Yesterday, the High Court said that it’s OK to discriminate, so long as it’s ‘proportionate’. Racists, sexists, homophobes and assorted bigots will take comfort from this ruling, as will the government because it enables the continuation (for now) of proportionate discrimination in the form of the Bedroom Tax. For as long as I’ve been interested in politics and public policy, I’ve struggled with the tension between cock up/conspiracy and intended/unintended consequences. I used to think that the poor suffer because the rich are a bunch of selfish bastards. Broadly, I hold to that view, but over time I’ve come to see that life is a bit more complicated. The Bedroom Tax, however, is so pernicious and vicious that it’s hard to see it as the product of anything other than evil genius.
To illustrate my point, you could listen to yesterday’s Radio 5 coverage of the issue here. In it you’ll not only hear stories from people who already suffer being made to suffer some more, but also some of their fellow citizens – and fellow sufferers – saying that they’ve only themselves to blame. As US robber baron Jay Gould is reputed to have said ‘I can always hire one half of the working class to kill the other’ and so it sometimes appears with the Bedroom Tax. It’s hard to imagine that the government could have designed it so perfectly, but also that it didn’t hope that – instead of blaming bankers and the political establishment for the financial crisis and housing shortage – people would start to blame themselves and each other.
Even some political voices who might be expected to be more critical, above all the Labour Party, seem to have persuaded themselves that the Bedroom Tax is a peripheral issue, that those affected are ‘extreme’ cases and that in any event, the policy is probably fair, given the acute housing shortage. I agree that comparisons with the Poll Tax are misplaced, but this misses the point. The Bedroom Tax is the thin end of a very thick wedge being driven between the Welfare State and any sense of collective social responsibility, to the point where some of the most vulnerable people (living with problems that most of us can’t even imagine) are compelled to justify their existence. The Bedroom Tax also exploits the most fundamental ideological prejudice supporting the deification of private home ownership that underlies the housing crisis. Tenants and – perhaps more importantly – the rest of the electorate, are expected to accept that ‘social’ housing is a privilege subject to withdrawal Nothing new about this of course – it’s been the underlying theme of housing policy for the last two decades – but it’s taken to its most grotesque extent when people with serious disabilities (and their children) are required to see the place they live not as a home, but a treat. Meanwhile, the same government that attempts to justify the Bedroom Tax on the grounds of financial necessity and fairness offers 20% loans to home buyers who can’t afford a mortgage. The ‘Help to Buy’ scheme, in effect a State subsidy to property developers, doesn’t contain a spare bedroom test.