A year on from the introduction of the ‘bedroom tax’, Prof Ruth Lupton argues that reducing the incomes of poor families and creating instability for poor children is a nonsensical policy for a government committed to closing the socio-economic attainment gap.

One of the Coalition government’s most controversial welfare reform policies, the so-called ‘bedroom tax’, has now been in operation for just over a year.

It isn’t, strictly speaking, a ‘tax’ – rather an adjustment to the levels of Housing Benefit that social tenants can claim. Those who are deemed to have ‘spare’ bedrooms are seeing a reduction in their Housing Benefit –on  average about £14 per week.

To some, the bedroom tax might seem a sensible policy. It helps reduce the overall welfare bill, by not paying for things that aren’t ‘needed’.

It addresses a key concern of this government – that people who are claiming benefits should not have higher living standards than people who are working and paying for themselves in the private market.

And it could help make better use of the housing stock.  Why have people living in overcrowded conditions while also paying for people to occupy space that they don’t ‘need’?

But the policy is nonsensical in a number of ways.  For a start, in many areas, there are no smaller social rented properties to move to, so those who have to move will be forced into the private sector where the costs to the state in the form of Local Housing Allowance may well be higher.

Huge costs are being incurred by social landlords in the form of rent arrears, extra staffing costs, and in some cases keeping properties empty. Pensioners, who are most likely to be genuinely interested in ‘downsizing’, are exempt.

And the policy seems to take no account of either the size of the rooms (two children may easily share a large bedroom, but what about a box room?), any special circumstances (for example a disability or disturbed sleep), or the fact that needs evolve over time (a family can notionally have a ‘spare’ room this year, when their two children are aged under 10, but not next year when one turns 11).

This is before we even consider questions of principle such as rights to a home and social and community life, or wider questions of social policy, such as the contribution of housing to children’s welfare and learning.

The current government is putting a lot of emphasis on closing the socio-economic attainment gap, with a key mechanism being the much-trumpeted Pupil Premium. Isn’t it missing the fact that learning isn’t just ‘delivered’ in schools but also affected by children’s material, social and emotional circumstances?

Wealthier parents buy extra space for their families because they know it reduces stress, creates spaces for play, friendship and homework, and maximises the chances of a good night’s sleep.

If the benefits of these things are so obvious that the Goves or Duncan-Smiths or similar will buy them for their children, surely their removal in social housing will make it less likely that gaps in child outcomes will be narrowed, despite all the pupil premium efforts. A case of non-conjoined policy?

These were all points by participants  made at a recent stakeholder event organised by The University of Manchester, which is starting new research to explore the impacts of this policy specifically on children, and on schools and children’s services in Manchester.

The research aims to unpack the detail of the ways in which children are being affected by the loss of household income, and by having to move if their families decide that is the only option.

Some of the issues that stakeholders wanted us to investigate were hunger, as families cut back on the amount and quality of food; family stress and violence; disruption to childcare, friendship and support networks; and the sense of stigma and blame and vulnerability created by the implication that one is not entitled to space or could be displaced from communities of lifelong residence and belonging.

As well as examining these, we will also be looking at how children’s services are identifying support needs and responding, as well as attempting to quantify the impact of moves on school rolls and continuity of education. A principal part of the research will be case study work in Moss Side and Wythenshawe but with quantitative work covering the wider city.

Policy changes like this – a change to the level of a particular benefit – can go under the radar of many people who are not affected, while having profound and possibly unintended consequences for those to whom they apply, as well as knock-on effects in other areas of public services and welfare.

We hope our research will bring these issues into the public spotlight, helping to inform public and policy debate before the next General Election in 2015.