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Synod: Members tell stories of plight under ‘bedroom-tax’ rules

21 November 2014

Spare-room subsidy


THE General Synod carried a motion on Tuesday afternoon which expressed its concern over the reported impact of the spare-room subsidy.

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 family.

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 higher-income half.

"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.

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