Controversial “bedroom tax” being introduced as part of a raft of reforms today will help make the benefits system fairer, government ministers have insisted, in the face of a backlash from thousands of council tenants.
Chancellor George Osborne and Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith dismissed criticism that they said made the shake-up sound like “the beginning of the end of the world”.
They launched a fightback as 660,000 social housing tenants with a spare room began to lose an average £14 a week in what critics have dubbed a bedroom tax.
It is part of a package of welfare and tax changes coming into force this month which critics claim will hit poor families and the disabled especially hard.
Changes to council tax benefit will see bills for an estimated 2.4 million households rise an average £138 a year with two million paying for the first time, an anti-poverty group said.
The system has been handed to town halls to operate from today.
On April 6, working-age benefits and tax credits will be cut in real terms with the first of three years of maximum one per cent rises – well below the present rate of inflation.
Two days later, disability living allowance (DLA) begins to be replaced by the personal independence payment (PIP), which charities say will remove support from many in real need.
And later in the month, trials begin in four London boroughs of a £500-a-week cap on any household’s benefits and of the new Universal Credit system.
The welfare changes were coming into force after dozens of protestors took to the streets in the Black Country to campaign against the introduction of so-called bedroom tax.
Protests took place outside Wolverhampton Civic Centre and Bloxwich Market.
In Wolverhampton, George Marston, a nursery nurse from Old Fallings Crescent in Low Hill, said he was set to lose £15 a week due to the changes.
The 56-year-old father of two said the move would also hit his disabled sister Susan, of Moathouse Lane East in Wednesfield, who had begun to suffer depression because of a host of other changes to her benefits for being disabled. He said: “It’s just daylight robbery from the poor. Some of these ministers should take a pay cut themselves instead.”
Sandra Talbot, a mother of two, from Oak Street in Chapel Ash, said the only spare bedrooms in her house were those that previously belonged to her husband Graham, who died in 2011, and her son Jason, who died from Hogkin’s Lymphomalast year.
Mrs Talbot, aged 56, said she had asked to downsize to a smaller council home as she was on the breadline, had her phone line cut off and had not yet even been able to afford to pay the remaining £80 to take her son’s ashes home.
The former carer for her husband, who is now unemployed, added: “I will refuse to pay it. I can’t afford it. I am struggling to feed my daughter and myself at the moment.”
Shadow chancellor Ed Balls said that, according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, the poorest 10 per cent of households would lose an average of £127 under the changes.
“It’s appalling, it’s shocking, it’s immoral, it’s shameful, it’s a disgrace.
“The bedroom tax is possibly the worst, most cack-handed and massively unfair piece of policy-making I’ve ever seen,”
A coalition of churches yesterday said vulnerable people were paying a “disproportionate price” for the Government’s austerity drive and attacked its whole approach.
The Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church, the United Reformed Church and the Church of Scotland accused ministers of manipulating figures to vilify the poor.
Kay and Baz White live in a three-bedroom council house in Low Hill and want to move to a smaller property, claiming they will now be £48 a month worse off.
They have only been receiving housing benefit since Mr White, 33, lost his job as a delivery driver and warehouseman in November. Mrs White, also 33, used to work for Co-op Financial Services as a sales administrator but was made redundant in 2011.
Mrs White, of Millington Road, said: “We don’t want to be on benefits and we are both actively looking for work.
“We have asked about moving to a two-bedroom house but Wolverhampton Homes does not have any available.”
But Mr Osborne said that the welfare changes would “ensure that the welfare state offers the right help to those who need it, and is fair to those who pay for it”.
“Of course, if you listened to the shrill voices of the Left you’d think that every change to the welfare system, and any attempt to save money, marks the beginning of the end of the world.
“In reality, we are just restoring the original principles of the welfare state – that those who can work must work, and a life on benefits must not be more attractive than working.”
Ending what ministers call a “spare room subsidy” would address the “scandal” of a million people living in overcrowded conditions and millions more on waiting lists, they said.
The three-year, real-terms cut was a hard but “necessary” decision to save the taxpayer £2 billion a year as part of austerity deficit-reduction measures.
He added: “What we’re doing this coming week is making welfare fairer, helping to create jobs, and making sure you can keep more of what you earn.”
Under the controversial “bedroom tax” rules, people in council or social rented housing will lose 14-25 per cent benefit if they have one or more spare rooms.
Pensioners, foster carers and parents of armed forces personnel are exempt.
But, as more than 700 people in the region scramble for smaller homes, Labour claims that there is only suitable housing for fewer than one in 20 of those affected.
Shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne said there was a huge shortfall in smaller properties.
Mr Byrne said: “This wicked bedroom tax is going to rip neighbour from neighbour, force vulnerable people to food banks and loan sharks, and end up costing Britain more than it saves as tenants are forced to go homeless or move into the expensive private rented sector.
“It is the worst possible blend of cruelty and incompetence. The Government must think again and drop this tax now.”
A group of leading churches has also branded the Government’s cuts to benefits as “unjust”, saying the most vulnerable people are paying a “disproportionate price” under austerity measures.
The Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church, the United Reformed Church and the Church of Scotland have criticised the public perception of people in poverty. They say politicians have misrepresented those on benefits.