TENS of thousands of North-East families face the misery of leaving their homes - or a steep hike in living costs - because of a "spiteful" new benefit cut, an MP warned yesterday.
Phil Wilson, the Sedgefield MP, used a Commons debate to condemn the so-called 'spare bedroom tax', urging ministers to consider the chaos it will inflict on some of the poorest households, from April.
The shake-up will effectively charge social housing tenants for their spare rooms, cutting housing benefit by 14 per cent for one extra bedroom - or 25 per cent where there are two spare rooms.
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The government insists the measure is needed to free up scarce larger social housing properties - in order to tackle overcrowding - and will cut £500m a year off the housing benefit bill.
But Mr Wilson said it was clear that County Durham - and most of the country - lacked the available housing to allow people to downsize.
The housing association Livin [CORR], formerly Sedgefield Borough Homes, had warned that 1,609 of its households would be hit by the 'bedroom tax - yet it had only 204 available one-bedroom properties.
Meanwhile, East Durham Homes, with properties in Wingate, Wheatley Hill, Thornley and Deaf Hill, predicted it would take seven years to rehouse all tenants affected.
Without smaller homes to move to, the tenants at both associations faced a £1.8m bill to cover their lost housing benefit - which was likely to plunge them into rent arrears.
Attacking the tax as "arbitrary, spiteful and deeply cynical", Mr Wilson highlighted the impact on a married couple with children who have grown up and left home.
He said: "They could be forced to leave the family home, because that is what it is - a family home, not just a house. They will have no space for the grandchildren, who will not be able to stay with their grandparents.
"The government plans are spiteful and cynical since the only way the half-a-billion will be saved is if those who live in under occupied properties cut their standard of living still further, trying to remain in their home."
But Steve Webb, the Liberal Democrat housing minister, said people affected should increase their hours at work, adding: "We are talking about a few hours extra a week".
And he pointed out that Durham County Council would receive £880,000 in the next financial year to help those in need - up from £177,000.
Mr Webb also defended expecting older teenagers to share bedrooms, saying: "I shared a bedroom with my brother until I was 18 and it didn't do me any demonstrable harm."
Andy McDonald revealed the case of David Holdsworth in his Middlesbrough constituency, a father-of-one paralysed from the waist down whose wife sleeps in their spare room, because of his disability.
Warning his wife may now be forced to move into a different one-bedroom property - breaking up the family - Mr McDonald said: "This is going to cause untold misery."