Bedroom Tax: Beating the “Living Together as Husband and Wife” Snoops from the Council

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When the Bedroom Tax comes into force next month, many people will be forced to take on lodgers in order to make up the shortfall in their rent. Local Councils administering housing and council tax benefit, always looking for any way to cut costs from their end, may very well try to investigate your household if they suspect that there is any way they can prove that you and your new lodger are actually “living together as husband and wife”.

Their screening processes almost always flag any household containing a new lodger in the spare room, if the new lodger is of the opposite sex to the person making the claim for Housing Benefit, and not a blood, step or adoptive relative. They investigate with the aim to prove that you “live together as husband and wife”, and thus they will be justified in demanding that you claim jointly or not at all. This saves them money, and means that you will still be liable for your extra “spare room”; because for as long as you are deemed to be “living together as husband and wife”, you are also expected to share a bedroom as well as benefit payments.

It is obviously very important then for the household looking to take on a lodger to be aware of this term, and what you should do to ensure that it is not wrongfully applied to your situation.

As far as I’m concerned, the only people who “live together as husband and wife” are those who are married and afforded the legal protections of marriage. However, that won’t get you very far with the powers-that-be at the DWP and the Council. Their definition – well there’s no official one but this is about as good as you’ll get:

There is no single factor on which the LTAHAW/CP decision can be based. It has to be made on
the relationship of the couple as a whole. When deciding whether two people are
LTAHAW/CP, use your knowledge and experience to apply legislation, including case law, to
make a fair and reasoned decision based on the evidence of the individual circumstances of a
case.

The following ‘admirable signposts’ as outlined in a Social Security Commissioner’s decision,
must also be taken into account
• existence of a shared household
• stability of the relationship
• financial arrangements
• responsibility for children
• sexual relationship
• public recognition of the relationship

This was taken from “Living together as husband and wife or as civil partners – decisions relating to unmarried couples”, a document published by the DWP for their decision makers, and well worth a glance if you have five minutes or so.

The Process

The first step is to make sure that you are not accidentally omitting any traceable information about who is living in your household. Inform the council as soon as it can be proved that your lodger has taken up residence in your home. So, for instance, if they are using your home as their main postal address; and if they are staying for over four nights a week at the residence, inform the council that your household has either a new lodger (if the arrangement is commercial) or a new non-dependent adult taking up residence in the premises.

My experience is with the more informal “non-dependent adult” type of casual lodger, the sort that is more likely to be jumped on as potentially a person who may be “living together as husband and wife” with the person claiming Housing Benefit. From what I can gather, sub-letting or profiting off Social Housing is not usually allowed, so the person claiming Housing Benefit likely as not have no choice but to go down the non-dependent adult route. It’s not too difficult though, so don’t panic!

-Make sure to refer to this person as “non-dependent adult” in any paperwork that is sent out asking to describe the relationship between yourself and your new lodger.

-The paperwork may ask how who has use of what rooms in the household. Make it clear that your lodger has access to only their own room, and permission to use communal rooms – kitchen, bathroom etc from yourself.

-Answer the questions on the form as fully as common sense allows. Never give any more information than is absolutely required on forms that will be flying around through the postal system.

If you fill out all the forms, send them back and hear nothing further, then goodtimes citizens, continue with your lives…

However, you may receive communication from a Customer Compliance Officer requesting that you, or your new lodger, or both of you submit to interview or even domestic inspection in order to remain eligible for benefit. I wouldn’t bother with being interviewed at their offices, as although the interview can be recorded, they provide the equipment and you have to write to get your recording released – they keep your copy you see. In line with the advice that I would normally give to people about allowing possibly hostile representatives of the state into your home (just don’t, unless it provides a clear tactical advantage), inviting the representative from the Council to your home can actually be a tactical advantage in this situation, if you can stomach the intrusion. You can record in your own home, and (in my opinion) it’s vital in cases like this that you do, because the written word of the Council employee is otherwise the only recorded version of events.

Record the telephone call you make to them inviting them to the home and informing them that the interview will be recorded. This is for your own personal use obviously and not for any redistribution, if one wishes to remain on the virtuous side of the law. It will also help you to remain calm and confident asserting your right to record in your own home. I have heard recordings where people have been flat-out lied to and told they can’t do that, but when the caller calmly perseveres, they get their home visit and the right to record it.

When the Customer Compliance Officer comes round, they will be looking for certain “red flags” around the home, and may either ask questions about your home and how you live in it during the interview, or request to view the house as well as simply asking the questions. According to this section of the Decision Maker’s Guide; they are to examine the following:

Common factors associated with the existence of a household

11055 The DM must consider all the circumstances of a case in deciding whether two people are members of the same household. In addition to DMG 11053, there are other factors commonly associated with a household which should be explored.

These factors have been identified in cases dealing with whether married couples, who claim to be estranged, are still living in the same household, but they may also indicate the existence of a shared household occupied by an unmarried couple or a same sex couple who are not civil partners of each other. The DM should consider evidence relating to the following when making a finding as to whether a household exists

1. the circumstances in which the claimant and their partner came to be living in
the same house;
2. the arrangements for payment for the accommodation;
3. the arrangements for the storage and cooking of food;
4. the eating arrangements (whether separate or not);
5. the domestic arrangements such as cooking, cleaning, gardening and minor
household maintenance;
6. the financial arrangements;
7. evidence of family life

Obviously the more it looks like you “live on top of one another”, the more this information can be construed as evidence that you’re in some sort of common law marriage that would save their department money. I have heard of some cases where even the shared purchase of a large container of milk, or shared laundry loads would be questioned. Point out that we are in a recession, there are austerity measures being meted out across the country, and it is only practical and reasonable to pool together in some areas when appropriate. If you wouldn’t let the other person wash your smalls though, no harm in pointing that out, too.

Basically if your lifestyle isn’t any different to how students sharing a house would live, there’s not much they can say about the day-to-day practicalities and appearances of the home.

The Interview

Here is a FOI request regarding Customer Compliance Officer. The sender of the request has usefully distilled the main points of the downloadable pdf into a helpful list of twenty points that help to cast light on your rights in regards to visits by CCOs.

Remember that you absolutely have the right to record. Make sure that all parties involved identify themselves on record, and do so every time they reconvene after a break. These appointments are supposed to take less than an hour, but can in reality be up to three once the spotlight’s on and they can’t just write what they like and skip out the front door.

The interview is run off a CP2(lt) form, which – according to the DWP – customers should not be allowed to see. If they did have prior access, perhaps people could just have the considered answers to the questions in front of them, and the element of surprise would be lost.

Expect to hear questions designed to figure out whether you knew each other prior to your lodger moving into your spare room, the nature of any pre-existing acquaintance and how long your lodger expects to be staying in your spare room. They may ask whether you do jobs around the home or outside the home for each other, how bills are paid, whether you spend any time together socialising. They will be interested to know the extent of the lodger’s involvement in day-to-day family life, and whether you make joint purchases on household items. They may be interested as to the extent the lodger is permitted to use household facilities such as the phone or internet, ironing board, washing machine, fridge space etc. If you have children in the household, the CCOs will be interested in hearing about the relationship (if any) the lodger has with them.

The CCO will write your answers down, and you will be expected to sign them. A request to fill in the CP2(lt) yourself as it is meant to be your signed account of circumstances will be denied. It is therefore in your best interest to go through the answers the CCO has written down and correct any errors they have made with your phrasing along the way. This is why it can take over an hour longer than expected to do the interview, but it’s important, as CCOs merely collect the information – they have no decision making power – and the Decision Maker is presented with simply the signed written account of the CCO in order to make her decision.

Upon signing your declaration, the CCO will typically leave as quickly as they can – be gracious as they exit, you did it your way, and they know it.

Hopefully the information contained within this article will help to prevent already tightly-squeezed families from feeling the further outrage of having the lodger they took in to avoid the Bedroom Tax be labelled, potentially, their pretend husband or wife; and leaving them back at square one but with a possible fraud allegation to contend with.

Solidarity.

Science

Remember when we chewed on glass
And spat it out in science class
The splintered shards
The shattered bone
The boy who needed love at home
The broken man
The metre stick
And Smokey Joe looks like a dick

Remember when we gargled glue
And I spat mine all over you
The poisoned mind
The sullen glare
The boy who found he didn’t care
The awful pause
The knowing grin…

We’re late for science class again