By a Newsnet reporter
The continued failure of key UK coalition ministers to publicly appear before the Scottish Parliament to defend the bedroom tax has been condemned as showing ‘a lack of respect’ to people in Scotland.
Despite David Freud, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, being in Scotland to attend COSLA’s annual conference, the Westminster Government has yet to send anyone to the Scottish Parliament to publicly account for the deeply damaging bedroom tax that is soon to be introduced.
Having turned down repeated requests to appear before the Scottish Parliament’s Welfare Reform Committee, Iain Duncan Smith has now agreed to meet with members of the Committee, but only in a closed door informal meeting. Late last year Mr Freud – the architect of the bedroom tax - held a similar private meeting with Committee members rather than appearing in an open session.
Mr Freud sits in the House of Lords as Lord Freud of Eastry. In 2006 Mr Freud was appointed by then Prime Minister Tony Blair to review the UK benefits system and recommended increased private sector involvement and an expansion of the so-called "workfare" programme which requires unemployed people to take unpaid jobs in order to continue receiving benefit. Mr Freud joined the Conservative party in 2009.
The SNP claim that the continued refusal of Mr Freud and Mr Duncan Smith to face public scrutiny suggests that while the Westminster Government is happy to impose the bedroom tax on thousands of Scottish households who are in no position to afford it, they cannot bring themselves to publicly defend a policy they know is indefensible.
In a meeting earlier this week between UK government ministers and representatives from the devolved administrations, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon slated the policy as "misguided" and said that it must be withdrawn.
Ms Sturgeon said: "Our view on the bedroom tax is clear. It is a misguided policy that must be withdrawn.
"This meeting was a good opportunity to make that point abundantly clear, although there remains little indication that the UK Government is prepared to change course."
Last month the housing charity Shelter warned that the bedroom tax could have a "devastating" impact, and wrote to Mr Freud urging the Westminster Government to exempt local authority owned temporary accommodation from the new regulations. The charity warns that some tenants face losing more than £100 a week if the reforms go ahead as planned in April 2013.
The consequences will be disproportionate in Scotland because over 50% of temporary accommodation is council owned, whereas in the rest of the UK most temporary accommodation is leased from the private sector or from Housing Associations - leased property is not affected by the bedroom tax. The Scottish government estimates that around 5000 Scottish households currently in temporary accomodation face cuts to their housing benefit.
The new regulations will affect council tenants, tenants renting from housing associations, and people of working age who receive housing benefit. Tenants renting from private landlords are exempt. Many of those who receive housing benefit are families where at least one person is in low-paid employment. Recently published research showed that 93% of Scotland's housing associations predict their tenants' rent arrears will rise next year as a direct result of the changes to the housing benefit system.
The Bedroom Tax will see a reduction in housing benefit for households deemed to be in homes too large for their needs. Under the new regulations, households with a spare bedroom will see a cut to their housing benefit of 14% for one spare bedroom and 25% for two spare bedrooms.
The proposal will affect an estimated 660,000 working-age social tenants – 31% of existing working-age housing benefit claimants in the social sector. The majority of these people have only one extra bedroom. Married or cohabiting couples will be expected to share one bedroom, as will children of the same gender under the age of 16, or children of different genders under the age of 10.
Charities and organisations representing disabled people have raised fears that the new regulations will unfairly penalise couples who cannot share a bedroom due to illness, care needs or disability.
A representative for Carers UK said:
"If you care full-time for a severely ill or disabled partner, their condition may mean a separate room for you to sleep is vital. Disabled children often cannot share with their brothers or sisters.
"Hitting carers and disabled people with extra costs for this essential accommodation, or forcing them to move is simply wrong."
The UK government has promised extra funding to assist families in this position, however Carers UK point out that only 10% of affected households will receive help.
Commenting, SNP MSP Linda Fabiani who sits on the Welfare Reform Committee said:
“It is deeply telling that no matter how many chances they get, the architects of the Bedroom Tax simply will not appear in public before the Scottish Parliament.
“If Westminster ministers can’t even bring themselves to publicly defend the Bedroom Tax in Scotland, then why on earth do they think it is acceptable to inflict the absolute misery and suffering it will bring to 100,000 households in Scotland?
“Lord Freud is in Scotland today, but he will not appear in public before the Scottish Parliament today or any time soon to account for what Westminster is doing. While by all reports his reception at COSLA was a frosty one, that is no excuse for Westminster’s determination to hide on this issue.
“This continued refusal to appear in public frankly shows a lack of respect to the Scottish Parliament, and more importantly a lack of respect to the thousands of people in Scotland about to be affected by the Bedroom Tax.
“This refusal to account for their actions or to listen to the overwhelming case against proceeding with the Bedroom Tax shows why it is completely unacceptable that these decisions are being made by Westminster against the needs and wishes of people in Scotland.
“We need the powers to shape a system of taxes and benefits that truly reflects Scotland’s values and only a Yes vote in next year’s referendum will give us the opportunity to build such a system.”