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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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation