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

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.