It was hardly the resounding victory on which the government must have been depending; faced with a ruling in favour of the DWP, the 10 families who brought a judicial review against the bedroom tax just said, “We will have to appeal.”
The High Court ruled yesterday that the change to housing benefit, subtracting amounts according to whether tenants had one or more ‘spare’ rooms according to arbitrary guidelines laid down by the DWP, do not breach the human rights of disabled people.
The families – all disabled or parents of disabled children – had challenged the changes, claiming violations of the Human Rights Act and the Equalities Act.
The DWP was quick to get a comment out to the press. Unfortunately for ministers, it was shrill in tone and undermined the department’s case.
A DWP spokesperson said: “We are pleased to learn that the court has found in our favour and agreed that we have fulfilled our equality duties to disabled people. Reform of housing benefit in the social sector is essential, so the taxpayer does not pay for people’s extra bedrooms.”
(Let’s just pause to bear in mind that one of the architects of the bedroom tax is Lord Freud, whose eight-bedroom mansion is indeed funded by the taxpayer. How many extra bedrooms is that?)
“But we have ensured extra discretionary housing support is in place to help those who need it and today we have announced a further £35m of funding to councils to aid residents.”
That’s right, there is a discretionary fund that councils can use to help social housing tenants. At £150 million, it is considered woefully inadequate for the task.
The fact that the DWP announced a further £35 million for this purpose indicates that the government thinks so, too. So, despite insisting that they are fulfilling their duties, ministers under Iain Duncan Smith are also admitting that they aren’t.
Meanwhile, lawyers representing the families who launched the legal challenge released comments of their own, in which they made it perfectly clear that they were not going to go down without a fight.
A statement from Leigh Day, one of the three law firms representing the claimants, said: “The Court found that the Secretary of State has been aware that the law must be changed to provide for disabled children since May 2012, and they were highly critical of his failure to make regulations to provide for them. Lord Justice Laws said that the current state of affairs ‘cannot be allowed to continue’.
“The Government must now make regulations ‘very speedily’ to show that there should be ‘no deduction of housing benefit where an extra bedroom is required for children who are unable to share because of their disabilities’.”
This means Iain Duncan Smith has known for more than a year that the bedroom tax would discriminate against disabled children, and has done nothing about it. One can only wonder which of his beliefs justified this cruelty.
The Leigh Day statement continued: “The court held that discrimination against adults with disabilities, even those in the same situation to children with disabilities who could not share a room, was justified. Lawyers for adults with disabilities today said that they believe this cannot be right. They should be entitled to full Housing Benefit for the accommodation they actually need.
“Lawyers for adults with disabilities… confirmed that they intend to appeal the ruling, arguing that the discriminatory impact of the measure on people with disabilities cannot be justified and is unlawful.
“Disabled children and their families also intend to appeal as they are now left in a position where they do not know whether in fact they are entitled to full housing benefit to meet the costs of the homes that they need. This is because the Government has declined to confirm that the new regulations, which the court says must be made, will cover their situations, or to provide a date by which the new regulations will be made.
“Since the new housing legislation was introduced it has had a devastating effect on many people across the country. Charities, social landlords and advice agencies have spoken out about the plight of people with disabilities who have been affected by the measure.
Richard Stein from the Human Rights team at Leigh Day added: “We will be seeking an urgent appeal to the Court of Appeal. Many people with disabilities including our clients may lose their homes unless the law is changed. Their lives are already difficult enough without the fear of losing their accommodation, which has been provided specifically to meet their exceptional needs.”
Two other law firms are representing the claimants: Hopkin Murray Beskine and Public Law Solicitors.
Rebekah Carrier of Hopkin Murray Beskine said: “The Government’s position in relation to disabled children is incomprehensible. In May 2012, the Court of Appeal held that the Secretary of State was discriminating against disabled children who need to share a bedroom because of their disabilities, yet by February 2013, when these proceedings were issued, no action had been taken.
“The Prime Minister then told the House of Commons in March that disabled children were exempt, when this was plainly not the case. When he was questioned, the Government rushed out a circular to local authorities, which suggested that the rule may not apply to some disabled children; yet the Government continued to fight this case.
“It is no wonder local authorities and affected children and families are confused.”
She said: “We are pleased that the court has recognised that the current situation is not acceptable and that the Government must act quickly. We are disappointed however that the Government has delayed for so long already and is still foot-dragging.
“Until it is absolutely clear that these claimant families and others like them will not have their benefit cut on the basis that they live or hope to live in homes which meet their children’s needs, these claimants, like the disabled adults, have no choice but to appeal.”
Emma Burgess from Public Law Solicitors said: “The Government has failed to recognise that many people with disabilities will not be able to make up the shortfall in rent by working or taking in a lodger; and many will not be able to move due to the nature of their disabilities. The Discretionary Housing Payment scheme ‘safety-net’ relied on by the government is inadequate to plug the gap.
“A July survey by the Papworth Trust, backed by the National Housing Federation , said nine out of 10 disabled people are cutting back on food or bills to pay the bedroom tax if they are refused a safety-net housing payment.
“Left unchanged these measures will see disabled people facing eviction and homelessness.”
So yet again we have a Secretary of State who knew there was an urgent need for action to rectify his flawed policies but – as in so many other cases we have witnessed – did nothing.
And our sorry excuse for a Prime Minister actually lied to Parliament about the threat to disabled children – let’s say that again, to DISABLED CHILDREN!
This blog has already called for Iain Duncan Smith to be thrown out of Parliament for the contempt he has shown that institution by knowingly telling falsehoods to its members. It therefore follows that David Cameron should suffer the same fate.
The longer they remain in office, the more we may conclude corruption has set into the highest level of government.
And there is no way they can argue that the relevant legislation was only recently found to be inadequate. Look at this comment from Esther McVey, Tory minister for disabled people, in The Telegraph: “This has gone through a lot of reviews, it has gone through a lot of decision-making and it’s taken a long period of time.” So there is no excuse for the dog’s breakfast that the High Court upheld with yesterday’s decision.
Fortunately, there are developments among the Opposition that will hearten anyone fighting the bedroom tax.
In a letter to constituency Labour organisations, Peter Wheeler, a member of the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee has stated: “To win the election it is vital that we are very clear with the electorate that a Labour Government will offer real hope to people suffering under this government.
“One of the key issues will be the bedroom tax. We need to be very clear that a Labour Government will abolish this wicked piece of Tory legislation.” He went on to call for constituencies to demand that this will be a part of the Labour election manifesto in 2015.
Oh – one more thing: The Tories are still referring to the bedroom tax in terms of removing a ‘spare room subsidy’. Let’s just remind them that there is no such thing. If there was, then they should be able to tell us when this amount was added to housing benefit payments and what piece of legislation made it possible. Was it an Act of Parliament? I’m sure we’d all like to know.
(The first collection of Vox Political articles, Strong Words and Hard Times, is available now in paperback or as an eBook, containing the best articles from 2012, fully supported with a large ‘footnotes’ section in which you can actually connect to internet links, if you’re reading on a device that supports this kind of activity.)