Balls warns of "despair" over welfare cuts after bedroom tax suicide

"There is no doubt this policy is driving people to the edge of despair," says the shadow chancellor in response to the case of Stephanie Bottrill.

Today's Sunday People features the distressing story of a woman who threw herself in front of a motorway lorry because she was worried about how she would pay the "bedroom tax". One should always be wary of ascribing motives to any suicide, but in this case there does appear to be a direct link.

In a letter to her son, the woman, Stephanie Bottrill, wrote: "Don't blame yourself for me ending my life, it's my life, the only people to blame are the government, no one else."

The son told the paper: "I couldn’t believe it. She said not to blame ourselves, it was the government and what they were doing that caused her to do it. She was fine before this bedroom tax. It was dreamt up in London, by people in offices and big houses. They have no idea the effect it has on people like my mum."

Under the "bedroom tax", those social housing tenants deemed to have one spare room have their housing benefit cut by 14 per cent, while those deemed to have two or more have it reduced by 25 per cent. The measure will cost tenants an average of £14 a week more in rent or an extra £728 a year. After being ordered to pay an extra £20 a week, Bottrill reportedly attempted to downsize, as the government has advised claimants to do, but found "nothing suitable" offered to her. As I've noted before, in England there are 180,000 social tenants "under-occupying" two-bedroom houses but fewer than 70,000 one-bedroom social houses to move to.

Asked about this case on Sky News's Murnaghan programme this morning, Ed Balls said that there was "no doubt this policy is driving people to the edge of despair". On this point, Balls is undoubtedly right. Speak to any Labour MP at the moment and one of the first things they mention is the disastrous effect that the welfare cuts introduced last month are having on their constituents. Balls said:

I don’t know the details of her case, it’s clearly a tragedy but I do know from my own constituents there are people having terrible trauma. If you are living in a home which has been adapted to deal with your blindness, your disability, if you have a bedroom which is there so that your child can come at the weekends because of a custody arrangement and you’re told you are either going to be a lot worse off or you’ve got to give up that special adaptation and access to your child, it puts people in the most terrible stress. Two third of people affected by the bedroom tax are disabled. Now I’m for tough welfare reform but not hitting the most vulnerable, the disabled, it’s not fair.

He added:

There is no doubt this policy is driving people to the edge of despair in their many thousands across the country and I do think that David Cameron and George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith should stand back from the rhetoric which is always a little bit nasty and a little bit divisive, and said what are we actually doing here? They are not going to save money with a bedroom tax, they are going to end up spending more on housing benefit moving people into private rented houses but in so doing they cause terrible stress, make people a lot worse off who are living on small amounts of money, it’s terrible.

Over the next few months, as more and more examples of the harm inflicted by the welfare cuts make it into the papers, the government is likely to come under much greater pressure to change course. It's worth remembering that when most of these cuts were first announced in 2010, the coalition assumed growth, wages and employment would all be higher than they are now. It is now cutting into a flat economy.

The greatest concern, perhaps, is for those families hit by multiple cuts, including the 1 per cent cap on benefit increases (an unprecedented real-terms cut), the "bedroom tax" and the 10 per cent cut to council tax support, which will force millions to pay the charge for the first time. As even Iain Duncan Smith has conceded, this is a "dreadful period" to attempt welfare reform. We may be about to find out just how dreadful.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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