The Mayor of Liverpool has pledged to support residents who have been wrongly hit by the so-called ‘bedroom tax’, after it emerged that thousands of people across the country may be exempt.
The under-occupation penalty – which sees benefit reductions of up to 25% for working age social housing tenants who are deemed to have more bedrooms than they need – was introduced by the Government last year, and affects around 11,000 people in Liverpool.
The Department of Work and Pensions has now announced that an error when drafting the legislation means that tenants are exempt from the penalty if:
• They have been continuously entitled to housing benefit since 1 January 1996 (breaks of four weeks or less are ignored) and were under 45 years old in 1996.
• They have occupied the same dwelling since that date (except for any period where a fire, flood, explosion or natural catastrophe made the property uninhabitable).
While the exemption is not expected to apply to the majority of tenants in Liverpool, the Mayor has pledged to try to identify affected claimants and ensure they are recompensed.
City council benefits officers and Registered Housing Providers are now working through their databases to identify customers who should not be affected by the ‘under-occupation penalty’.
Mayor Anderson said: “Not only does the bedroom tax hit the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, but to add insult to injury, it appears that many people who are struggling because of these welfare reforms should not even be affected, due to errors by the Government.
“I’ll be doing everything in my power to make sure that any Liverpool resident who has been unfairly hit gets back every penny they are entitled to. And while this work is on-going, I’ll be asking our social landlords – if the tenant may be exempt – to put any potential bedroom tax legal action on hold, to allow an assessment to take place.
“Of course, this exemption may only apply to a minority of the tenants – and the Government may try to amend the legislation. It’s vital that we continue to support all those who continue to suffer due to the welfare reforms. We are carrying out a huge amount of work, including setting up the Tackling Poverty Action Group, supporting food banks through the Mayor’s Hope Fund and giving £1 million to credit unions to try and stop people turning to loan sharks.
“Our social landlords have also been extremely supportive of their tenants, helping as best they can to resolve issues and campaigning to the Government about the impact of this policy.
“I would urge anyone who is in arrears as a result of the bedroom tax to contact us, as they may be eligible for additional benefits such as Discretionary Housing Payments. People should also contact their landlord, as there is a lot of support and advice available.”
The city’s benefits service has already made over 5,000 Discretionary Housing Payments awards, totalling £1.25 million, to people who need extra help with their rent due to Housing Benefit reductions. Further city council investment in the fund means there is still £700,000 available to residents up until April. The city council is urging any residents threatened with eviction as a result of the under-occupation penalty to get in contact to see if they can make a claim.
Liverpool, like many other cities, faces challenges in pulling together evidence going back to 1996, because local authorities and Registered Providers are not allowed to hold information for that long, under data protection rules. The city is now working to draw down the ‘best available’ evidence to meet the rules that the Department for Work and Pensions will apply.
Tenants who have been wrongly hit by the under-occupation penalty could be eligible for refunds worth on average at least £560 per claimant.
The Department for Work and Pensions has indicated that the law will be amended so that the ‘under-occupation penalty’ can be reapplied to these cases at a future date.
Any tenant who thinks the bedroom tax exemption applies to them should talk to their landlord and let the Benefits Service know by letter, by email (Benefits.Service@liverpooldirectlimited.co.uk) or by calling the city council on 0151 233 3009. Tenants who want to make a claim for a Discretionary Housing Payment to help them cover rent arrears should call 0151 233 3009 or can download a form to apply at www.liverpool.gov.uk