HUNDREDS of people across Dorset have been hit by a ‘harsh’ benefits cut over a year on from its introduction.
And around a quarter of those to have been affected by the Bedroom Tax are disabled, according to figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
It comes amid growing calls for the welfare reform to be axed.
The introduction of the Bedroom Tax, which restricts housing benefit for those who are seen to have extra bedrooms, caused outrage when it came into effect in April last year, with critics claiming it targets the poorest people in society.
Campaigner Michael McManus organised protests outside the Weymouth and Portland Borough Council offices at North Quay as part of a national movement against the policy.
But Mr McManus said the fight isn’t over as many people are still challenging their benefits cuts.
He said: “I’m not surprised by the figures. I know a lot of people have been affected.”
Mr McManus set up a Facebook group last year which now has more than 450 members.
The forum is still active and he and friend Teresa Green post news of rulings on the Bedroom Tax from across the country and offer advice to people who have been affected.
He added: “A lot of the problem is that there hasn’t been a definition of what a ‘bedroom’ is. How big does it have to be? Why should you have to pay for a tiny box room that has never been used as a bedroom?
“It’s causing a lot of pain and anger.”
Former social inclusion spokesman for Weymouth and Portland Borough Council Colin Huckle called the tax a ‘harsh penal sanction’ that hits the most vulnerable people in the community.
Cllr Huckle said: “I can understand the need to encourage people to downsize to free up some of the accommodation with more bedrooms, which are urgently required, but I do not think that should be done through monetary penalties.
“It is a harsh penal sanction that hits poor people who are already on housing benefit and earning below a certain income.”
Councillor Ray Nowak, the borough council’s spokesperson for economic development, called for the legislation to be revoked.
He said: “The fact is that there just aren’t that many smaller properties for people to move into.
“It is truly horrendous, makes people worry that they are going to lose the roof over their heads and is a burden on housing providers.”
Exchange events for swapping properties
MUTUAL exchange events have led to four people swapping homes and moving to larger or smaller properties.
Sarah Durrans, Synergy Housing regional director, said: “These events help our customers and other social housing tenants to meet and find out if their homes are suitable to swap. They also give us, our fellow housing providers, local authorities and other organisations, a chance to talk to customers about their needs, advise them on their options if they’re looking to move to a smaller or larger property, and offer them any support or assistance they may require.”
Around 80 people attended two events in March and August last year, leading to the exchanges. Similar events will be held at Weymouth Pavilion on November 13.
'Id' rather die than leave my home'
A WEYMOUTH widow who has been hit by the Bedroom Tax said she would rather die than leave her home.
The woman, who is disabled and told her story to the Dorset Echo on condition of anonymity, has had her housing benefit docked by 25 per cent after her husband died and her son moved out.
She has lived in the four-bedroom housing association property since 2001 and tens of thousands of pounds have been spent on converting it to suit her needs.
She said: “My husband and I owned our own business and our own home.
“But when I had an accident and became disabled, we lost everything.
“My husband became my full-time carer.
“Then he was diagnosed with cancer and died 18 months ago.”
The couple knew about the impending introduction of the penalty and her husband worried what would happen.
She added: “It was really traumatic. He kept saying, ‘I can’t go because who’s going to look after you?’”
The house is classed as four-bedroomed although one spare room is permitted for an overnight carer and another measures just eight feet across.
She said: “I have appealed against the tax but it has been declined. I was told I would have to find the money to pay by cutting back on things or get out.
“I’ve been offered a one-bedroom flat but it has not been adapted to suit my disability.”
Her illness has left her barely able to stand.
She added: “I have no intention of leaving. This isn’t just a house, my husband made it a home.
“I am still finding presents that he hid for me before he died, for our anniversary and my birthday.
“He died in this house. I held him in my arms when he took his last breath.
“He is buried in the graveyard behind my house.
“My friends take me to visit but on my bad days when I can’t walk I can go to the bedroom which overlooks the graveyard and talk to him that way.
“I would rather die than leave my home.”
Lib Dems’ dramatic about turn
LIBERAL Democrats have dramatically withdrawn their support for the so-called bedroom tax, with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg claiming it is hitting the poorest in society.
He is pushing for changes to be made before the next election.
Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander has also said that significant changes were needed to the policy.
But they have faced accusations of hypocrisy for the U-turn.
An internal government review published this week showed almost 60 per cent of households affected by the housing benefit changes were in arrears as a result and a shortage of smaller properties meant only 4.5 per cent of tenants had been able to downsize to avoid it.
Lib Dem councillor and parliamentary candidate for West Dorset Ros Kayes welcomed Nick Clegg’s U-turn on the tax, saying: “It’s fabulous news and it is about time.
“I’ve been one of the people who have been agitated by bedroom tax for the past two years.
“It hasn’t done what it was supposed to do.
“The problem is there are no alternative homes for people who have too many rooms, it’s an inconceivable concept.
“I’m surprised there’s not been any legal action taken by tenants against housing associations
FIGURES released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that 553 people in Weymouth and Portland and 689 in West Dorset have had their housing benefit cut since the introduction of the Bedroom Tax.
The cut is 14 per cent for those deemed to have one spare room and 25 per cent for those deemed to have two or more spare rooms.
In Weymouth and Portland, 455 people have had their benefit cut by 14 per cent and 98 have had a cut of 25 per cent.
Across West Dorset 559 have had a cut of 14 per cent and 130 have had a cut of 25 per cent.
In Weymouth and Portland, 6,059 people are receiving housing benefit. The figure for West Dorset is 6,092.
This means around one in ten housing benefit recipients in Weymouth and Portland, and one in eight in West Dorset, are affected by the Bedroom Tax.
In Weymouth, a two-bedroomed Synergy property is rented at an average of £89.25 per week, with a three-bedroom averaging £105.40 per week.
Synergy owns and manages 2,751 properties in Weymouth.
THE bedroom tax, or under-occupancy penalty, was brought in as part of the Welfare Reform Act 2012.
It came into effect in April 2013 and restricts housing benefit to allow for one bedroom for each person or couple, with the exception of children under 16, who are expected to share, and where there is an overnight carer for a disabled person, who will be allowed an extra bedroom.
The change has been highly criticised by the Labour Party, but the Coalition believes the policy creates a fairer approach to benefits.
Despite being in place for almost a year, the tax remains controversial and campaigners recently lost a bid at the Court of Appeal to have the tax declared unlawful.
Judges did not accept the argument that the tax breaches Human Rights and common law because of its impact on vulnerable families.
Campaigners are now considering taking their battle to the Supreme Court.