Government appeal against Bedroom Tax ruling is condemned

‘Axe the Bedroom Tax’ banner on a march for more council homes in London
‘Axe the Bedroom Tax’ banner on a march for more council homes in London

LAST week, after the Court of Appeal ruled that the Bedroom Tax is discriminatory and unlawful, Paul Rutherford, one of the appellants, described himself as ‘mad angry’ when the government announced it intends to appeal against the judges’ ruling.

Paul and Susan Rutherford care for their severely disabled grandson, Warren, in a specially-adapted three bedroom bungalow in Pembrokeshire, south Wales. Warren has a rare genetic disorder, Potokoi-Shaffer Syndrome, and is unable to walk, talk or feed himself and requires 24-hour care.

In the House of Commons after the judges’ ruling, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary Owen Smith declared: ‘We knew the Bedroom Tax was cruel but we now know it’s illegal.

‘And this decisive ruling should mark the end to this pernicious policy. The ruling could not have been any clearer – the Bedroom Tax is unlawful and it is discriminatory.’ However, Tory Work and Pensions Minister Justin Tomlinson declared: ‘We will be appealing this to the Supreme Court.’

Smith denounced Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith for boycotting the Commons after the result, accusing him of not being ‘prepared to defend his policy’ and passing the job on to Tomlinson.

Ian Blackford, the SNP’s pensions spokesman, called it a ‘disgrace’ that Tomlinson instead of Duncan-Smith represented the Tories over what he described as their ‘Dickensian’ Bedroom Tax.

The Court of Appeal had dealt with two appeals together and in both cases ruled that the discrimination against victims of domestic violence and disabled children is not lawful.

One appeal, brought by a woman known only as ‘A,’ concerned the effect of the policy on women living in ‘Sanctuary Scheme’ homes – properties which are specially adapted because of risks to the lives and physical safety of women and children who live in them.

The second appeal, brought by Paul and Susan Rutherford and their grandson Warren, concerns the impact of the policy on seriously disabled children who need overnight care. In both appeals, the judges accepted that the Bedroom Tax policy unlawfully discriminates against women and domestic violence victims, and against seriously disabled children requiring overnight care.

A’s Appeal

This appeal is brought by a woman known only as ‘A’ because her identity must be protected for her own safety. She is a victim of rape, assault, harassment and stalking at the hands of an ex-partner.

She challenges the under-occupation provisions/size criteria, colloquially known as the Bedroom Tax. She claims that the housing benefit regulations which have introduced the scheme are discriminatory and will have devastating consequences for her and her 11-year-old son.

Under the Bedroom Tax, A and her son are only entitled to receive housing benefit for a two-bedroom property. However they live in a three-bedroom property which has been specially adapted for them by the police pursuant to a Sanctuary Scheme, because her life and physical safety are at risk from her ex-partner who has a history of serious violence.

Her housing benefit has been reduced by 14 per cent given the Secretary of State’s policy. The Sanctuary Scheme aims to enable householders at risk of violence to remain safely in their own home by installing a ‘Sanctuary’ within the home and provide support to the household.

A has had a ‘panic space’ installed in her home, as well as a specialist ‘sanctuary system’. This includes expensive reinforced doors, electric alarms, a marker on the house and alarms linked to the police station. Rebekah Carrier, the solicitor acting for A, said: ‘These changes to housing benefit have had a catastrophic impact upon vulnerable people across the country.

‘Our client’s life is at risk and she is terrified. The anxiety caused by the Bedroom Tax and the uncertainty about this case has been huge. She lives in a property which has been specially adapted by the police, at great expense, to protect her and her child.

‘The prospect of having to move to another property (where she will not have any of these protections) or take in a lodger has loomed large for her during the three years it has taken this case to come to the Court of Appeal.

‘She is a vulnerable single parent who has been a victim of rape and assault. She is delighted that the Court of Appeal has recognised the impact that the Bedroom Tax is having on her and others like her.’

The Rutherford Appeal

In the judgement, the Court found that the Bedroom Tax discriminates against disabled children in breach of the Human Rights Act. Both Paul and Susan Rutherford have disabilities themselves and can only care for Warren with the help of paid carers who stay overnight on a regular basis.

The couple were hit by the Bedroom Tax for their third bedroom which they need for the carers to stay in overnight and for storing disability equipment for Warren. The current regulations allow for an additional bedroom if a disabled adult requires overnight care but not for a disabled child in the same situation.

The Court found that this unlawfully discriminates against disabled children and cannot be justified. The family had launched a judicial review challenging the Bedroom Tax which reduces housing benefit payments to tenants deemed to be under-occupying their accommodation.

They have been receiving discretionary payments from the local authority to cover the shortfall in rent but the Court found this policy is not adequate as there is no guarantee it would continue to be available to them in the future.

Lord Thomas CJ found that the failure of the Secretary of State to make provision in the regulations for overnight carers of disabled children amounted to unlawful discrimination contrary to Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

It was ‘very difficult to justify the treatment within the same regulation of carers for disabled children and disabled adults, where precisely the opposite result is achieved: provision for the carers of disabled adults but not for the carers of disabled children.’

The Secretary of State had also failed to have regard to the best interests of disabled children when devising the regulations. Mike Spencer, solicitor at the Child Poverty Action Group, who acts for the Rutherfords, said: ‘We are delighted that disabled children will finally be entitled to the same treatment as disabled adults.

‘It is absurd to have a situation where children like Warren might have to go into residential care at vast cost to the taxpayer because their families cannot pay for the housing they need. Instead of putting this family through the ordeal of a further appeal, the government should now think seriously about amending the regulations to protect severely disabled children.’

Paul Rutherford said he was ‘mad angry’ after the government announced it was going to appeal against the ruling. He said he was initially ‘happy, over the moon, delighted’ by the ruling, after a two-year legal fight, but furious after the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) confirmed it will appeal the ruling at the Supreme Court.

‘It was a relief from all the stress,’ he said, speaking from his home in Wales. But I’m mad angry because they’re appealing. I would like David Cameron or Iain Duncan Smith to explain why they are spending taxpayers money on an appeal? Why are they doing this to me and other families?’

Rutherford, who has serious health problems himself, said: ‘It was never our intention to go this far. But we need the security of knowing we’re safe in the house, that Warren can be properly looked after and that nothing can interfere with that. A lot of people who are caring for children are affected.’

The Tory government’s appeal against last week’s ruling is likely to be heard together with another appeal concerning the Bedroom Tax on 1st and 2nd March.