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Thousands of Britons unlawfully charged with bedroom tax amid bureaucratic mess

Published time: February 13, 2014 01:59
A general view shows part of the London Borough of Lambeth in London (Reuters / Luke MacGregor)

A general view shows part of the London Borough of Lambeth in London (Reuters / Luke MacGregor)

More than 16,000 people have been unlawfully charged as a result of a UK government mistake in the implementation of its bedroom tax. Meanwhile, two thirds of households affected by the controversial tax are in rent arrears, a survey has shown.

The number of people who have wrongly had their housing benefit cut is already three times as high as the government claimed, according to a Freedom of Information Request (FOI) submitted by the UK Labour Party to local authorities.

Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, said last month that between 3,000 and 4,000 people would be affected by the error, but the final figure could reach as many as 40,000.

Some 16,460 people have been identified as affected by the mistake. The FOI request was made to all 346 local authorities but so far only 140 have replied.

The error involves a loophole in the law, which means that tenants who have lived in the same property since 1996 should not have been forced to pay the bedroom tax – otherwise known by its official names as the “spare room subsidy” or the “under-occupation penalty”.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Work and Pensions, which is responsible for the bedroom tax, earlier insisted that only a few people would be affected.

We expect very few people to be affected by this – around 5,000 – and we are working with councils to ensure affected claimants are kept informed,” she said.

But Labour’s spokesman on work and pensions Chris Bryant said that Duncan Smith was apparently picking figures out of thin air.

“With just a third of councils responding to our Freedom of Information requests, we already know that over 16,000 people are affected. At this rate the total will be nearly 50,000 households, each of them overcharged by an average of £640. That’s £3,072,000 that will have to be repaid,” he said.

Overall the tax affects 660,000 housing benefit claimants who have more bedrooms than they need, who have to pay on average between £14 and £22 out of the rest of their benefits.

On Wednesday Labour tried to force a Commons vote to repeal the bedroom tax saying that no claimant should be penalized for the number of bedrooms in their home, but Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs voted down the bill.

One in seven households face eviction

Meanwhile, a survey by the National Housing Federation (NHF) published Wednesday revealed that two thirds of people affected by the bedroom tax have fallen into arrears with their rent while one in seven families have received notices of eviction and risk losing their homes.

The report concluded that the tax was “heaping misery and hardship” onto families already struggling and who are unable to find anywhere else to live because of a lack of smaller homes in the UK.

A separate study, also published on Wednesday, by the Papworth Trust, a disability charity, said that a third of disabled people affected by the spare room subsidy have been refused emergency financial help, despite official government guidance that disabled tenants should be assisted with housing payment funding. It called on ministers to exempt people living in specially adapted homes for their disability from the tax.

The Labour MP who tried to bring in Wednesday’s bill to abolish the tax, Ian Lavery, said that the tax is cruel and mean.

“I have seen with my own eyes the absolutely astounding impact the bedroom tax has on disabled and sick people. I’m not sure the government is aware of the hardship and misery it has caused,” he said. Labour has promised to abolish the tax if it wins the next general election in 2015.

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