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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The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue