THE General Synod carried a motion on Tuesday afternoon which
expressed its concern over the reported impact of the spare-room
The motion on the spare-room subsidy, commonly referred to as
"the bedroom tax", was the first diocesan-synod motion to be
debated by the Synod from the new diocese of West Yorkshire &
the Dales. It had begun as a motion at the Airedale deanery synod,
and "reflects real concern from those working among the poor and
marginalised in Bradford about the impact of" this part of the
Government's welfare reform.
"This motion reflects that all are responsible for all,"
Ian Fletcher (West Yorkshire & the Dales),
introducing the debate, said. "It relates to the common good and
the holding of government to account."
He said: "We are well aware of the need for government to
balance its books, and we do not pretend that there is no need for
welfare reform. We are not opposed to change, and indeed we are
supportive of it. We are, however, opposed to change that
disregards the needs of the poor and vulnerable."
He said that "those who suffer as a result of it are often the
least able in our society," and gave examples of people struggling
with it, including a 50-plus-year-old man who "lives in a
three-bedroom property with his non-dependent son. He has lived in
the same property for over 20 years, where he brought up his
family. He has alcohol issues and low self-esteem. His son is in
some aspects a carer, but he has to pay the bedroom tax. He is left
with £1.59 per day for food, clothes, and everything else; and is
in debt to a payday loan company."
Mr Fletcher said that debt advisers were "finding that framing
any workable budget for some of those who are paying bedroom tax is
impossible", and that this was "without taking account of the level
of debt, often from payday loans, that some have amassed".
In the metropolitan district of Bradford, 2807 people had to pay
bedroom tax in August, with an average cost of £15.11 per week:
"1489 children live in the affected households. In our political
system, children have very little voice, and yet we know that
bringing up children in poverty detrimentally affects their entire
life and reduces their healthy life expectation and increases the
likely costs to the NHS."
Half the clients of Bradford's social-housing provider,
Incommunities, were now in debt where no debt previously existed.
"Our motion does not go as far as calling for the abolition of
bedroom tax, but it highlights concerns, and looks to a review of
the effects of this particular aspect of welfare reform. We ask
whether, now it has been seen in action, it actually achieves the
benefits that we expected of it, or whether it penalises the most
vulnerable, and has no actual benefit to the Exchequer."
The Revd Charles Razzall (Chester) told the
Synod of one of his parishioners who was suffering under the
bedroom tax. "She said 'I feel like I'm on the edge of a cliff,'"
he said. He said that cutting housing benefit for spare bedrooms
seemed to be a "purely arithmetic exercise". "I hope that those of
all political persuasions will vote for looking at this seriously
and supporting this motion," he said.
Lois Haslam (Chester) said that she wanted to
tell the story of one family in her parish who were feeling the
effects of the bedroom tax. "This family have been in [their
council] house for 17 years. But for the first time they are now in
rent arrears, because of the spare-room subsidy," she said. "They
are having to use their credit card for food . . . and are fearful
of being compulsorily moved out."
She said there were no smaller properties available in the area.
In contrast, Mrs Haslam said that she received a discount of 25 per
cent on her council tax, even though she owned her house, which,
she said, seemed unfair, given she was not as needy as this
Peter Collard (Derby) said that he had
initially thought the motion was reasonable. Having spoken to his
daughter, however, who on moving to London had been unable to
afford even a one-bedroom flat, despite having a degree and job, he
said that it was unfair. "Is it fair that someone on benefits
should have accommodation which is a higher standard than my
daughter could afford for herself?"
He spoke of another person who, he claimed, was "gaming" the
benefits system by fraudulently claiming to be disabled. "In some
ways, there is a bigger issue. Are we trying to take the splinter
out of the Government's eye when in fact we have a plank in our own
eye?" The Church's mission was to bring people into a relationship
with God rather than spend time doing "what the politicians have
already done for themselves".
Sam Margrave (Coventry) spoke as director of
one of the largest housing associations, and as a councillor. In
response to Mr Collard, he argued that "most people in benefits are
in work," and that "we should not judge whether someone is disabled
or not." The motion was "noble", but he suggested that "the Church
needs to do something: we are an institution with wealth and land.
We should be committed to exploring what opportunities there are to
help with this situation. . . It's about using our weight in the
marketplace and combining that with our conscience. . . We've take
on Wonga; so let's take on shoddy landlords."
Amanda Fairclough (Liverpool) was both a Church
Commissioner and a representative for the House of Laity on the
Commissioners' Assets Committee. With a "heavy heart" she resisted
the amendment. She said: "We are a charity, and the returns we get
fulfil our objectives. Our assets provide an income to pay
pensions, and to fund the work of the wider Church. We are a very
good charity, because we are doing God's work with our resources,
spending our income to build the Kingdom."
