People used to go on marches to demand change in a very public show of strength. This weekend’s protests in Britain calling for the abolition of the bedroom tax turned the meaning of protest on its head.
A year on from the introduction of the bedroom tax - or the removal of the spare-room subsidy, as the government prefers to call it - the marchers in London, Leeds, Cardiff and elsewhere were not demanding radical change. Their cause was a conservative one. The demonstrators were against any kind of reform – on the bedroom tax as well as any other welfare reform – because of the impact it may have on ‘the vulnerable’. Of the estimated 660,000 households affected by the bedroom tax, it is estimated that 440,000 contain people with disabilities. Disability campaigners in particular have a deserved reputation for radical protests in the 1970s and 1980s, fighting for the freedom and equality of disabled people. It is ironic, therefore, that this weekend’s protesters found themselves in opposition to the bedroom tax, which, at least in part, is designed to give disabled people greater autonomy.
Yes, the bedroom tax is as awful as opponents say it is. Few can afford to lose the 14 per cent or 25 per cent of their housing benefit that a spare room or two will cost them; and many disabled people dispute the idea that the room containing equipment they rely on is ‘spare’. The mean-spiritedness of this ‘tax’ is clear, not to mention the incompetence of those responsible for it. Indeed, the bedroom tax has simply failed to do the two things it set out to achieve: free-up stock in the scandalously cramped social-housing sector and save public money. Those claimants who have been forced out of their homes have ended up in more expensive private-sector accommodation because of the shortage of social housing. Therefore, the bedroom tax has done nothing to lower the housing-benefit bill.
Still, accusing the government of cruelly punishing the poor and vulnerable is patronising. It diminishes the humanity of those on welfare and turns them into objects of pity. On the other hand, the government’s adoption of the radical notion that people with disabilities can be independent when given the right support, and that many of them are able to work and needn’t be claiming benefits, is worth supporting. The fact that this weekend’s protesters, those who have appointed themselves defenders of the disabled, are demanding a return to the state-dependent status quo suggests that people with disabilities are not so much disabled by society – as the old slogan went – as they are by those claiming to represent them.