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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle