation whatever the colour of the government, RED, BLUE or ORANGE; it was intended for those in GENUINE need – through NO FAULT OF THEIR OWN – instead it has become a convenient option for the irresponsible and the work-shy. I know from life experience that those who worked hard, delayed having children and provided for themselves, are then taxed to pay for subsidised housing for others who had equal opportunities but who choose to be feckless and wait for the state to take over the responsibility for their state subsidised accomadation. Even the birds of the air and the animals provide a home before producing offspring. And that is a large part of the problem. The automatic provision of housing for young sometimes very young single mothers has quite a bearing on the problem – btw where are all the feckless fathers!!
I DO agree with you that selling off the housing stock, especially at give-away prices, was a disaster and rewarded council tennents with a very handsome financial windfall, and often it was the family that benefitted not the tennent, I know several such. You do take the typical leftist view that the well-off should be taxed to pay for social housing. BUT I wonder how you define the rich. When does one become rich in your opinion? When one owns one’s own home perhaps?
I have no problem with caring for those in REAL need and would NEVER want to see the welfare system abolished, I am just fed up with the abuses and the “It’s my right” brigade. Even the Bible says that a man shall eat bread by the sweat of his brow. Surely a civilised, caring society could do without both excessive ill-gotten wealth and laziness, and fraudulent scrounging. Justice and righteousness applies both ways I suggest.
commented 2013-11-15 13:07:05 +0000 · Flag
the problem i have with your approach is that firstly whilst we would all indeed like people to have the housing size they need lack of building planning – particularly the non-building of government funded housing following the sale of council houses which has left building to the private sector with some work done by housing associations – means that what accommodation there is in each area bears little relation to what is needed. until this problem is solved there are no sensible solutions to people housed in council or private rented sector. many people simply cannot get the accommodation the government says they should have. this is particularity an issue for those in work and also on benefits who can find no accommodation small enough within reach of their work. secondly whilst a policy of moving people within sensible areas to reallocate accommodation so people lived in more appropriate housing would make sense that is not what is happening. rather people are being made to pay a benefit penalty in the hope it forces them to move. all this does is shift the problem of a lack of appropriate housing onto those with the least resources rather than recognizing this is the governments problem to solve not the problem at all of those in such situations. the fact that some people not on benefits are also suffering due to inadequate housing provision, which they are, is not a reason to say everyone else has to suffer the same – the issue of inadequate housing provision needs addressing and if necessary needs higher taxes for the well off the address it.
commented 2013-11-15 11:48:38 +0000 · Flag
In the case of GENUINE health reasons for an extra room, I would hope that common sense would prevail – I think that there is an exception made in such cases – However in the case quoted here that is not the situation, the fact that the extra room is uninhabitable, who says that is so btw, is neither here nor there, this family is taking up more room than they need while others are overcrowded. In the case of separated families it cannot be right that both parents are entitled to an extra room for occassional use at the tax payers expense. The main residense of course would need a bedroom for the child, at the other perhaps the parent could sleep on a camp bed or similar and give up his/her room to the child for a couple of nights. That’s what private home owners have to do; and do it willingly. Please let us not forget that the tax payer is picking up the bill for these subsidised dwellings and it is only right that the money is spent wisely and without waste on genuinely needy people. There is too much abuse of the welfare system, including social housing.
commented 2013-11-14 21:38:10 +0000 · Flag
I’m rather in two minds about the so-called bedroom tax. Clearly, as in the case of your friends it is often applied in an unreasonable way, eg. why does an uninhabitable room count? – equally there are many individual circumstances where it seems clear that an extra bedroom is needed because of age or disability or because children from a previous relationship come to stay on a regular basis. I would hope – but am unfortunately not at all certain – that such factors would be taken into account when the need of an individual or family is assessed. On the other side though, we all know that there are many families and individuals who live in crowded or inappropriate accommodation, and wish that they could be provided with something more appropriate, which seems even less likely if other people continue to “block” flats or houses that are larger than they really need. Real life is just more complicated than the simple numbers
commented 2013-11-13 15:56:45 +0000 · Flag
Sad as it is for your friends having to move, they still have, as you admit, a perfectly nice flat, so they are well provided for. It surely does have to be remembered that social housing rent is subsidised by the tax payer and the maintenance paid for likewise – the government doesn’t have any money of its’ own, and every council has a responsibility to get the best use from their housing stock. Extra and unused bedrooms are not a necessity and must be paid for accordingly. Social housing is intended to provide housing for those unable to purchase their own homes, unless and until they ARE in a position to be self sufficient. Unfortunately the welfare system, which can be very generous esp. to those who know how to work it, has become a right not a privilege. I would remind you that people NOT in social housing “have to cut their pattern according their cloth” why shouldn’t council tennents not be required to do the same??
commented 2013-11-13 09:09:44 +0000 · Flag
Thanks for the story of your friends. I shall share it as yet another example of the bedroom tax. Aside from that I hope you friends may be able to use their experience of community to build new friendships and support.
commented 2013-11-12 17:27:31 +0000 · Flag
thanks Andy – suitably shared as it deserves to be