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.

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.