Rising anger against the ″bedroom tax″ | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 19.04.2013
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Rising anger against the "bedroom tax"

The UK government’s controversial change in housing benefits - known as "the bedroom tax” - is generating controversy and protests. In effect since April, it often causes trouble that goes beyond the financial burden.

The new welfare reform means people of working age on housing benefit will get less money if they have a spare bedroom. Its aim: to encourage people to move to smaller properties.

But it's a scheme that more often than not simply doesn't fit, with reality on the ground being far more intricate than the mathematical equations of an office clerk:

Michael Jones is disabled, unable to work, and his income is solely reliant on government support. The change in housing benefit, known as the "bedroom tax," means he has to pay more each week for his 3-bedroom home, where he lives alone. But moving into a smaller house would come with a devastating effect, he says: it would mean losing access to his children.

"I've got three children who visit me every other weekend. I have a 13-year old daughter who's obviously got lumps and bumps growing everywhere now, who needs a separate room - and I've got two boys," Jones says, "trying to cram them into a one bedroom flat, it's going to be impossible… I just wouldn't do it. I'd have to turn my back on my kids."

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 30: Protestors hold signs as they demonstrate against the proposed bedroom tax gather in Trafalgar Square

Thousands have held protest marches against against the proposed "bedroom tax"

Large savings and few exceptions

The British government argues its plan is vital for reducing the millions of pounds spent on housing benefit and a way of freeing up larger homes for larger families. Opponents, on the other hand, call it a Thatcher-like radical privatisation plan that makes big business and wealthy people richer, while the poorest pay the price.

Families living in council housing or association homes are now being assessed for the number of bedrooms they need and since April 1st, people of working age deemed to have too many bedrooms have been receiving less benefits than before.

Exceptions are supposed to be made for foster carers and families of armed services personnel, but for Michael Jones, the "bedroom tax" means he's now £25.20 (29.50 euros, $38.52) less well off every week - with dire consequences. "I'm giving up meals; I just cannot afford to feed myself seven days a week. I bath once a week now. I have strip washes every day to try to save on the water bill."

Among those who support the new scheme is local conservative politician Councilor Jonathan Glanz, Cabinet Member for Housing and Property at Westminster City Council - an area of central London. His party says the changes are vital - they'll cut the billions spent annually on housing benefits, freeing up more living space for overcrowded families, and encouraging people to go out and get jobs:

"Under previous arrangements put in place by the government before the current one, it meant that people were effectively able to chose where they lived almost without limit as to the cost of the accommodation to the tax payer, who was picking up the cost," Glanz says, adding that the benefit changes will save £35-50 million annually in the city of Westminster alone.

Criticism ranges from 'undesirable' to 'impossible'

But the reaction against this government attempt at saving money has been fierce, with protests erupting throughout the UK.

With Margaret Thatcher's death still in the headlines, critics say the "bedroom tax" is a revival of the former British prime minister's radical economic plans that penalize the poor. Monica Burns from the National Housing Association says the policy is pushing people to their limits:

"These people are tough, these people are living on very low incomes and making money last and stretch - and a lot of them are living in poverty. To actually give them a bill of an extra 14 or 16 pounds a week is too much," says Burns, "we can all toughen up, but in this day and age, I think we should expect that children should have a bedroom and a bed to sleep in."

A man sits down in protest as campaigners demonstrate against the proposed 'bedroom tax' (Photo by Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images)

Welfare groups are protesting the government's plans to cut benefits where families have surpassed the number of rooms they require

Burns says the policy will fail to reduce the cost of housing benefit - simply because there isn't enough smaller accommodation for people to move into. "In the UK, there's 180,000 people living in two-bedroom properties that, according to this new regulation, need one bedroom. In the UK, we have 85,000 one-bedroom properties so the sums just don't add up."

Financial savings at the expense of social standards?

The consequences for people throughout the UK who are struggling already, according to Burns will be tragic: "There's bound to be an increase in homelessness…people are taking about cutting down on heating to actually be able to pay for food, mums I've met are talking about feeding the children and not themselves, so yes, I think there's going to be all sorts of implications."

It's a fierce criticism that also receives backing by Councilor Paul Dimoldenberg as leader of the Labour group at Westminster City Council in London. "People have lived in their home for many years, they're happy there, they have neighbors they're friendly with, they're part of the community. It's terrible for people to have to make that choice, between staying in the community or having money to eat."

While its success yet needs to be proven, the new "bedroom tax" policy is estimated to create savings of over a billion pounds for the taxpayer in the next two years.