Published: 15 January 2013
Protests continue over the government's controversial changes to the Housing Benefit rules, the so-called 'bedroom tax', which will see the benefit reduced for an estimated 655,000 households living in social housing. Similar rules already exist for families renting in the private sector who claim Local Housing Allowance.
However, the 'bedroom tax' seems to be at odds with another policy which the government is promoting, that of shared parenting for separated couples.
This will see the government amending family law so that when the Court makes decisions in contested cases on matters relating to children, such as contact and residence, there will be a presumption that the continued involvement of both parents in the child's life will be beneficial unless the contrary is shown.
The government's desire to create a family justice system that promotes and prioritises the continued involvement of both parents in the child’s life does not seem to stack up with its reform of the Housing Benefit rules. Indeed, the human rights organisation Liberty, is so concerned about the potential impact of the bedroom tax on separated parents who share the care of their children that it is seeking judicial review of this aspect of the policy.
The government's rationale in amending family law to include the shared parenting presumption is to ensure the important ongoing role that both parents play in a child's life is recognised. Where it is safe, possible and practical, over-night stays or even shared day-to-day care of the children work well for many families.
However, it appears that the 'bedroom tax' will jeopardise such arrangements. It is likely that separated parents who are awarded Housing Benefit and share the care of their children will either lose their additional bedroom or have to find extra money each month to make up the shortfall in the benefit.
This is because under the new rules the bedroom where the child spends the night with the parent who is not the main carer will be considered a spare bedroom. A smaller property may be unable to accommodate any children at all and at the very least the child will no longer have his or her own space. The alternative to moving is that the shortfall in the benefit will have to be found out of an often tight budget. Separated couples are already dealing with the financial hardship of making their assets and money stretch from one household into two households and additional costs may have a detrimental impact.
What we must remember is that in family law the welfare of children should always be considered paramount. The concern is that with the introduction of the bedroom tax, children who have already had to cope with the breakdown of their family will miss out on just the sort of quality time with their parents that the government says it is trying to ensure.
This article was written by Kerry Smith, Head of Family Law, K J Smith Solicitors, specialist family solicitors in London.