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.

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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.