There are over 26 million households in the UK, of which nearly 3.8 million are classified as 'social housing'. These rented homes are owned by local authorities or non-profit housing associations and usually occupied by low-income tenants.
There is a massive waiting list for social housing, with 1.8 million households trying to find shelter in state-sponsored housing. As a result, the Government is under huge pressure to reduce waiting lists while cutting public spending on social housing.
Taxing extra rooms
One way the Government aims to curb the bill for social housing is by imposing a yearly cap on total state benefits paid to working-age households. This limit has initially been set at £26,000 and is already affecting thousands of households, particularly in high-priced London.
However, with effect from April, new restrictions introduced by the Welfare Reform Act 2012 will come into force for council tenants claiming housing benefits. While these will not affect pensioner households, they will have a profound impact on working-age households.
In what's being already called the 'bedroom tax', housing benefit will be cut from April for those tenants who have one or more spare bedrooms in their homes. One extra bedroom triggers a cut in housing benefit of a seventh (14%). Two or more spare bedrooms produce a cut of a quarter (25%).
For example, a family of two adults and two children living in a five-bedroom council house could see their housing benefit cut by 14% with effect from April. This family either have to find the money to cope with this cut or move to a four-bedroom home.
In total, it's estimated that 660,000 households will be hit by the bedroom tax. Of these, perhaps two-thirds contain one or more people with a disability, so these cuts will hit some of the most vulnerable people living in Britain today.
Furthermore, most of the pain from the bedroom tax will be concentrated in the north, Wales and Scotland, rather than southern England. This is because of the larger numbers of one-bedroom and two-bedroom council properties in London and the south east, versus larger council homes in less densely populated (and less affluent) areas of the UK.
What will be the consequences?
For a family receiving, say £100 a week in housing benefit, a 14% cut equates to a loss of £14 a week from April (£728 a year). Likewise, a 25% cut to the same benefit would mean losing £25 a week (£1,300 a year). For many council tenants, this shortfall could mean the difference between heating and eating.
Of course, this coming cut to housing benefit is intended to encourage council tenants to 'downsize' by moving from larger, under-occupied homes to smaller, more affordable social housing.
But people living in social housing (notably those that rely solely or mainly on state benefits for their income, such as the unemployed, disabled and low-paid) are not renowned for living the high life. Many struggle to make ends meet already, particularly when big bills suddenly hit the doormat.
So these cuts are sure to send many thousands more council tenants into rent arrears. With yearly rises in other working-age benefits capped at a below-inflation 1% from 2013 to 2016, the household budgets of welfare claimants will be placed under even greater pressure.
Another problem is that households faced with losing weekly benefits or a spare room could simply expand their family by having another child. While this would enable them to hang onto so-called under-occupied homes, it would raise the bill for Child Benefit and other benefits paid to families with young children.
What's more, families that do agree to move to smaller homes may find that such housing stock simply isn't available in their area. So while being physically unable to move to smaller accommodation, they must carry on paying the bedroom tax. How absurd is that?
Some bizarre examples
Already, the spare-bedroom tax is being criticised as one of the most arbitrary, subjective and ill-thought-out reforms in the history of British social welfare. Here are five ridiculous examples of those social tenants about to be hit:
1. Divorced parents sharing childcare
Divorced or separated parents sharing childcare will be hit. From April, only one parent will be allowed spare rooms. If the other keeps one or more rooms spare for overnight stays from their children, then that parent will be hit by the new bedroom tax.
2. Families with children under 16
Families with two children of the same sex both aged under 16 will also be hit, as both sons (or daughters) must share the same room. A recipe for teenage strife!
3. Families with children under ten
If both children are under ten, then they must share a room, even if they are not the same gender. In other words, under the new rules, little girls and boys living in social housing no longer deserve their own personal living space.
4. Foster carers
Families who usually or occasionally take in foster children will not be given credit for any extra rooms they set aside for children not yet arrived in their care. This seems a horribly cruel way to penalise those selflessly helping society's neediest youngsters.
5. Bereaved families
On Monday, I read of one couple whose beloved seven-year-old daughter died of brain cancer a year ago. For the past 12 months, her grieving parents have kept her room as a 'shrine', exactly as she left it.
Were they to continue to do so from April, their housing benefit would be slashed by £650 a year. In effect, having lost their daughter, they now risk losing the home in which they raised her by being 'financially evicted' to a smaller property.