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'Bedroom tax' causes distress: MPs

Disabled people are suffering "severe financial hardship and distress" as a result of the so-called bedroom tax, a cross-party committee of MPs has concluded.

The decision to reduce housing benefit payments from social tenants deemed to have a larger home than they need - officially known as the social sector size criteria (SSSC) but described by ministers as the removal of a "spare room subsidy" - has hit vulnerable people who were not the intended targets of the reform and have little hope of moving to a smaller property, the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee found.

The committee voted down a proposal from Labour MP Sheila Gilmore to call for the policy to be scrapped, but it did urge ministers to exempt anyone whose home has been adapted to help them with their disability, as well as any household containing a claimant receiving disability benefits at the higher level.

The committee's report also called for the exemption of carers living with disabled people from the cap which limits benefits to £26,000 a year, arguing that it has had an "adverse effect" on parents or adult children caring for a relative in their own home.

It said that it was "particularly unjust" for homeless people to be subjected to the benefits cap, as they have no choice over the temporary accommodation in which they are placed, which may force them over the limit. The committee called for them to be exempted from the cap.

The committee's chair Dame Anne Begg said: "The Government has reformed the housing cost support system with the aim of reducing benefit expenditure and incentivising people to enter work.

"But vulnerable groups who were not the intended targets of the reforms and are not able to respond by moving house or finding a job are suffering as a result.

"The Government's reforms are causing severe financial hardship and distress to vulnerable groups, including disabled people.

"Discretionary housing payments (DHPs), which local authorities can award to people facing hardship in paying their rent, are not a solution for many claimants.

"They are temporary, not permanent, and whether or not a claimant is awarded DHP is heavily dependent on where they live because different local authorities apply different eligibility rules.

"Using housing stock more efficiently and reducing overcrowding are understandable goals.

"But 60%-70% of households in England affected by the SSSC contain somebody with a disability and many of these people will not be able to move home easily due to their disability.

"So, they have to remain in their homes with no option but to have their housing benefit reduced."

On the benefit cap, Dame Anne said: "The Government has stated that the benefit cap is not intended to push carers into work. But this may well be its effect unless recipients of carers allowance are exempted from the cap.

"Homeless people placed in temporary accommodation have no choice over where they are housed and few options for reducing their housing costs.

"It seems particularly unjust, therefore, for them to be affected by the benefit cap."

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said: "Our reforms are necessary to restore fairness to the system and make a better use of social housing. Unreformed, the Housing Benefit bill would have grown to £26 billion in 2013/14.

"We have given councils £345 million since reforms came in last year to support vulnerable groups, especially disabled people.

"The removal of the spare room subsidy means we still pay the majority of most claimants' rent. But we are saving the taxpayer £1 million a day which was being paid for extra bedrooms and are freeing up bigger homes for people forced to live in cramped, overcrowded accommodation."

Leslie Morphy, chief executive of homelessness charity Crisis, said: "The Government itself said that cuts must not be made at the expense of the most vulnerable. Yet today's select committee report is clear that Housing Benefit cuts are hitting the most vulnerable members of society hardest. They are forcing more people into poor quality accommodation and leaving them at greater risk of homelessness.

"The Government must listen to this verdict from MPs across the political spectrum and rethink its cuts to Housing Benefit, particularly for those who cannot change their circumstances by working or who are struggling in low paid jobs. Without prompt action, the Government risks driving homelessness still higher."

Steve Winyard, head of policy and campaigns at the Royal National Institute of Blind People, said: "Many benefit changes have impacted negatively on disabled people's lives, including blind and partially-sighted people. The bedroom tax has been shown to be particularly pernicious. No one should be penalised or forced to plead for temporary help just for needing space for a guide dog or equipment linked to a health condition.

"The real harm being done to blind and partially sighted people's lives risks damaging the fabric of our society."

Mr Winyard added: "RNIB supports the call for the Government to re-examine the impact of the range of measures being imposed. We believe mitigating proposals should be adopted swiftly for blind, partially-sighted and other disabled people."

Shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves said: "Half a million people have been hit by the bedroom tax and the Government's own figures say that two-thirds of those affected are disabled.

"It's completely unfair that so many are charged for the space they use to store essential medical equipment such as dialysis machines.

"Britain can't afford another year of David Cameron and Nick Clegg's tax on bedrooms. If they won't listen to the country and scrap their hated bedroom tax, then a Labour government will."

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