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

Felipe Araujo
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Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.