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theweek120by150The prime minister has caused anger among many disabled people by giving MPs a misleading account of his government’s new “bedroom tax”.

David Cameron claimed at this week’s prime minister’s questions that “people with severely disabled children” and “people who need round-the-clock care” would be exempt from the new housing benefit regulations.

Although some families with children with high support needs will be exempt from the regulations – which come into force on 1 April and affect those in social housing – this exemption will be at the discretion of their local authority.

And the exemption is only the result of a court success last year by disabled people and their families, a victory the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) wants the Supreme Court to overturn.

Cameron also failed to point out that only disabled people who need a spare room for an overnight paid care worker will be exempt from the bedroom tax, while those who rely on partners or other family carers for their support will still lose out.

His comments caused anger among disabled people on Twitter, with many furious to hear of more misleading information from the government on the impact of its welfare reforms.

A DWP spokeswoman told Disability News Service that local authorities “have the discretion to exempt families with a disabled child” but that family carers “would not be exempt”.

The new regulations will see housing benefit reduced by 14 per cent if a household is found to have an unoccupied bedroom, and by 25 per cent if they have two or more unoccupied bedrooms. Children under 16 of the same gender – and all children under 10 – will be expected to share a bedroom.

Cameron’s comments came as his government faces a possible judicial review over the impact of the bedroom tax on disabled people, after claims were lodged on behalf of 10 individuals and families.

Lawyers acting for the claimants argue that the changes will have a far greater impact on disabled people than non-disabled people.

They say the regulations breach the Equality Act and the Human Rights Act, as well as the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The high court will decide by the end of this month whether there will be a full, four-day judicial review, which would take place in May.

Cameron’s comments also came as National Housing Federation (NHF) figures showed that 230,000 disability living allowance (DLA) claimants would lose an average of £728 per year in housing benefit as a result of the new regulations.

Even if all the extra £30 million funding allocated by the government to help foster carers and disabled people in adapted properties was given to DLA claimants hit by the tax, they would each receive just £2.51 per week, compared with an average £14 a week loss.

A lawyer representing five of the families seeking the judicial review – who all have disabled children who need separate bedrooms for impairment-related reasons – said the regulations would have a “catastrophic impact” on thousands of disabled children and adults.

Anne McMurdie, who represents another three of the claimants – a disabled man with a mental health condition, the father of a disabled child who shares caring duties with the child’s mother, and a disabled woman cared for by a parent in a significantly-adapted property – said the court case raised “issues of the greatest significance”.

McMurdie, from Public Law Solicitors (PLS) in Birmingham, said the government had failed to address properly the “true impact” on disabled people, or the “true costs” of the new regulations.

She said the long-term impact was likely to include the costs of rehousing, extra respite care, people being forced to move into residential accommodation, and adaptations in people’s new homes.

She said: “Inevitably, disabled people will fall into debt and some will lose their homes or be forced into accommodation which does not meet their needs.”

She added: “The case may well have wide implications for future welfare policy-making – just how much the burden of cuts can fall disproportionately on disabled people.”

The final two claimants, Jacqueline Carmichael and Richard Rourke, came forward as a result of work by the We Are Spartacus online network of disabled campaigners.

Carmichael lives in a two-bedroom housing association flat with her husband, her full-time carer, and has to sleep in a fixed position in a hospital bed with an electronic pressure mattress.

Her husband cannot share her bed for safety reasons, and there is no room for a second bed, so he sleeps in the second bedroom.

The Carmichaels say they cannot afford the 14 per cent benefit reduction which will be imposed from 1 April.

Rourke, a wheelchair-user, lives in a three-bedroom bungalow, with substantial adaptations.

He has a disabled daughter, also a wheelchair-user, who is studying at university but returns home for summer vacations, other holiday periods, and often at weekends. The third bedroom is a tiny box-room used to store mobility and care equipment.

Rourke cannot move home because there is no wheelchair-accessible, two-bedroom social housing available. If forced to move, he risks losing access to his support network, say his lawyers.

7 March 2013

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