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Bedroom tax leaving social tenants unwell, depressed and hungry

The bedroom tax is causing ill-health, depression, stress, anxiety and hunger on those tenants affected by it, a new study suggests.

Academics at the University of Newcastle and local public health officials conducted a qualitative study via interviews and a focus group with 38 social housing tenants and 12 service providers. It took place in a part of Newcastle that is among the 10% of most deprived areas in the UK, where 69% of the residents live in social housing and 650 households are affected by the bedroom tax – which the government calls the removal of the ‘spare room subsidy’.

The study, published in the Journal of Public Health, found that most households lost £12 per week as a result of having one spare room, while some lost £22 per week for having two. One of the first things cut back to deal with the loss was food budgets; parents reported skipping meals to provide for their children and others described subsisting on sausage rolls or tins of soup.

One service provider said: “We had a gentleman come to us quite early on … he'd lost £15 a week. Our tutor sat with him and said, ‘Come on, let's have a look at your household budget and we'll see where we can make some savings.’ We honestly went through it with a fine-tooth comb; the gentleman didn't smoke, he didn't drink, he had a basic TV, no broadband, nothing like that, basic pay-as-you-go mobile phone. After all of his essentials, his bills and things had gone out, he was actually left with, I think, £6 a week for food and for travel. How he could have made any savings out of that I do not know.

“Obviously they're going to slip into arrears; it's very, very difficult, because as well as losing that £15 they've got to try to find it from somewhere else. If you've got £6 a week, how do you save £15 a week?”

Participants also reported cutting back on heating, lighting, and cooking to save on utility bills. This exacerbated existing health conditions of several tenants.

One participant described catching pneumonia twice and spending 10 days in hospital. She said the cause of her ill-health was not turning on the heating during the cold weather as she couldn’t afford to pay the bill.

The removal of the spare room subsidy has also had a detrimental effect on the mental health and wellbeing of tenants.

The study states: “Worries about potential re-location, not being able to provide healthy food for themselves or their children, living in inadequately heated homes and spiralling rent arrears contributed to mental health problems.

“All participants reported feelings of stress, many recounted symptoms of anxiety and depression, and service providers observed that these were widespread throughout the community.

“Stress, anxiety and depression were mingled with a sense of hopelessness verging on desperation when people recounted how dealing with the bedroom tax had left them feeling.”

As well as mental health problems attributed to the stresses of trying to find the additional money, a number of participants linked the financial demands of the tax to sleep problems and physical health problems.

One participant said: “I felt some of the darkest days of my life took place the last few months. I mean it's just terrible … people just don't realise.”

Another said that the stress caused a heart attack, while yet another can’t sleep through the night due to worrying about bills and money.

She said: “I've been known to wake up at 4am or even sometimes 2am and it's everything: bills, money, house. I can be sitting reading, trying to read to try and knock myself back to sleep and there are some times when I just can't go back over, so sometimes I'm up from four o'clock in the morning. It does have a knock-on effect because then you feel knackered for the rest of the day, and if you've woken up with that kind of feeling in your head and in yourself you just – I had a tendency just to sit in the corner in the chair.”

The study concludes that the bedroom tax should be revoked due to the negative impact it has on health and wellbeing.

It says: “The bedroom tax negatively affected individuals, families and communities.”

Adding: “As well as experiencing the shame of poverty with its injurious effects on self-esteem and self-worth, we documented extreme levels of anxiety, stress, fear and hopelessness, which, amongst other adults living in poverty in the UK, has been found to threaten the bond between individuals and their social environment.”

When asked by the Guardian, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) declined to say whether it still considered its initial assumption that the policy would have no adverse health effects to be robust in the light of the Newcastle study.

In a brief statement it said: “This research cannot possibly isolate the effects of the removal of the spare room subsidy to individual circumstances.”

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