The next stage of the bedroom tax: families threatened with eviction

The possible damning effects of the bedroom tax are now becoming reality, and as Frances Ryan finds, people are struggling with arrears and trying desperately to hold off eviction.

Mobility bars run through Stuart Hughes’s three-bed home. There’s a wet room too and an added downstairs toilet, each put there by his local council and social services as his osteo arthritis has worsened. Stuart, 53, has been in this house for sixteen years. There’s enough room for his two teenage sons; the eldest, 17, who lives here full time and his youngest, 14, who stays when Stuart’s ex-wife, who also has severe arthritis, doesn’t feel up to it. Both children are disabled themselves; the eldest has metal pins in both hips and both boys have mild to high functioning autism.

These details, however, are deemed as irrelevances under the "bedroom tax" policy and Stuart (left) and the children – judged as "under-occupying" – are now losing £10 a week. Living on an income that’s both fixed and low due to his disability leaving him unable to work, it’s obvious this is money Stuart doesn’t have. He’s fallen into arrears and the family have been given warning of eviction.

Wrexham council have now sent three letters informing Stuart of their intention to seek possession of his home. The first was sent only three weeks after the tax began – when Stuart owed just £39.80. Two more followed – the wording remaining the same and the figure owed increasing.   

“I was devastated [when I received the letters],” Stuart tells me. “I already had a lot of stress in my life through everyday living with my health problems and four years of fighting to get my benefits… I just managed to get on top of my debts after all that and then to have the threat of losing my home…”

There was a lot of discussion pre-April about the possible damning effects of the "bedroom tax"; commenters lamenting the policy and the Department for Works and Pensions defending it. We’re now at the stage where those effects are becoming reality and, for people like Stuart and his children, this means debt and eviction threats.

Stuart shows me the letters; each including the words “warning of notice seeking possession” and “legal proceedings”. Both phrases are printed in bold black capitals, presumably in case the recipients – statistically the most vulnerable members of society – needed the warnings written in the most alarming, stressful ways possible.

These developments are particularly disturbing for people like Stuart – already dealing with ill health and having not only a natural attachment but fundamental reliance on his home. It’s also particularly galling for anyone trying to make sense of the point of the policy. The bedroom tax could be said to have two purposes: freeing up supposedly under-used social housing and, as a bonus, making savings for cash-strapped councils. As in thousands of cases, here Stuart is being penalised for not using rooms that he is in fact using. Meanwhile, public money has been spent on adapting a home that a disabled person is now being pushed to leave – presumably only to pay for another to be adapted.

“[There] are hardly any smaller properties available,” Stuart tells me. “I couldn’t afford to move anyway,” he adds. 

Illness, disability, poverty get in the way of life, and indeed, policies. When the policy is adopted regardless, the consequences – moral and practical – are predictably damaging.

Report after report is starting to come in of councils around the country announcing vast numbers unable to pay their rent, from Cambridge to Manchester, from Leeds to East Ayrshire. In the latter case, 75 per cent of tenants are now in arrears.

In order to hold off being evicted, Stuart was forced to borrow money from his ex-wife; herself struggling. As Stuart’s more than aware, it is very much a matter of holding off the threat of eviction rather than stopping it. After making the payment he was immediately back in arrears as the next instalment was due. He now has to find money to make up each week’s extra rent and pay back the money he borrowed to pay last month’s.

Nothing changes. The bedroom tax will come in every week and Stuart will still be disabled and unable to pay.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do in the winter,” Stuart says. “I don’t think I’ll be able to afford to put the heating on.”

He’s going to hospital for an operation this week; the first of his knee replacements. He doesn’t know if another eviction letter will be waiting for him when he gets home.

Certainly, Wrexham council have been enthusiastic in their implementation of the bedroom tax but they’re doing no more than what the Government has asked. This was always a policy that was going to hit the poor and disabled hardest. It would be disingenuous for anyone to start acting surprised now. The unknown territory is where this is heading. We’ve had stage one: Government implements the charges. We’re now entering stage two: the threats of eviction when people are unable to pay. The question is what happens during the third stage, when arrears get bigger and bigger but nothing can be done.

Smaller properties, ones with or without adaptations, are not going to magically appear. People, stretching benefits and low wages to pay for food let alone extra rent, are not going to suddenly be able to pay.

It remains to be seen if and when eviction letters will turn into evictions – and which council will decide it wants to be the first to put a family like Stuart’s on the street. 

The supply of suitable housing for those deemed to be "under-occupying" their current home is scarce. Photograph: Getty Images

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.