Call me a cynic, something I undoubtedly am at times, but it often seems that campaigning against something after it has become law is a waste of time. Once Her Majesty has signed on the dotted line there is very little protest or comment or even civil disobedience can do, unless it is carried out on a truly massive scale. Nearly six months ago the Bedroom Tax, the cutting of housing benefits to those living in a property that is deemed to have more bedrooms than needed, became a reality. Since then a lot of column inches and a lot of airtime has been devoted to arguing against this particular piece of cold hearted austerity. Yet given the government’s Sisyphean attitude towards reforming the welfare state would it not be better just to sit tight and wait for the next government to come around?
The Bedroom Tax is a vile piece of legislation. It disproportionately affects the poor and those with disabilities, who need housing benefit payments to survive and are unable, as some government figures have suggested, to ‘downgrade’ to a property with fewer bedrooms. Considering the shortage of housing in much of Britain, especially housing association or council properties to which the Bedroom Tax exclusively applies, it amounts to little more than the taxation of those who are least able to cope. The Bedroom Tax also does next to nothing in terms of combating the ‘culture of entitlement’, that has been one of the main excuses used by the government for dismantling the benefit system while simultaneously implementing tax breaks to the richer portion of British society. So unbalanced is the Bedroom Tax that it is almost as if King John and the Sherriff of Nottingham are running treasury.
So, despite my cynicism about the ability of anyone to change this government’s mind over the Bedroom Tax, I have spent a significant portion of the last five months hoping something miraculous would happen. This week, largely hidden by the growing turbulence surrounding the ineffectual universal credit system, there was a brief glimpse of hope.
It began with the announcement of a UN inspection. While Syria may be the nation most associated with UN inspectors of late, there is currently a UN inspector touring Britain. Raquel Rolnik is not investigating the use of chemical weapons but rather how the Bedroom Tax affects the human rights of tenants. Specifically the section of Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights concerning the right to an adequate standard of living. As Rolnik herself has pointed out ‘The UK has voiced its commitment to human rights on repeated occasions…’ and the right to adequate housing is ‘…one central aspect to the right to an adequate standard of living’. In short then, when the full findings of Mrs Rolnik’s visit are presented next March it may turn out that the Bedroom Tax is, as many of its critics have suggested, a violation of human rights.
The second development came from within the government itself. The education secretary Michael Gove, while speaking about planning reforms and the need for more housing, unwittingly attacked his government’s policy. Showing surprising common sense, he stated that ‘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’ and went on to suggest (less lucidly) that those opposing planning reforms were also standing in the way of children’s educational achievement. How does this attack the Bedroom Tax? Under the current law children under ten of either sex and children of the same sex under sixteen are expected to share a room. To follow Mr Gove’s logic the Bedroom Tax is also standing in the way of poor children’s education.
Of these two developments the first is perhaps the more immediately exciting. Whatever the practical power of the United Nations it is still a body seen as one of the world’s ultimate authorities. The EU (which has far more practical power over and economic benefits for the UK) would have little or no impact on public opinion or policy making should it decide to criticise the Bedroom Tax. However should Raquel Rolnik, in her preliminary findings at the end of her visit or in the full report in 2014, condemn the Bedroom Tax as a breach of human rights the damage to the government will be very large indeed. Would such an event have any immediate effect on the government’s stance? One can only wait and see.
The accidental condemnation of the Bedroom Tax by Michael Gove, along with the ever increasingly likelihood that the Labour party will pledge to repeal the Bedroom Tax if they win the next election, may have as much of an impact. Gove’s words expose another, highly emotive, issue upon which the Bedroom Tax can be attacked. Should Labour come out of its shell and campaign aggressively against the tax being able to use the words of a cabinet minister in their argument would be highly embarrassing for the government, potentially leading to even more awkward questions about who else the Bedroom Tax leaves worse off. While such political machinations may not be as high profile or high minded as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights it is the reality of politics that embarrassing your opponent over an issue is often more decisive than the overall questions of right or wrong.
What then should those who have campaigned against the Bedroom Tax take from this week? While neither Gove’s political self-immolation or the UN’s interest in the Bedroom Tax are the direct result of all those column inches they do refute the idea that all is lost once a bill becomes law. With no certainly of a more inclusive, pro-welfare government come 2015 waiting for the changing of the guard might not be the best of policies. Maybe if we shout loud enough someone will start to listen.