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Rutherford and Others bedroom tax case: hold the celebrations

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Anti-bedroom tax campaigners are very pleased about the Court of Appeal case that has found unlawful discrimination in an element of the Government’s policy to punish “under-occupiers” of social housing. Sadly their joy may be premature. The Court of Appeal’s ruling in Rutherford and Others v Secretary of State [2016] EWCA Civ 29 was very much a holding judgment. When the case is reviewed in the UK Supreme Court (Note: the Rutherfords have now won their case in the Supreme Court: see note at end) the issues of right and wrong about how we treat disabled people or rape victims will be largely overlooked. Instead issues of legal proceduralism, high policy (plus low politics) and constitutional wrangling are likely to hold sway.

The essence of the case for the Rutherfords, who care for a disabled grandson, and for “A”, a rape victim (who has a son by her rapist) and has a panic room in her house, is that their situations should have been covered by exceptions to the Bedroom Tax provisions (ie the cut in Housing Benefit when a family has “extra” rooms).

If the benefit claimant is disabled or has a disabled partner an exemption might apply (if overnitght care is required). But not if a benefit claimant is caring for a disabled child. And there is no mention of rape victims in fear of further attack. There is, though, a system of Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP) for those who might have needs “which could be met by DHP”. They are administered by the relevant local authority.

The claimants’ case is that their exclusion in the legislation (Regulation B13, set out here) from the categories whose position “has to be taken into account” (in the clumsy phraseology of the regulation) is unlawful discrimination under Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) (and under public sector equality duty under s.149 of the Equality Act 2010) – on grounds of sex for A and disability for the Rutherfords and their grandson.

The Secretary of State, Iain Duncan Smith, acknowledges the prima facie discrimination. The issue therefore became: is there an “objective and reasonable justification for that discrimination which was not manifestly without reasonable foundation”. Broadly the defence is that the DHP is there to cover categories of people who don’t have to be taken into account under Regulation B13 but may have good cases for an exemption. Although their housing benefit would be reduced, DHP might (if the local authority agrees) fill the gap.

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Bedroom tax circular HB U7/2013: Duncan Smith’s vindictive, money-wasting ploy

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Could the bedroom tax saga get more bizarre? Try this: The Government has issued a circular asking (or demanding, in somewhat hysterical terms) that local authorities “urgently” set aside any other priorities and send details of bedroom tax tribunal decisions to Iain Duncan Smith’s Department of Work and Pensions.

The strong implication is that Duncan Smith now has at his disposal a crack team of top government lawyers ready to swoop whenever judges come up with the wrong decisions on these cases – ie those allowing people to stay in their homes without benefit cuts for “spare bedrooms”.

The document, HB U7/2013, says:

“The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) may opt to join an appeal or in some cases will take appeals forward where LAs [Local Authorities] have chosen not to do this … LAs are therefore asked to notify DWP of all FtT [First-tier Tribunal] decisions relating to this subject regardless of whether the decision is overturned or whether you intend to appeal adverse decisions.”

This highlights a rather tricky legal issue for Duncan Smith – that nobody has any interest in the success of his mad policy except him. As the circular (order? demand?) notes, if the First-tier Tribunal hearing a bedroom tax case finds for the tenant “generally local authorities initiate appeals to the Upper Tribunal in HB cases”.

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Bedroom tax and unintentional homelessness – Zahawi’s false assurance

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Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi was drafted in by the Government the other day to defend the bedroom tax on Newsnight. He tried to look confident but it was a hesitant performance for this normally gung-ho fellow. He was responding to news that half of housing association tenants may now be in arrears as a result of the bedroom tax (under-occupancy charge), according to David Orr, chairman of the National Housing Federation.

Zahawi seemed particularly rattled when Emily Maitlis asked if this was to be the pattern for the long term: “Lots more people defaulting and you will have to bail them out and so on?”

Zahawi said: “That should not be … It is not the purpose of this policy. It’s not to make people … For example if they find themselves homeless they will not be classed as intentionally homeless by this policy. That has been put on record by government ministers in the House of Commons. It is not about us making life difficult for people; it’s about living within our means.”

The gaps indicated by ellipses are his – an inability to quite bring himself to assert confidently, “It is not the purpose of this policy to make people homeless.” Read the rest of this entry

Iain Duncan Smith needs to put on a new benefits thinking cap

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It seems that Britain’s Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has solved a conundrum that has baffled and befuddled philosophers for millenia: how do we know what we know? He has cut through the Kant and ditched Descartes for this elegantly simple formulation: “I think, therefore it is”.

This, in sum, is his view of how his welfare changes will pan out; they will pan out just as he thinks they will pan out. Thus, when the Office for National Statistics suggested the figures did not bear out his assertion that the benefit cap of £26,000 would encourage people into work he told John Humphrys on the BBC Today programme: “Yes, but by the way, you can’t disprove what I said either” – a classic response of the sceptic school of epistemology. He went on: “I believe this to be right; I believe that we are already seeing people going back to work who were not going to go back to work.”

He has no evidence; indeed he has been told that the evidence he thought he had was not in fact evidence; but he believes he is right so he must be right.

Others who contradict him, such as Haringey Council in London, are “politically motivated”, whereas Iain Duncan Smith, Tory member for Chingford and Woodford Green and one time leader of the Conservative Party is, of course, not politically motivated.

All this is good news, not least because IDS has also said that his welfare changes won’t lead to people becoming homeless or being driven out of London. He has said it; he presumably believes it; and hence, cogito ergo est: it must be true.

Which is odd, because some of those on whom people rely for their homes, the housing associations of England and Wales, have in effect contradicted Duncan Smith’s position. They certainly believe that the welfare changes will lead them to evict their tenants, and they believe they may have to do it using the much criticised and draconian Ground 8 possession procedure. Read the rest of this entry

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