The “Bedroom Tax” – a reduction in housing benefit for those living in social housing who are deemed to have a “spare” bedroom is due to come in next month. Under this new regime, anyone receiving housing benefit will face a cut of 14% if they are considered to have one extra bedroom, 25% if they are considered to have two. The respective reductions are from the whole rent – not just from the housing benefit received. As with so many of the benefit changes proposed by this ConDem government, women are in the front line.
Across the UK, an estimated 650,000 tenants are estimated to be affected by this cut, with roughly 80,000 in Scotland, a third of all social housing residents. Over a million more women claim housing benefit compared with men – in part this is due to the lower incomes of women workers and also additional caring responsibilities that women shoulder as carers both for children and adult dependents. Over half of all single women claiming housing benefit are estimated to be affected, predominantly single mothers.
Women are among the hardest hit by the austerity measures being imposed. The higher concentration of women working in the public sector has meant that the redundancies being imposed have disproportionately affected them. The unemployment rate of women is now the highest that it has been in 25 years, while three times as many women work part-time as men, many in low paid and precarious roles.
Single parents, who are overwhelmingly women, face particular issues in finding suitable employment. Work must fit around their caring responsibilities, which limits their opportunities to take up higher paid work with irregular hours or to travel to find such work. Many women on their own with children find themselves in low paid employment, making ends meet with the use of top-up benefits including housing benefit. The effect of the bedroom tax will be to make those struggling at the margins sink under the weight of the additional burden of finding the extra money to keep a roof over their childrens’ heads.
The alternative is of course to move into smaller accommodation however – even if such accommodation is available – moving as a single parent with children is an onerous and expensive task in itself. Furthermore difficulties in sourcing suitable local accommodation may see children moved away from their school, neighbourhood and friends, disrupting their education; while the local support networks of neighbours, family and friends that will have been built up will vanish as the family re-establishes itself in a new area.
No allowances are made either for women who are pregnant and who will require the “spare” bedroom in the near future. Working women who are trying to build up some money to cover their costs for the period while they will be on maternity leave, who are now already worse off with the withdrawal of the Maternity Grant in January 2011 and the abolition of the baby element of the Child Tax Credit in April 2011, will be forced to find extra money to cover the cost of the room which they will need for their child.
Rooms in a house, are of course in essence, just rooms – and many of the rooms which are designated as “bedrooms” will actually be used for other purposes. Women start businesses at a far higher rate than men, and many of those start off as small enterprises using household space while the business is established. Many of these enterprises would never get off the ground without the space that a “spare room” provides; a room of ones’ own, away from the clutter of toys and daily living is an essential pre-requisite to the many women who find difficulty finding suitable employment which fits the needs of their family and choose to work for themselves.
Apart from single parents, many of the households affected will be older people in their 50s and 60s with adult children who have moved on, leaving their rooms empty. Where adult children hit difficulties – either in their relationship, or in their financial circumstances – these spare rooms can be a lifeline. Women experiencing domestic violence, or even simply difficulties in their relationships, frequently choose to move back with their parents for a short period either temporarily, or until they find alternative accommodation; while overnight stays at Grandparents homes can alleviate some of the pressure of caring for children at a time of stress. Where women move away from their local area, those “spare rooms” can also allow the extended family to maintain contact with their grandchildren, by hosting them through holidays or accommodating the family on visits when a hotel would be too expensive. When “empty nesters” are forced to move into smaller houses, that option will no longer be available, making it harder for women to leave their partners, to gain some space when a relationship runs into difficulties and to retain family support from non-local relatives.
All this is, of course, not to suggest that any campaign against the bedroom tax should become a “gender based discussion group“, but the differential impact on women must be acknowledged and it is critical that women’s voices are heard loud and clear in any campaign, and their concerns and viewpoints respected and given weight.