Government urged to withdraw ‘bedroom tax’ by Norwich councillors while Thetford families join the protest

Euro MP Richard Howitt listens to Paul Smith as he explains how the bedroom tax will affect his fami

Euro MP Richard Howitt listens to Paul Smith as he explains how the bedroom tax will affect his family. Photograph Simon Parker - Credit: Archant

Government proposals to cut housing benefit for tenants with spare bedrooms should be withdrawn, city councillors insisted last night.

An estimated 3,067 council house and social housing tenants in Norwich will lose an average of £12 a week in housing benefit from April 1, totalling £1.74m a year, due to the reforms.

And Alan Waters, city council cabinet member for finance, said the authority will receive just £288,000 from the government to help people cope with the so-called 'bedroom tax' changes.

Norwich City Council last night voted in favour of a motion calling on the coalition government to withdraw the policy under the Welfare Reform Act, which will reduce payments to people judged to have too much living space.

The government argues the changes will help cut the £23bn annual bill for housing benefit, free up more living space for overcrowded families and encourage people to get jobs.

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But opponents say married couples will be better off getting divorced to avoid cuts to their benefits, while children with parents who have split-up and vulnerable people with severe needs will also suffer.

Mr Waters told councillors in front of a packed public gallery at City Hall: 'In every respect these are regulations which attack the very heart of our lives, as individuals, families and communities, to establish the principle that we can push people around and the way to do that is demonise people - it's an unacceptable policy.'

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Victoria MacDonald, cabinet member for housing, added her casework was building and people were telling her the changes left them with a decision to 'heat or eat' due to money shortages.

The reforms affect people of working age who receive housing benefit and live in council or housing association homes, not private accommodation.

The criteria states couples, anyone aged 16 or over, two children of the same sex under the age of 16, two children under the age of 10 regardless of their sex, and a carer if a person needs overnight care, will each be allocated one bedroom.

Once this has been taken into consideration, one spare bedroom will result in housing benefit being reduction by 14pc reduction of the weekly rent. This figure will reduce by 25pc if there are two or more spare bedrooms.

A Green Party motion, put forward by Ash Haynes, stating the city council should 'disregard' the cash sum built up because of the 'bedroom tax' when attempting to recover rent arrears was lost.

The Green Party proposal had also asked for the authority to encourage housing associations in the city to do the same, in an effort to prevent people being evicted because of rent problems associated with the benefit cut.

But Labour, backed during a vote by the Liberal Democrats, modified the motion to state the council will take into consideration this idea.

Labour councillors had said it would be difficult to recognise when the bedroom tax was the trigger for the problem, and the impact of other benefit changes also needed to be included.

Lucy Howard, Green Party councillor, said during the debate: 'The crucial point about this policy is most rooms the government is getting worked up about are not spare in any sense.'

Families in Thetford have also spoken of how they will have to pay more than £100 a month for spare rooms under changes to the welfare system.

Paul Whitby, 44, who has three spare bedrooms at his six-bedroom home, has multiple sclerosis and is largely housebound.

His wife has severe arthritis and their home, which they have lived in for nearly 13 years, meets their needs.

Four of seven of their children, however, have grown up, and moved out, leaving the spare rooms. The couple will now have to pay an extra £30 a week in rent and £8 a week in council tax for the three rooms, two of which are less than 65 square feet.

Former RAF electrical engineer Mr Whitby said: 'We have tried to move to somewhere smaller but they haven't been able to find us anywhere and now we are going to get penalised for being in a house that's suitable for our needs.

'What little mod-cons we can afford, such as the internet and Sky, we are going to have to give up to pay this tax, even though we are housebound.

'It's money we can ill-afford. It's amazing that our children have had the audacity to grow up and now we have to pay for that.

'The bedroom tax strikes me as a tax too far in this country. Surely we are taxed enough in this country.'

Others spoke of how they would be left in arrears and could be evicted while another woman told of how she left an abusive partner and is now being encouraged to rent out her room to a lodger. She is worried she will put her son at risk again.

According to figures, 30 per cent of social housing tenants in East Anglia will be hit by bedroom tax by on average £780 a year.

Norfolk Euro MP Richard Howitt said: 'The bedroom tax is causing widespread anxiety amongst my constituents, many of whom are vulnerable people. It's ruining lives.'

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