Friday 27 September 2013

Bedroom Tax - another update...

Further to my last post, there have been two new developments.

Firstly, another tribunal has ruled in favour of a claimant. In this case the claimant lives in London, rents a housing association flat in Westminster, and is blind. He uses one of the 'bedrooms' to store equipment he needs in his life and work because of his blindness. He maintained that this room could not be treated as a bedroom and the judge agreed, noting in his decision notice:

"The term 'bedroom' is nowhere defined [in the relevant regulations]. I apply the ordinary English meaning. The room in question cannot be so defined."

You can read more about this case here:

The argument used by this claimant is similar to that used in one of the Scotland case (see previous post) in which a physically disabled claimant needed a room to store his wheelchair.

In the Guardian's report it is stated that Westminster Council will not be attempting to challenge the decision but that the DWP may do so. It is not surprising to me that the council don't want to take the case further: as I said in my last post, local authorities don't want tenants to be caught by the bedroom tax any more than the tenants do. Frankly I don't see how the DWP can appeal this decision: they are not a party in the case. 

Legally speaking this is all a bit unsatisfactory, as none of these new cases are - technically - legal precedent, and if none of the local authorities appeal these decisions no actual case law on the point is going to emerge. Judges will therefore be making decisions on an ad hoc basis, though undoubtedly they will take account what has happened already. Oddly, it might be really helpful if a judge refused a claimants appeal on a case like these, so that the claimant could take it to the Upper Tribunal for some authoritative comment on the matter.

Secondly, there has been some progress in a ten key test cases. 

In July ten claimants took their cases to the High Court in July, arguing that the bedroom tax rules were discriminatory, but the Court ruled against them (I wrote about this in my post on 17th July). 

However an appeal judge has just given them permission to take their cases further, to the Court of Appeal.

This case has been reported here:

The judge who granted leave to appeal, Rt. Hon. Lord Justice Aikens, in his reasons*, stated that 

 “[the cases] raise issues of public importance concerning the amended housing benefit scheme and the needs of disabled/ young people and so should be considered by the Court of Appeal.” He also went on to say, “Further, the points raised in the grounds of appeal and the proposed ‘skeleton’ argument have a reasonable prospect of success…” 

The last point is quite encouraging, obviously.

*Source: (yes, the last 'l' is supposed to be missing)

Tuesday 17 September 2013

Bedroom Tax - an important development...

Govan Law Centre in Glasgow has been very active in fighting for its clients - and for the wider good - with regards to the Bedroom Tax (or, as the government would have it, the 'Spare Room Subsidy'). This work seems to have borne fruit.

A 1st Tier tribunal judge has made decisions on a number of cases brought by them on behalf of clients, and has made some important findings. It is important to note that, unlike decisions issued by the (higher) Upper Tribunal, or, say, the Court of Appeal, these decisions do not have the force of legal precedent (this also means that we cannot ask to see the written reasons for the decisions). Nonetheless they are still valuable, as other judges will now be aware of them.

Apart from being a horrid piece of legislation, the Bedroom Tax, or, to give it its official name, the ‘Housing benefit size criteria restrictions for working age claimants in the social rented sector from April 2013’, has a fundamental failing: it does not actually say what a bedroom is. Hitherto the number of bedrooms in a property has been whatever the landlord said it was. The judge wasn't happy with this, and said that whether a particular room is a bedroom has to decided on the facts of the case.

He also made some very useful findings when he looked at specific cases:

  • He noted that, under overcrowding legislation, a bedroom for one adult need to be at least 70 square feet in area, so a claimant whose spare room was only 66 square feet should not have that room classed as a bedroom (he also noted that a room smaller than 50 square feet is not even suitable under overcrowding legislation for a child under 10);
  • He argued that if a room was being reasonably used for something else, it should not count as a bedroom. So in one case, a claimant who stored his wheelchair in one room, and, because of the layout of his home, could not store it anywhere else, won his appeal as the room could not be classed as a bedroom. On the other hand, another claimant who stored his gardening equipment in a room lost his appeal, as the judge didn't find this to be reasonable.
Paradoxically, it would probably be good if the local authority against whom these appeals were made did appeal these decisions to the Upper Tribunal, as it might enable useful precedent to be set, as his arguments appear (at least to me, and especially regarding room size) to be sound. However they may not do so, as the decisions in claimants' favour are in their interests too, as they don't want their tenants to be falling into rent arrears any more than the tenants do.

If you're affected by the bedroom tax yourself, or are helping anyone who is, it's really important that you take action urgently. Measure all the rooms in the house, consider what rooms are used for, and appeal if appropriate. Many claimants will be outside the one month time limit for appealing but it is still worth trying. No claimant will yet be outside the final 13 month limit, but the longer a claimant delays the less likely it is that the tribunal will admit their appeal.

I have updated BenefitsOwl. info accordingly:

Sources: (at about the 19 minute mark)

Govan Law Centre haven't yet updated their blog, but for when they do, here's a link to them:

Thursday 12 September 2013

The Bedroom Tax - Human Rights Commissioner comments

Grant Shapps, Conservative Party Chairman, is not happy.

United Nations Special Rapporteur on housing, Raquel Rolnik, has issued a press release following an investigation into housing problems in the UK. It was the 'bedroom tax' that particularly concerned her: this, in turn, was what angered Mr Shapps.

You can find her full press release here:

It's quite a short statement, and is worth reading in full. The full report will presented to the Human Rights Council in March next year.

If you are interested in social welfare in the UK it's unlikely that anything she says will be news to you. What matters here is not so much what is being said but who is saying it. Having said that, I will now quote her...

