Five Stories: the harsh realities of the Government's "bedroom tax"

Almost two-thirds of households affected by the "bedroom tax" have a disability. Frances Ryan talks to five people who will face debt, discomfort and even homelessness once the bedroom tax is implemented.

“I lay awake at night and go through all the things I pay for and how much I have left and come to the same conclusion every time,” Vicky Evans* tells me. “I just cry about it.”

The 49-year-old is one of 660,000 social housing tenants due to have their housing benefit cut when the so-called "bedroom tax" comes into effect in April, and who are currently living with the fear of what this will mean for them. Under the changes, working-age people in social housing who are deemed to be "under-occupying" their home will have to move to a smaller property or see their housing benefit reduced; a 14 per cent cut for people seen to have one spare room and 25 per cent for those with two or more. It’s a policy that is in effect targeting some of the most vulnerable members of society and will make life harder for people already struggling to get by.

According to the Government’s own impact assessment, almost two-thirds of the tenants affected will be from households that contain someone who has a disability. Already living on low incomes and seeing cuts to other benefits, they now face losing an average of £14 a week, and up to £80 a month.

Money is tight for Vicky. She’s had severe anxiety. Both of her parents and brother died by the time she was in her twenties. She has arthritis and sleep apnoea, leaving her unable to work. It means she has to live on £101 a week; a combination of income support and the low rate of Disability Living Allowance. With two spare bedrooms, she is set lose a quarter of her housing benefit.

“I’m worried sick about this bedroom tax,” Vicky tells me. “When the tax comes in, for me it’s going to be a choice between that and my gas and electric.”

She says she tried to tell the council she wouldn’t pay the tax. “They said as soon as I’m £50 in arrears then they will take me to court and [that] will lead to eviction.”

By the logic of this policy, Vicky should simply move to a one-bedroom property. However, she has looked on the housing list and there are no one-bedroom houses or flats within ten miles. This is a familiar story for people waiting for the bedroom tax to hit: tenants being told they are "under-occupying" their home but having nowhere to go. One-bedroom properties are rare in social housing and it’s estimated almost 95,000 people in England could be forced into arrears from April, unable to cope with the benefit cuts but with no smaller home available for them to move to. 

Vicky has lived on the same street for 27 years and in her current home for five of them. “I feel happy, safe and comfortable where I live,” she says.

When we talk she always refers to her house as “home”, because, she explains, “that’s what it is to me.” She knows everyone near her and everyone knows her, she tells me. The familiarity helps her anxiety and she’s clearly frightened at the thought of having to leave the area.

“If I have to leave my home and be put away from the places and people I know then I don't know how I'll cope,” she says.  

***

Fred Williams understands what it is to be reliant on your home. He has cerebral palsy and his two-bedroom council house in south London has been heavily adapted to meet his needs. Williams, 59, had shared the house with his wife and step-children since 1991 but after the break-up of his marriage, now lives alone. Under the housing benefit changes, he will be classified as "under-occupying" what was his family home and is now being told to look for somewhere smaller to live.

“We’re talking about disabled people who can't just be picked up and dumped anywhere,” he tells me.

His house has over twenty years’ worth of adaptations to it. There’s an existing stairlift and the council added ramps to the front and back doors. It also now has an extended kitchen and an accessible shower.

Any property he moved to would have to be similarly adapted, he stresses. It’s an example of the cold economic thinking behind the bedroom tax: moving people from adapted homes, on the justification of savings for the public purse, only to have to pay for identical changes to whatever property they move to.

Like Vicky Evans, Williams has found the added problem that there simply aren’t the one-bedroom properties available to meet the demand. “In London Borough of Greenwich, I’m told to date there are 15 vacant one-bedroom flats,” he says. “There are over 800 on the waiting list for them.”

He is in the trap the bedroom tax is making nationwide: told to downsize or lose benefits, he will lose benefits because he cannot downsize. Finding ways to make up the short fall is difficult for anyone on a low income but, as Williams knows, poverty is compounded by being disabled.

His disability has meant he’s been unable to work since 2006 and is reliant on Employment Support Allowance (ESA) for his income. The Government has made no exemption from the bedroom tax for people on ESA, even those placed in the "support group" like Williams – those who have been classified as too sick or disabled to have the possibility of being employed. This is not only a tax on the poorest but people who have been classified by the Government itself as being without the physical or mental ability to financially support themselves.

It’s a fact that is going ignored, even in the letters currently being sent to people’s homes advising them they “need to start planning how [they] will make up that extra amount” they will lose in April. Fred Williams shows me the letter he received last month from his local housing association. Despite the fact that he is on ESA, the letter advises him to get help finding a job or suggests he could “try to increase [his] working hours.”

It’s hard to see the letter as anything other than a reflection of a system that is both incompetently and inhumanely ignoring people’s needs.

The letter begins by referring to a conversation between Williams and his housing association that he tells me never happened. He has a speech impediment and when we speak, we do so via email. “So how did they talk to me?” he says. “I had no conversation with anyone from Greenwich housing department.”

Williams tells me he watches Iain Duncan Smith on television promising protection for the disabled, but can't see it happening. “The whole issue surrounding the Bedroom Tax is a con,” he says. “[This] Government…are hell bent on making disabled people's lives hell.”

