The UK Government’s controversial “bedroom tax” policy could be thrown into disarray following a decision by a top QC.
In a statement that could have nationwide implications, Simon Collins has ruled dimensions do matter when it comes to defining a bedroom.
The ruling could open the floodgates for appeals by thousands of tenants affected by the new legislation.
Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the ruling was hugely significant, adding it “underlines the already existing concerns that the bedroom tax is in breach of human rights”.
Around 660,000 people, including 75,000 in Scotland, have had their housing benefit cut after being told they have more bedrooms than they need.
The Government has always refused to define a minimum bedroom size, but following a number of test cases in Fife Mr Collins who was appointed by the UK Government to judge bedroom tax tribunals has ruled a room measuring less than 50 square feet is not a bedroom.
The QC also said a room measuring between 50 and 70 square feet could only be used as a bedroom by a child aged under 10.
Mr Collins, who was appointed by Lord Chancellor Kenneth Clarke to be the First-tier Tribunal judge, also ruled the long-established use of rooms should be taken into account.
The Fife appeals were the first in Scotland and follow unsuccessful challenges in Birmingham earlier this year.
Campaigners against the so-called bedroom tax were last night celebrating the judgments, saying they set a precedent that would give hope to others affected by the legislation.
However, while the findings offer guidance to future tribunal judges and local authorities, they are not legally binding.
Fife Council which has the right to appeal against the rulings said it would take time to consider the implications and would issue guidance to staff.
David Nelson from Glenrothes appealed after having his housing benefit cut by 14%.
The 57-year-old, who lives in a three-bedroom house with wife Maureen, had already successfully appealed to the council that his second bedroom was often used by his son who acts as his carer.
His appeal to the tribunal was on the grounds that his remaining spare room measured 66 square feet and was therefore a boxroom and not a bedroom.
“The letter I got said a room of 66 square feet can only be used by a child up to 10 years old,” he said. “It can’t even be used by a lodger because it’s too small.”
Mr Nelson added: “Everybody has the right to appeal against their own individual cases. Councils should review every case and go out and measure every room.”
Solicitor Graeme Sutherland, of Fife Law Centre, who acted on behalf of a number of the appellants, said he had sought to persuade the tribunal judge that each case should be decided on its own merits.
“Other councils will be looking very closely at this to see how they should be interpreting these new benefit rules,” he said.
Councillor David Ross, deputy leader of Fife Council, said: “The findings have provided some clarification, which we welcome, but there are also a lot of questions left unanswered.
“What is now clear is that usable floor space and long-established use of rooms are factors that have to be taken into account when considering what can be classed as a bedroom.”
He added: “These hearings have just emphasised how unworkable the system is and we believe the bedroom tax should be scrapped.”
Les Robertson, revenues service manager, said: “It will take time to consider all the implications of these judgments and we will also need to take into account the findings from cases in other parts of the country. We’ll be issuing advice to staff based on these decisions.”
When contacted by The Courier, local authorities and housing associations in Courier Country said they had “no minimum sizes for bedrooms” and they said they would look at any potential repercussions from the Fife ruling.’Same rules as in private sector’The UK Government last night distanced itself from the judgment and played down its potential impact, writes Kieran Andrews, political editor.
A Westminster source said that as the case was concerned with a claimant winning an appeal on how many bedrooms they have in the property in terms of housing benefit, it was a matter for landlords and their tenants to sort out.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Work and Pensions also pointed out that Scotland had received millions of pounds to offset the impact ofthe bedroom tax since it was brought into force.
She said: “It’s simply not affordable to pay housing benefit for people to have spare rooms, and our reforms in the social sector mean families receive help for the number of bedrooms they need, and these are exactly the same rules as in the private sector.
“Scotland has been given £10 million this year to help vulnerable people, and we are monitoring this spending carefully.”
The spokeswoman said that in July the UK Government had announced an extra £35m funding nationally on top of the aforementioned £10m for Scotland to help councils support vulnerable people.
That included £10m in transitional payments distributed to all councils, a new £20m discretionary housing payment fund and a £5m discretionary housing payment fund for the least densely populated areas in the country.
With regards to the latter, the spokeswoman said around half of therural authoritiesgetting extra cashare in Scotland,which totals roughly £3.5m.