The proposed welfare reform – named as the ‘spare room subsidy’ by the coalition government – is a cut of benefit, proposed under the 2012 Welfare Reform Act, to those who occupy a council or housing association property and who are considered to have a spare bedroom. The criteria states that children under the age of sixteen years of the same gender are expected to share and those under the age of ten years are expected to share regardless of gender. Disabled people, however, are exempt from the restrictions and are therefore allowed an extra room for the occupation of a non-resident overnight carer. The changes, which were enforced in April 2013, will ultimately result in a loss in benefit of 14 per cent for those with one spare bedroom and 25 per cent for those with two or more, equating to a cut of around £14 to £16 per week on average.
There are a number of key issues that have arisen in response to the planned welfare reform.
Many have questioned whether the policy is too much too soon and fear of its implications on low income and working class families. Yet the Prime Minister David Cameron affirms that the 50 per cent increase in housing benefit over the last decade to £23 billion of government spending is not justifiable in the current economic climate. Indeed, fellow Conservative MP, Nigel Mills, corroborates the view of Cameron that housing benefit is economically draining by stating, “is it fair for the taxpayer to pay for people to have a spare room?”. Some, however, see the reform as highly regressive as they feel it promotes social divisions and hinders social mobility. Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Liam Byrne, talks of “people being put in a trap” as “there will not be enough places for people to move into”, an issue which he believes will ultimately cost the taxpayer to resolve. The Prime Minister has responded to such criticisms by assuring the population that there will be a “£50 million fund to directly support people as part of the measure”. It is evident that, on one hand, Labour strongly opposes the measures to be implemented by the coalition government, hence their terminology of ‘The Bedroom Tax’. They see it as a ‘tax’ on those in society who they feel need the most help. The Conservatives, on the other hand, see a need for welfare reform to aid national economic recovery and create a greater sense of equality within the system as there are “nearly two million households on the waiting list and over a quarter of a million living in overcrowded conditions” (Department of Work and Pensions).
Yet whilst Labour is generally unsupportive of ‘The Bedroom Tax’, a shift seems to have occurred amongst the left-wing. A recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation revealed that only a third of Labour supporters believe that welfare should be increased – a response that can be attributed to greater discontent with state dependency, welfarism as a lifestyle choice and fraudulent claims. It is evident that in times of austerity, people feel that in order to improve the situation, everyone in society needs to work hard to aid economic recovery. It is believed by many that the system is to blame and so it must be reformed in order to eradicate the entrenched worklessness – thus welfare reform is essential.
But why then is there a lack of support for the ‘spare room subsidy’? This is due to the aforementioned criticisms that it is too much too soon and that it will exacerbate social divisions and prevent social mobility. But there is also anger felt by many that people who have lived in houses for generations and have made them their family home will be forced to move due to their inability to deal with the economic implications of the cuts. Hence opposition to the reform feel it is a case of the government prioritising finance over morality. Evidently the policy is highly controversial and it is unlikely that there will ever be full agreement across the political spectrum of how best to reform the welfare system. But there is accordance that it must be reformed in order to stop fraudulency and promote economic self-sufficiency and only time will tell if the 2012 Welfare Reform Act will be effective in doing so.