People protesting the bedroom tax outside the High Court in London in February 2014. Photo: Getty
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How can you charge the bedroom tax on a stalked woman’s panic room?

Under the bedroom tax regime, a panic room built to keep a woman and her son safe from abuse has been deemed a “spare bedroom”.

A woman appeared in court yesterday. We do not know her name. She is identified only as “A”. To reveal her identity would put her at risk of being killed by a man with whom she had a very brief relationship several years ago. This man was sent to prison for killing a police officer. When he got out of prison, he went to her house, broke in, beat her and raped her. Nine months later, she gave birth to her son.

This woman and her now eleven-year-old son have received help. The garden of their council house has been secured; their window frames and front door have been fortified; their loft has been converted into an alarmed panic room. These alterations were made, according to her solicitor, Rebekah Carrier, “by the police, at great expense”. But now, this woman has been deemed no longer worthy of these safety precautions. The risk posed by her ex-partner has not lessened: he continues to stalk, harass and threaten to kill her. What has changed is that, under the bedroom tax regime, her panic room has been deemed a “spare bedroom”. This vulnerable, traumatised woman must either find a lodger, or move to a smaller property – which, as Carrier explains to me, will not have safety features installed. “She won’t have a steel door, she won’t have bulletproof glass, a fireproof letter box, a special link to 999”. When these features are installed, “you are told very clearly it’s a one off. You only get those adaptations once”. In A’s particular case, as well as safety features, she has special arrangements with her neighbours and nearby family about what to do if she doesn’t turn up, or if someone comes knocking. If she is forced to move, she will lose all this.

Even if moving were not a problem in principle, in practice there is no guarantee that A would in any case be able to find a property with the requisite number of rooms. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) July 2014 report into the bedroom tax – or as they stubbornly continue to call it, the “Removal of the Spare Room Subsidy” – found that “demand” for smaller properties “has proved challenging to meet”. The demand, at 19 per cent of those affected by the bedroom tax, is not exactly dramatic, but even so, most of those who wanted to move had been unable to because no smaller property was available. The report found that the problems were particularly acute in areas “with the highest proportion of tenants” affected by the bedroom tax; and perversely, they also found that in areas with high levels of so-called “under-occupancy”, landlords were reporting difficulties in letting larger homes – the very homes that the bedroom tax is supposed to be freeing up. Indeed, Carrier tells me that this is the case for A: she was originally given a three-bedroom house because in the area where she lives there is an oversupply of three bedroom houses, and an undersupply of two bedroom houses. Even more perversely, the report also found that because households that might previously been allocated two bedrooms were now only eligible for one bedroom, the already limited one-bedroom housing stock was stretched way beyond capacity, “causing difficulties for the single homeless and other single people in housing need.”

The result of all this perversity is that most families, unable to find a smaller property, are having to stay put and pay the bedroom tax. The problem is, many of those who are liable simply cannot afford it. They have been forced to cut back on food and heating, and many have ended up resorting to food banks; some have borrowed from family members; others have turned to credit cards and payday loans. Many have simply not paid, with the DWP study finding that 60 per cent of tenants affected by the tax were unable to meet their housing benefit shortfall. More than 35 per cent of tenants who were liable for the bedroom tax had been issued with eviction warning letters little over six months after the tax was introduced. 

When presented with the misery being faced by some of the most vulnerable in society, the government points to its discretionary housing payments (DHP), intended to provide short-term help to housing benefit claimants who can’t pay their rent. Indeed, in response to a Guardian article on woman A, a DWP spokesperson said, “This is exactly why we have made £345m available to councils to help vulnerable people. We understand the council have awarded a payment to make up a shortfall in rent.” The problem with DHPs is that there simply isn’t enough to go round. In May 2013, the Independent reported that there were 25,000 DHP claimants in April of the same year, compared with 5,700 in the same month the previous year. A leap of 338 per cent. As a result, people who previously would have been given help were receiving reduced and therefore inadequate handouts – and some were being refused all together.

Many of those who are being refused help are disabled – unsurprisingly, given two-thirds of those hit by the bedroom tax are disabled. In July 2013, the Papworth Trust reported that, after being refused DHPs, nine in ten disabled people were being forced to cut back on food or paying household bills, and more than one in four were cutting back on medical expenses. A Joseph Rowntree report from April 2014 found that councils were taking Disability Living Allowance (DLA) into account in income assessments, and refusing disabled claimants on the basis that they had too much money – this despite the fact that the DLA is designed to cover the on average £500 extra a month disabled people have to spend on things related to their disability. This money is not spare – but is being counted as disposable income. And DHPs are specifically intended as a short-term solution. There is no guarantee on how much money will be allocated to councils for this purpose each year; there is no guarantee that those who receive it once will receive it again. Small comfort for woman A.

She is not an isolated case. In March 2014, the Guardian reported that one in twenty households who, like A, are on the sanctuary scheme (where a safe room is created), had been forced to pay bedroom tax. In the year since the bedroom tax had been introduced, 281 households had been affected. Carrier tells me that the Freedom of Information request her firm made found that 80 per cent of the women affected were not getting DHP. The government’s much-vaunted safety net is providing little safety.

One woman forced out of a safe home because of the bedroom tax is too many. But as Polly Neate, CEO of Women’s Aid, points out, 281 households “is not even a large number of people”. The cost of exempting “this really quite small number of women is not very large” she said. “When you think about the cost that it’s preventing later on, I can’t see any reason for it”. She makes her case on two grounds. The first is that two women are killed every week by a partner or former partner. By the time you read this article the likelihood is that at least one woman will already have been killed this week. By exempting this small number of women from the bedroom tax, by allowing them the safe space the police have judged they need, we are potentially saving women’s lives. We can’t put a price on that. Except actually we can. Polly tells me that a domestic homicide costs about £1m in criminal justice costs; compare that to the £14 a week the DWP will be clawing back from 281 women, and the figures just don’t stack up. 

In court, Rebekah Carrier will continue to make the case that, when drafting the bedroom tax regulations, the government didn’t take account of the discriminatory impact on this group of women (and it is mainly women). This is the government’s legal duty under the Public Sector Equality Duty, which requires that a public authority have due regard to the need to “eliminate discrimination, harassment, [and] victimisation”. And Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, will continue to fight for A’s money. We must hope that he will fail in this fight. We must hope that the duty to protect women from violent partners, that the duty to save lives, will be seen as more important than saving money in the very short term.

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and feminist campaigner. She is also the co-founder of The Women's Room and tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.