Govan Law Centre is concerned that many local authorities in Scotland, and across the United Kingdom, have been issuing 'bedroom tax ' decision letters to tenants before the under-occupancy changes to UK housing benefit law came into force on 1 April 2013 (regulation 5). We are currently challenging this practice and will provide progress updates on this blog in due course.
GLC is also aware that some local authorities in Scotland and England have wrongly advised tenants that they cannot appeal a decision to reduce their housing benefit because of the bedroom tax - that advice is wrong, and any such refusal would be unlawful, as decisions to reduce housing benefit are subject to review and appeal in terms of the Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit (Decisions and Appeals) Regulations, as amended, in the normal way.
Many councils - including Glasgow City Council - have issued tenants across the UK with decision letters reducing their housing benefit in light of the new 'B13' bedroom tax regulation (see also here for a consolidated set of the 2006 Housing Benefit Regulations as amended) in February and March of this year. In general, tenants have one month to seek a review and/or appeal of a housing benefit decision (unless they have grounds for a late appeal), but many tenants will have only been aware of their rights relatively recently - for example GLC's bedroom tax toolkit was only published earlier this month.
However, the 2006 Housing Benefit regulations make it clear that 'a change in circumstances' which affects entitlement (in this case, deductions from the commencement of the bedroom tax on 1 April 2013) 'shall take effect from the first day of the benefit week following the date on which the change of circumstances actually occurs' (see reg 79 of the 2006 regulations as amended).
Reg 90 of the 2006 regulations makes it clear that decision letters should be intimated to tenants 'forthwith, or as soon as reasonably practicable thereafter, or within 14 days of that decision'. The English courts have generally held if a defective decision letter does not cause prejudice to the claimant then its validity should be upheld; however, if local authorities refuse to review bedroom tax decisions issued before 1 April 2013 by claiming the tenant's dispute letter is too late, there would be grounds to argue the council had indeed caused prejudice to the tenant.
The DWP's own guidance on the bedroom tax (HB/CTB Circular A4/2012) advises local authorities not to issue bedroom tax decisions before 1 April: 'As an award notice cannot be sent before the legislation
comes in to force, you may wish to combine this notification with the
annual review letter in April to avoid multiple communications' (see para 25). There is therefore little doubt that many local authorities have acted prematurely.
What should you do?
If you feel aggrieved by a reduction in your housing benefit because of the bedroom tax and believe you are entitled to the use of all of your bedrooms on human right grounds, download GLC's bedroom tax toolkit and challenge your council's decision - you still have time to do this, and if your decision letter was issued in February or March, use the arguments above to say why your challenge is not late.