***

This is a familiar feeling for Jayson Lowery and his wife Charlotte. Charlotte, 40, has a severe spinal condition and is partially confined to her bed. Her husband is her full-time carer and they have to get by on Jayson’s carer’s allowance. Things are difficult generally for them right now.

“We don’t know what the new council tax regime is yet,” Jayson, 50, tells me. “My carer’s allowance as well might be submerged into universal credit this year.” The bedroom tax doesn’t come in isolation but rather is a new worry to a mounting list.

In their two-bed flat in Southport, there’s a single bed in one room and a specialist NHS-type, bed in the other. Charlotte’s wheelchair sits there too, cramped in with other medical equipment. Her condition means she can’t share a normal bed with her husband and their flat, partly adapted for Charlotte’s needs, is too small to put both beds in one room. From April, the couple will lose £12 a week because of this. Despite the fact that Charlotte sleeps in it every night, due to the fact that she lives with her partner, her room will be classified as ‘spare’.  

It’s harmful for Charlotte to lie on anything other than a specialist mattress and Jayson is clearly worried. “She has two permanent pressure sores which are relieved by this mattress,” he tells me. “All Charlotte’s toileting is done in the bed.”

He has looked for a one-bedroom property but there are none big enough in their housing sector to fit both beds in one room.

The Lowerys' situation is one example of an issue at the heart of the bedroom tax: what is a vital room to many people is "spare" to the government. It results in a policy that penalises people for being simultaneously poor and disabled. Someone with a disability is more likely to need extra space, and are less likely to be able to pay for it.

When we speak, Jayson has just started the application for a discretionary housing payment; the "top up" benefit local councils can award to people struggling to pay the rent. He isn’t optimistic.

“[I] don’t know if it'll cover everything or if we have enough adaptions [to the flat] to qualify,” he says. “We’ll have to give it a go.”

The Government have made an extra £30m available to the DHP fund from 2013/14 specifically to help people living in significantly adapted accommodation who will be affected by the bedroom tax. It is being promoted as both mitigation and justification for the reforms but it’s a tiny fund that’s shared by foster parents (also not exempt from the "under-occupation" penalty) and will reach a minority of the disabled tenants affected. In reality, the only help being offered is a short-term, unreliable plaster (pdf) to a significantly deeper wound: welfare reforms that penalise people with disabilities for having extra needs.

***

There are adult-sized nappies filling Linda Taylor’s box room. She is another person who has just been informed by her housing association that her family will have their benefits cut for needing a room that’s been classified as "spare".

Linda, 43, and her husband share their three-bedroom home with their severely disabled son, Adam, and are his full time carers. Adam has heart, kidney and spinal problems which leave him with no mobility. He can’t use the bathroom and is bottled fed pureed food.

As for many people with disabilities, their "spare" room is packed with the multiple pieces of equipment Adam needs each day. It’s a small space but it contains a pressure mattress for physio and play, oxygen cylinders, two specialist chairs to help him sit, and a special table with sensory toys his mum tells me Adam stands against while he’s strapped in his standing sling. Thirty four packs of twenty nappies are also there, stored to last three months.

The room is used by a carer sometimes, during the day or night. “I was told [by the Housing Association] that to be exempt the carer would have to be asleep,” Linda tells me.

“I feel so frustrated,” she says. “The only solution I can see is to go and find a job which I would be willing to do if the council is willing to provide the full care needed for my son . . . When you can only get eleven hours care a week we’ve got no chance of changing life for the better. We’re left in a no win situation.”

***

Jimmy Daly, 50, is finding it difficult to see how things are going to improve for him and his son. The nine-year-old has learning difficulties and spastic quadriplegia and lives between his mum’s house and his dad’s two-bedroom maisonette. When the changes come into effect, Daly will have his housing benefit cut for having a bedroom for his son that isn’t used every day.

“I’m finding it very very hard at the moment,” he tells me. “And when they take about £10 a week off me, well I don’t know…It’s wrong.”

He’s currently living on £71-a-week Job Seeker’s Allowance and his attempts to find work are leading to nothing. He cares for his son three nights a week, takes him to school and back and looks after him in the holidays.

Under the new housing benefit rules, a severely disabled child who needs a room of their own may be permitted not to share without a loss to the family’s benefit. However, this is only the case for the child’s "main residence" and won’t take into account people sharing custody. Parents like Daly are going to be penalised for doing their part in taking care of their child and, worse, for that child being disabled.

“If this goes ahead I’ll have to move into a one-bedroom flat,” he says. “How do you sleep in the same bedroom as a disabled boy?”

He has no money to make up the short fall in benefit. Due to his son’s extra needs, he is already paying more for heating, electricity, water, food, and diesel, he tells me. As another worried parent of a disabled child who got in touch said to me, no amount of extra socks helps a disabled child. These parents have no choice but to keep their homes permanently warm.

“I don’t use heating when he isn’t here,” Daly says. “I can’t afford it.”

He tells me right now all he can see for himself is giving up his car which he needs to pick up his son or becoming homeless. “If I do end up homeless I’ll no longer be able to see my son. If that happens I won’t cope with that,” he says. “I know I’ll be better off taking my own life.”

The next two months will be a wait for the bedroom tax to hit. He adds, “I hope I get a job by then.”

*Some names have been altered to protect identity

According to the Government's own impact assessment, two-thirds of households affected contain someone with a disability. Photograph: Getty Images

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?