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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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.