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When everyone has a home

028 9024 5640: Housing & Debt Helpline for Northern Ireland

ADVISER: Challenging bedroom tax decisions

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The clock is ticking on the NI welfare reform mitigations package. So far, the devastating impacts of the bedroom tax have not been felt in Northern Ireland to the same extent as they have elsewhere. But, this may mean that certain people are subject to this tax who should not be. A recent successful strategic case highlights the importance of challenging decisions relating to the bedroom tax, even where there is no immediate financial benefit to the client.

Finding solutions for client’s short-term and longer-term housing issues

Cormac initially called our helpline to discuss difficulties with mould in his housing association property. This is a common query for our helpline and in this instance it appeared that Cormac’s local council had already inspected the property and determined that the mould problem was caused by condensation in the property, rather than any structural or penetrating damp. Faith, the adviser dealing with Cormac, discussed his options for dealing with the mould and said that she’d try to help Cormac resolve this issue.

Housing Rights advisers are trained to advise every client holistically, and know that scratching at the surface of the client’s immediate housing issue can sometimes unravel a much more serious impending difficulty. While chatting with Cormac, Faith realised that he was also subject to the bedroom tax. Cormac was living in four-bedroom property with his partner and their two sons. Housing Benefit rules meant that the family was only seen as requiring 2 bedrooms and they were subject to a 25% deduction when calculating their entitlement to Housing Benefit.

Although the impact of social sector size criteria, or bedroom tax, is currently being mitigated for many of those affected by this welfare reform, these mitigations are scheduled to end in March 2020. For that reason, it is essential that advisers challenge any unfair applications of this policy, and there has been a wealth of First Tier and Upper Tier tribunal decisions in Great Britain which give direction as to what constitutes a “bedroom”.

Room was unsuitable for use as a bedroom

The property in question was a four-bedroom bungalow. But the family was unable to use one of these rooms as a bedroom for a couple of reasons, and instead used the room to store tools.

Faith explained that it didn’t matter how the room was actually being used and that the bedroom tax would apply if the room was capable of being used as a bedroom. But, she explained, it may be possible to challenge the room’s determination as a bedroom if they could show that it simply wasn’t possible to use the room in that way, so she asked Cormac to explain the problems with the room in more detail.

The first issue was that the room contained an external door, which Cormac said had been put in as a fire escape several years ago. Due to the physical layout of the room it is actually impossible to put a bed and suitable bedroom furniture in the room without closing off access to the fire escape.

Secondly, as the room doesn’t contain a window the only source of ventilation is to prop open the fire door. Not only did this cause a security risk, but it also increased the risk of pests like mice or rats entering the property.  The lack of suitable ventilation meant that the condensation which had caused mould growth was particularly severe in this room, further limiting its suitability as a room for sleeping in.

Faith initially raised her concerns about the room with the Housing Benefit office, but was told that the housing association was responsible for designating the number of bedrooms in each property. Faith’s attempts to resolve the matter informally didn’t work out, and so she submitted a formal complaint. The association agreed to visit the property to reassess the rooms suitability for use as a bedroom.

Resolving client’s other housing issues

In the meantime, Faith got the association to agree to carry out work to improve the mould growth in the property. Thermal imaging work was carried out to identify the source of the problem, the wall cavities were excavated and dried out and the association’s repairs team redecorated the property with anti-mould paint and dry-lined walls, where necessary.

After some further representations from Faith, Cormac received a letter to advise that his Housing Benefit entitlement had been reassessed and stating that he was now determined to be living in a 3-bedroom property. Knowing that there were many other properties in the area of a similar construction style, Faith asked what wider work the association was doing to reclassify the number of rooms in similar properties. She was delighted to receive confirmation that a decision had been taken to reclassify all of the properties as three-bedroom properties, a decision which likely meant that many tenants will no longer be subject to the bedroom tax.

Importance of challenging bedroom tax determinations

It’s easy to underestimate the crippling impact of the bedroom tax in Northern Ireland, as the mitigations package means the full effects of this welfare reform haven’t been felt yet. But, current mitigations are set to end in 2020. Advisers should always consider whether there is an appropriate challenge to the application of this policy, even if the client is not currently feeling the financial brunt of this benefit cut. Think about challenging this decision if

  • Your client requires overnight care
  • People in your client’s household may not be able to share bedrooms due to a disability
  • A room in the property is not capable of being used as a bedroom.

Talk to our specialist advisers if you feel that your client should not be subject to the bedroom tax.

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Benefits, Practical tips, Welfare Reform, Adviser