'The so-called bedroom tax has already had impacts on some of the most vulnerable members of society. During these days of my visit, the dramatic testimonies of people with disabilities, grand-mothers who are carers for their families, and others affected by this policy, clearly point to a measure that appears to have been taken without the human component in mind.'

It was not just the bedroom tax that concerned her. She was also disturbed by conditions in the private rented sector, particularly given that more people are being forced into this sector by the shortage of social housing.

It appears that Mr Shapps was especially annoyed, firstly, by her not meeting with members of the government, and, secondly, by referring to the measure as the bedroom tax and not by its 'proper name' of the 'spare room subsidy' (source: (the embedded interview).

The second point is interesting, and wrong. While it is true that 'bedroom tax' isn't the measure's real name, neither is 'spare room subsidy'. The measure's actual name is:

‘Housing benefit size criteria restrictions for working age claimants in the social rented sector from April 2013’ 

'Spare room subsidy' is just as opinion loaded as 'bedroom tax', and - arguably - more misleading. For example, imagine a home where two sisters, aged 12 and 15, have separate rooms. There is no 'spare room', but as the law now requires these sisters to share a room, their parents would still be facing a reduction of 14% in their maximum Housing Benefit (for more information about this, see ). 

Oh, and while we're thinking about children sharing rooms, I can't help mentioning Michael Gove, Education Minister, who, in the context of a discussion about planning changes, said (

'There are children, poor children, who do not have rooms of their own in which to do their homework, in which to achieve their full potential'.

However subsequent interviews suggest that he's either incapable or unwilling to make the obvious connection between this aspiration and the bedroom tax...

Further Reading:
There's a good opinion piece by Zoe Williams on the UN press release:
For more information about the bedroom tax check out my website:

Tuesday 10 September 2013

National Audit Office reports on Universal Credit

The National Audit Office (NAO) has just published a report on progress of the Universal Credit project. It's fair to say that it's not that impressed.

The Executive Summary can be found here:

It will come as no surprise to anyone with their ear to the ground that the Universal Credit  project is struggling. As I've observed previously, October was supposed to see it 'rolled out' across the country, but as it turns out, and if you'll excuse me replacing their imagery with mine, it will actually dribble out like urine from a prostate-obstructed urethra.

What's gone wrong?

The NAO gives the impression of a project where, although everybody knew where they wanted to end up, nobody was exactly clear about how to get there, and where management-speak trumped actual effective management. Crucially, there appears to be no evidence that anybody had learned from previous government experience with large IT projects.

Is that hyperbole? I don't think so. It's unusual, I imagine, to laugh out loud at a report on the progress of a government initiative, but at times I couldn't help myself. For example, the NAO describes how, at the outset, the Department (of Work and Pensions) decided to use what it described as an 'Agile' approach to its management of the project - an approach that it had never used before. According to the NAO, this approach is described as using 'iterative and collaborative project management to develop its IT and policy'. Well, it didn't work. So in January 2012, the Department introduced 'Agile 2.0', a hybrid of the Agile and traditional approaches.

Crucially, the NAO finds that 'throughout the programme the Department has lacked a detailed view of how Universal Credit is meant to work.' I don't know about you, but I would have thought that was rather important. Certainly the NAO seems to think so. It notes that there has never been a clear 'blueprint' for the introduction of Universal Credit, nor for the transition to Universal Credit from existing systems. This was also a concern of the Major Projects Authority, who oversaw a 'reset' of the project between February and May this year. Despite this, the concerns that cause this intervention do not, in the opinion of the NAO, appear to have been addressed.

'The Department recognised that the detailed policy for Universal Credit would not be approved by Parliament until 2012. It estimated that its traditional ‘waterfall’ approach to programme management, whereby systems are developed after policy is set, would lead to roll-out in April 2015. The Department was not able to explain to us how it originally decided on October 2013 or evaluated the feasibility of roll-out by this date.'

IT Problems

Unsurprisingly, IT is a key concern.

The Department does not yet know to what extent its new IT systems will
support national roll-out. Universal Credit pathfinder systems have limited function
and do not allow claimants to change details of their circumstances online as originally
intended. The Department does not yet have an agreed plan for national roll-out and
has been unclear about how far it will build on pathfinder systems or replace them.

The report records that the Department has had to write of £34 million of its new IT assets. This, together with the delayed roll-out, will reduce the expected savings which Universal Credit is supposed to generate. In addition, the NAO believes that 'it is unlikely that Universal Credit will be as simple or cheap to administer as originally intended.'

What are the consequences?

Of course this isn't all simply an interesting example of government hubris. Real people will be affected by this. The NAO is plainly worried that if the government persists in its requirement that the transition will be complete by 2017 the final transfer process will be compressed: large numbers of claimants would have to be migrated over a very short period of time.

What's Iain Duncan Smith's spin on all this?

His position (see, for example, is that:

  • It's not his fault - civil servants are to blame - and in fact he's the hero of the hour for intervening to ensure that problems have been dealt with;
  • The programme will be delivered on time and on budget: losses due to the IT problems will be made up elsewhere.
Regarding the first blob, I'm not really in a position to comment, although I do suggest that as the whole thing is his baby the buck should stop with him. He does seem to have been a bit disingenuous with Parliament, though, as he apparently told it in March that the project was 'proceeding exactly in accordance with plans', despite the fact that the whole thing was 'reset' a month earlier. Perhaps he didn't know.

As for being delivered 'on time and on budget'... If by 'on time' he means 'the roll out will be complete by 2017, as planned', it's still possible, although only by having a very rapid final migration, which as noted earlier gives the NAO some concerns. The roll out for new claimants is certainly not 'on time'.

On budget? Only time will tell. But this can only happen if costs are cut from now on. It would be a miracle if this did not result in poorer quality delivery, and, of course, more problems for hard-pressed claimants.