Trying to live on £18 a week showed the unfairness of the bedroom tax

Left with just £18 for food after the bedroom tax, my constituents, like me, will have nothing to eat by the end of the week.

I was so shocked when I began receiving letters from my constituents about the implications for them of the bedroom tax, and about how little they would have left to live on, that I decided two weeks ago to see if I could survive on £18 a week, which is what they will be left with to buy their food after 1 April.

£18 is based on the experiences of my constituents, in particular women on employment and support allowance who have had to stop working owing to chronic health conditions, perhaps after 20 years of working life. Out of their £71.70, they have to find £10 for electricity, £20 for heating — gas or coal —£6 for water rates, £4 for bus fares and £10 for the bedroom tax, which left them with £23 for weekly living expenses.

That £23 has to cover more than food, of course. We did a calculation, and set aside £5 for all the non-food items everyone has to buy—soap, washing powder, washing-up liquid, toothpaste, loo paper—plus a small amount in order to save £50 a year for clothes or a pair of trainers, or in case the iron breaks. That leaves £18.

I therefore took up the challenge of trying to live on that amount. It was extremely unpleasant. I had porridge for breakfast every morning, as I usually do, but whereas I usually make porridge with milk, instead I had to make it with water. I had to eat the same food over and over and over again. Single people are hit particularly hard, because cheap food comes in big packs. I made a stew at the beginning of the week, and I ate the same food four nights a week. I had pasta twice a week. I had baked potatoes. I had eggs on six occasions. It was completely impossible to have fish as well as meat; that was out of the question. It was also impossible to have five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.

I therefore have a message for Anna Soubry, the Tory minister who recently criticised people on low incomes for obesity. Of course they have to fill up on toast and biscuits.

I found myself waking up in the middle of the night, absolutely ravenous, having to make cups of tea and eat biscuits. I had a headache for five days week, and I was completely lethargic and exhausted by 4pm. Some people are on Jobseeker’s Allowance and are looking for a job. Looking for a job is a job in itself; it takes time and energy. The people whom DWP ministers want to do workfare are being expected to work 30 hours a week, yet they are not going to have enough to eat properly.

Most shocking of all was the fact that come Sunday I ran out of food - there was literally nothing left to eat that night. If ministers are happy with the notion that 660,000 of our fellow citizens are literally not going to have enough to eat by the end of the week, they have no conception of what they are going to do to the people in our constituencies who will be faced with this bedroom tax.

Ministers have been very free and easy in talking about alternatives, such as the fact that people can move. In my constituency, more than 1,000 people will be affected by the bedroom tax but there are fewer than 100 smaller properties to which they could move. In my constituency, it is not possible for all these people to increase the number of hours they work, as seven people are chasing every job; people are in part-time work because they cannot get full-time work.

Of course some individuals or couples have properties that are larger than they need, but the so-called under-occupancy is in one part of the country and the overcrowding is in another. It is simply not credible to suggest that all the large, over-occupying families in London will move up to Durham, particularly given that the unemployment rate there is more than 9 per cent. What would they be moving to?

I made a video diary of my week, so I got a lot of feedback from people affected by this policy. Interestingly, they said, "Yes, this is the reality of our lives. We are not able to survive properly now and things are going to get worse to the tune of £10 a week from 1 April." In 2006, I did the same experiment under the previous Labour government, living on benefits to see what life was like for young people on the lowest rate of income support. I found that difficult, but there was enough money to get through the whole week. I wish to point out to the minister that we have reached a new low, because the £21 that people had in 2006 is equivalent to £28 now, and that should be compared with the £18 from 1 April.

Government ministers also constantly refer to how discretionary housing benefits can solve the problems created by the bedroom tax. In County Durham, £5m of income will be taken out of people’s pockets and out of the local economy. The size of the discretionary fund is half a million pounds, so once again there is a huge gap between actual need and the resources being given to people to deal with it.

The bedroom tax is a fundamental attack on the poorest people in this country. People are going to lose between £500 and £1,000 over the course of next year, through no fault of their own. But the really disgusting thing is that on the same day that the bedroom tax is being introduced, millionaires are being given a tax cut that will be worth £1,000—not over the year as a whole, but every single week.

Helen Goodman is Labour MP for Bishop Auckland and shadow media minister

You can watch her videos from her week living on £18 here 

Council run housing in Lambeth. 660,000 social housing tenants will lose out under the "bedroom tax". Photograph: Getty Images.

Helen Goodman is Labour MP for Bishop Auckland and shadow media minister

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.