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.

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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