Fact Check: who has been hit hardest by the bedroom tax?

Campaigners against the bedroom tax protest outside the high court in 2014. Stefan Rousseau/PA Archive

Abolish the Bedroom Tax, which has hit over half a million people, two thirds of them disabled, pushing many into debt and through the doors of food banks.

Part of Labour’s five-point plan to reduce dependency on food banks.

In April 2013, the government introduced its Spare Room Subsidy Removal policy – otherwise known as the bedroom tax. Under the policy, working-age housing benefit claimants can have their payments reduced by up to 25% if they are deemed to be living in accommodation with more bedrooms than they need.

Over the same period, the use of food banks has increased dramatically, with figures from the Trussell Trust showing that 913,138 people received three days’ food from their food banks in 2013-14, compared to 346,992 in 2012-13.

On March 25 2015 Maria Eagle, Labour’s shadow environment, food and rural affairs secretary and Rachel Reeves, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, used the claim above in an announcement setting out the party’s plan to cut food bank use.

We can break this claim into three separate parts: first that the bedroom tax “has hit over half a million people”; second that “two-thirds of them [are] disabled”; third that this has pushed “many into debt and through the doors of food banks”.

Labour told The Conversation that the first two claims are based on the original government projections for the expected impacts of the measure, published in June 2012. On that basis both are valid: the government’s own projections were that 660,000 housing benefit claimants would be affected at the time of its introduction, 63% of whom would be disabled.

Among the stated reasons for the expected disproportionate impact on people with disability is that people with disability tend to be older. Older people are less likely to live with children and households without children are more likely to be affected by the bedroom tax.

We can now partly check these projections against administrative data released by the Department for Work and Pensions. This data shows that in May 2013 there were 547,346 housing benefit claimants who had their payments reduced under the policy. The number of people affected each month has been slowly falling since then, hitting 464,547 in November 2014 (the latest month for which data is available). So the original government projections slightly over-estimated the number of people that would be affected in the first month, but the Labour Party claims that more than half a million people have been hit by the bedroom tax checks out.

The second claim is more difficult to assess because the government does not record the disability status of those affected by the bedroom tax. It does, however, include information on the number of those affected by the bedroom tax in receipt of income-based Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), all of whom can be counted as disabled. In May 2013, this was 29.9% of housing benefit claimants affected by the bedroom tax. By November 2014 this had risen to 44.1%, as the chart below shows.

Number of people affected by the bedroom tax. Author’s calculations based on data provided by the Department for Work and Pensions., Author provided

Many of those receiving reduced housing benefit payments as a result of the bedroom tax who are _not _recipients of income-based ESA will also be disabled. So the above figures will under-estimate the proportion of those affected by the bedroom tax who are disabled.

We can get a rough estimate using data from the Family Resources Survey. The latest available is for 2012-13 and it is possible to estimate the proportion of working age housing benefit recipients who have at least one disabled individual in the household but who do not receive income-based ESA.

If we assume these individuals are equally likely to be affected by the bedroom tax as non-disabled housing benefit recipients – probably under-estimating given the age-related point above – then the estimated monthly proportion of affected housing benefit claimants who are disabled ranges between 58% and 67%. This does make quite a few assumptions about the data, but it looks pretty close to Labour’s claim that two-thirds of those hit by the bedroom tax are disabled.

On the third claim, the Trussell Trust reports that 17% of those receiving three days’ food from food banks in 2013-14 – just over 150,000 people – were referred to them primarily because of benefit changes. Some of this is likely to be down to the bedroom tax – we do not have the data – but there have been other benefit changes too.

Verdict

The claim that at least half a million people have had their payments reduced as a result of the bedroom tax checks out. There is not enough data to establish whether the second claim – that two-thirds of these are people with a disability – is correct, although it is consistent with the government’s own 2012 Equality Impact Assessment projections.

We do know that at least 44% of those affected in the latest month for which data are available were disabled, so the measure has certainly disproportionately affect people with disability. Further estimates drawing on Family Resources Survey data suggest the claimed figure of two-thirds is probably not unreasonable.

Review

The fact check is clear on the first point, that more than half a million people have been affected by the bedroom tax – and this seems uncontentious. The government’s initial estimate proved a slight over-estimate but the actual figures still support the claim made. It is a little more difficult to verify the second claim but again, the evidence points to it being correct.

It is in line with initial government estimates and with more recent data, although some assumptions and estimates are required for the latter. The author’s calculations seem to be the best we can do on this score and unlikely to far out. The third claim, about pushing many to use food banks, is not precisely specified so is difficult to refute, or verify. There is some reported evidence that benefit cuts, which include the bedroom tax, have driven people to food banks, so we cannot say that the claim is false. – Michael Barrow

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