30 July 2013
Last updated at 13:20 ET
Disabled families have lost a court challenge to social housing benefit cuts for residents with spare bedrooms in England, Wales and Scotland.
The High Court ruled the policy, dubbed the “bedroom tax” by critics, did not unlawfully discriminate against disabled people.
Ten families sought a judicial review of the change, introduced in April.
One claimant described the ruling as an “absolute travesty of justice”, and said they would appeal against it.
Charlotte Carmichael, who has spina bifida and sleeps in a hospital bed which, she argues, her husband and full-time carer cannot share, told the BBC that she felt obliged to pursue the case.
Jayson, her husband, added: “This is our way of life we’re defending. We’ll keep appealing and take it all the way we can.”
The families, which include disabled adults or children, had challenged the changes during a three-day hearing in May; their lawyers argued the benefit cuts hit disabled people disproportionately hard and were therefore discriminatory.
Some argued that the additional bedrooms were needed for medical equipment or, in the case of some of the children, because behavioural problems made it impossible to share a room.
Richard Stein, of law firm Leigh Day which is representing two of the families, said his clients were “bitterly disappointed with today’s decision, but they are not defeated”.
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For those hoping to overturn the government’s changes to housing benefit, this ruling was a significant set-back. They will appeal, but ministers are now confident the policy is fair and legal.
But the government has always promised to monitor the impact of the benefit reforms closely. The fact that extra money has suddenly been made available for councils to help the most vulnerable indicates some flexibility.
Campaigners say the “discretionary funds” given to local authorities are still too small to help the hundreds of thousands affected. They say making councils decide who gets the money is “passing the buck”.
Ministers are determined to defend their policy. They realise that some of the most vulnerable shouldn’t have their housing benefit cut. But the troubling question remains – just how vulnerable do you have to be to qualify for extra support?
A statement responding to the ruling on the firm’s website added: “The Court accepted that [the benefits changes] are discriminatory, but decided that the discrimination was justified and therefore lawful.”
Mr Stein confirmed: “We, along with the other lawyers acting on behalf of adults with disabilities, will appeal this judgment.”
But campaigners said they welcomed criticism from the judges that the government had failed to legislate to ensure that families with children who are unable to share bedrooms because of their disabilities should not have their housing benefit cut.
The government said the new regulations would be introduced this autumn.
Shadow work and pensions minister Stephen Timms said: “David Cameron’s hated bedroom tax combines incompetence with cruelty.
“The policy is a shambles and there is now a real risk that it will end up costing more than it saves.”
But Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said ministers were trying to make the system fairer by helping the two million households on the social housing waiting list.
It was also important that the same rules on housing benefit should be applied to social housing as to private rentals, he told BBC Radio 5 live.
A statement from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) added: “We are pleased to learn that the court has found in our favour and agreed that we have fulfilled our equality duties to disabled people.
“Reform of housing benefit in the social sector is essential, so the taxpayer does not pay for people’s extra bedrooms.”
The government said it had already provided £150m to councils to make discretionary payments to those affected by its changes to welfare payments, but also announced that it would bolster the fund for those affected by housing benefit changes by £35m.
About 660,000 working-age social housing households judged to have spare bedrooms have lost an average of £14 per week since their benefit was cut at the beginning of April.
The DWP estimated that 420,000 disabled people would be among those affected.
The claimants had mounted their legal challenge on three grounds: on whether the benefits changes were lawful under the European Convention on Human Rights; whether they were lawful under the Equality Act; and whether the government had followed the correct procedures when telling councils how to curb benefits payments.
They also argued that the £25m set aside in the local authority discretionary fund for disabled people affected by the benefit cuts was insufficient.
Mr Stein explained: “The government’s attempts to pass the buck to local authorities to deal with the unfairness and discrimination of the bedroom tax using discretionary housing payments is not acceptable.
“The amount of money provided by the government for these payments is nowhere near adequate to prevent large numbers of disabled people losing their homes.”
Mr Carmichael said his family had benefited from the discretionary fund, but added: “We’ve only got it for another few weeks, and then it’s run out.
“There’s nothing more in the pot from sources I’ve talked to, so we’re going to be back to square one, and we can’t afford it, the way we are, to lose £50 a month – well, £60 really because of the council tax changes as well.”
Richard Hawkes, chief executive of the disability charity Scope, said: “The government has repeatedly referred to a discretionary fund to support those hit by this cut. But we know that this money is not getting to disabled people.
“The fact is that in 2013, disabled people are struggling to make ends meet. Life costs more if you’re disabled but living costs are spiralling, income is flat-lining, and many are getting into debt just to pay for essentials.”
Housing charity Shelter’s chief executive Campbell Robb added: “This ruling is devastating news for disabled adults and families with disabled or vulnerable children, who’ll be put at real risk of homelessness for having a bedroom they just can’t do without.
“As a result of today’s ruling, we’re really concerned that these families will now face a real struggle to meet their rent and may end up losing their home.”
A DWP spokesman had previously said that the move would bring back fairness to the housing benefit system and pointed out there were “over a quarter of a million tenants… living in overcrowded homes”.