The proposed amendment "muddies investment decisions and risks
diminishing returns. It risks helping a few needy people at the
expense of helping far more and even failing the whole Kingdom of
God." She argued that "the best way to bring about a bias to the
poor is spread the gospel of Christ. We need money to do that, and
the more money the better."
The First Church Estates Commissioner, Andreas
Whittam Smith, explained that the Commissioners were "heavily
involved in house-building, in that we have considerable holdings
in agricultural land". They were currently bringing forward 47
separate sites for housing development, situated all over the
country. Local authorities gave planning permission on condition
that a significant amount of affordable housing was made available.
This could be socially rented, affordable rented housing, or
low-cost housing for sale.
Of the 47 sites he had referred to, the 25,000 homes that would
be built on them would include nearly 6000 transferred to local
authorities for the provision of affordable housing. The remaining
19,000 would be offered on the open market, and the Commissioners
normally took a share of the sale price; "so the result is that we
both earn an acceptable return, and provide accommodation that has
a bias to the poor."
Robin Hall (Southwark) was pleased with the
amendment: "376,614 people in England alone have seen their housing
benefit cut" as a result of the spare-room subsidy. He said that
the amendment simply asked the Church to "explore ways" in which
something could be achieved that would put the Church at the
forefront of helping the poor.
For many years, Simon Baines (St Albans) had
worked as an independent pensions trustee. He said that, while the
amendment appeared useful, it was not, because pensions trustees
had a duty to act in the best fiduciary interests of the
recipients, and to ensure that their investment portfolios produced
the best possible return. Any investment manager who introduced a
bias to support the poor in his or her investment policies could be
subject to a claim for maladministration by the ombudsman.
Mr Margrave's amendment was voted on and lost.
Resuming debate on the unamended motion, the Bishop of
Manchester, the Rt Revd David Walker, said that the
spare-room subsidy had been defended on the basis that it was
morally, practically, or fiscally good. "Would that it were
demonstrably any one of those three!"
The thinking behind the policy was that people in larger houses
would move to smaller properties, making more larger properties
available. But this hadn't happened, "not because they are
unwilling to move, or are happy to pay the tax, but because smaller
homes are not there for them to move into.
"We are told that we need to tighten our belts in the aftermath
of the recent recession; that the welfare budget is too large. . .
Until a few days ago, I had some lingering sentiment for this
viewpoint. Not a lot, but a little. But over the weekend I read
some statistics that showed that, since the last election,
reductions in tax and welfare support for the lower-income half of
our nation are almost exactly matched by the gains by the
"We are not actually saving money by instruments such as this,
but are simply redistributing resources from the poorer to the
richer half of our population."
Canon Suzanne Sheriff (York) said that she was
delighted that this debate was happening, because the Church needed
to be "for the poor". She said that the Synod should be aware of
other issues that did not hit the press as often as the spare-room
subsidy, such as the rise in benefit sanctions. "It's the single
biggest cause sending people to foodbanks," she said. "People can
have up to 50 per cent of their benefits cut for up to three years.
Please vote for this motion; but, when you do, don't think it is
job done. This is the tip of an iceberg."
Sister Anita Smith OHP (Religious Communities)
spoke about three people she had met through the foodbank she
worked at who had all been hit hard by the bedroom tax. One elderly
man had a spare room that he kept for his son, who was serving in
the armed forces in Afghanistan. His benefits were docked, however,
because an official said that his son could instead stay in his
barracks over Christmas. "I lost my cool at this outrageous
statement," she said. "There are people in our parishes who are in
want. And they need us to speak for them. Let us do so."
The Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Andrew
Nunn (Southwark), said that he was opposed to "this iniquitous tax,
and I would like to see it repealed". Much of the budgets of the
local councils was being diverted to smoothing out the problems the
bedroom tax has caused, Dean Nunn said. "In Southwark, £3.7 million
has been given by poor families back to the Government," he said.
"Southwark Council has spent £1.3 million on supporting people hit
by the bedroom tax. I will be supporting this motion; I just wish
it was even stronger."
In a division of the whole Synod, the motion was carried by 249
votes nem. con, with three recorded abstentions. It read:
That this Synod, noting the rise in the number and
seriousness of reported concerns about the impact of the Spare Room
Subsidy (the "Bedroom Tax") on the vulnerable and others, call on
the Mission and Public Affairs Council:
(a) to evaluate the findings of research into the effect of
removing the Spare Room Subsidy across the country; and
(b) to promote with Her Majesty's Government and partners
from the social and housing sector ways of ensuring access to
suitable local housing for all, especially for those who are
vulnerable without increasing levels of debt.