Bedroom tax: pushing those “getting by” over the edge

Despite the concessions made by Iain Duncan Smith yesterday, the bedroom tax will still hit thousands of disabled children and adults, and those fleeing domestic abuse, argues Frances Ryan as she speaks to some of the families affected.

You might not think of Jane* as the sort of person who would be taking on the Government. She has two boys, and the youngest, Thomas, is autistic. She’s not able to work because she's busy caring for him, and she tells me she often thinks about being “normal” like her friends. Her husband has serious health problems and the daily focus is on getting by.

Things can change, though. Something can happen that pushes families like hers, who are “getting by”, over the edge. For Jane, it was two things: receiving a letter informing her that the family’s housing benefit would be cut unless Thomas shared a bedroom with his brother; and health professionals telling her that, because of the distress that sharing a room would cause Thomas, he would go into residential care.

This month, Jane has taken the government to court. She is one of several people who have started legal action against Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith and the impending “bedroom tax" (or, as David Cameron would have it, the end of the "spare room subsidy"), due to come into force next month. The plaintiffs' legal teams say what the bedroom tax critics have said from the beginning: the policy disproportionately affects disabled and vulnerable people, discriminating against them for being both more likely to need an extra room and less likely to be able to pay for it.

Many of the people taking part in the legal challenge are parents of severely disabled children, like Jane. Some are adults with disabilities; one is being penalised for not being able to sleep in the same bed as her husband; another has anxiety and persecutory delusions, aggravated by stress, but is expected to move or take in a lodger. Others are victims of domestic violence, with children who have been abused. All of them have been expertly assessed as requiring their own bedrooms but have been told they must now give up a room they need, or lose money they don’t have. They’re a handful of families, in many ways, that represent hundreds of thousands of others around the country.

“I’d like the people responsible for this policy to come and see how we live,” Jane tells me.  

Her son Thomas often has screaming episodes or is aggressive. Something as common as a washing machine or the noise of a hairdryer can distress him. He is strong and frequently attacks his brother, Lucas, and rips his clothes apart. Despite this, the family have been told that in two weeks they will have their benefit cut unless the boys share a room.

Doctors, including Thomas’s psychiatrist, say that sharing would likely lead to a surge in violent behaviour and that, due to the risk of this situation, it would not be possible for Thomas to continue living with his family. The only realistic option would be residential care in a specialist placement.

“I can’t believe that that might have to happen,” Jane says. “I’m determined to keep my son at home and to do that he needs his own room.”

She tells me her and her husband have been “desperately trying” to think what they can cut down on to compensate for the reduction in their housing benefit, but they have no luxuries to cut. The only thing they can think of is Thomas’s “travel training”, she says, in which they take Thomas repeatedly to the same places “so he can learn not to be scared”.

***

Amid increasing pressure from critics, it was hoped that Iain Duncan Smith was ready to make concessions for children like Thomas. Yesterday, DWP officials stated that they had issued guidance to Local Authorities that families with a severely disabled child can be exempt from losing part of their housing benefit.

The claim received less media attention than the wider concessions to foster carers and members of the armed forces (pdf) and failed to offer much explanation of what it actually meant. The initial wording suggested it was at best a concession for children with “certain disabilities” and that the need for a bedroom will be assessed on a case-by-case basis. It’s thought that when a claimant says that their children are unable to share a bedroom, it will be for LAs to satisfy themselves that this is the case.

Rebekah Carrier, the solicitor acting for the claimant children and their parents, tells me she’s currently reviewing the details of the new guidance - but she remains concerned the government hasn’t amended the regulations. “The guidance is very unsatisfactory, as it’s unclear,” she says. “I’m delighted if the litigation and press coverage have resulted in positive changes . . . but the government haven’t yet set out their position to us and indeed haven’t written to me at all about any changes.”

Adults with disabilities, such as Charlotte Lowery-Carmichael, another person taking legal action, are waiting for any acknowledgement of their situation. Charlotte has spina bifida and sleeps in a specialist bed in order to ease her bed sores (among other reasons), while her husband Jayson has a single bed in their box room. Charlotte would be exempt from the penalty if her carer was a live-in assistant - but because he is her husband, she is not.

I first spoke to the couple in January when they had just been told their second bedroom was being classified as “spare” and they would lose £12 a week of their housing benefit because of it. With the help of disability campaign group We Are Spartacus, they’ve since gained legal representation.

“We’re proud to be part of this,” Jayson says. “It might get us some justice.”

He tells me going to court feels like the only option they have. "We feel that the legal course of action is the only way that the government will make any amendments to the legislation."

No wonder many feel that, until this point, the Government haven’t been listening. Funds called "Discretionary Housing Payments" are being increasingly held up as the solution to the bedroom tax's disproportionate hit on disabled people, despite the fact that many are not eligible - and there not being enough money to go around those who are. Meanwhile, David Cameron is publicly stating (in last week’s Prime Minister’s Questions) that “people with severely disabled children are exempt and people who need round-the-clock care are exempt”. This is at best inaccurate, and at worse, a lie.  

As Anne McMurdie, a solicitor representing the legal teams involved, said to me: “The Prime Minister’s understanding of the policy is not accurate and doesn’t reflect what his colleague [Iain Duncan Smith] . . . is arguing in court proceedings.”

The High Court has given the Work and Pensions Secretary until 18 March to show why there should not be a judicial review of the entire “bedroom tax” policy. It will come two days after 24 hours of action against the legislation, with more than 50 protests planned around the country. The clock is ticking until the policy starts to hit and the dissent is getting louder.

For Holly, another member of the legal challenge group, public attention is not something she wants. Her ex-partner (known as “M” in the case) was violent and, after leaving him two years ago, she lives with her two young children, Isaac and Joy, in an area he doesn’t know. “M” was arrested after physically assaulting her soon Isaac when he was six years old. Holly is conscious of protecting their identity and when we speak we do so via her solicitor. It says something about the level of desperation many are feeling that, despite these concerns, Holly is taking part in legal proceedings.

She feels the court action is the only option left to her. Those escaping domestic violence have no protection from the bedroom tax, nor do children recovering from abuse.

Holly’s children still struggle with the violence they witnessed, but are making some progress now they have a stable home. Isaac finds things particularly difficult though and shows what’s been diagnosed as traumatised behaviour. He’s violent and unpredictable and often needs time alone to cope with his feelings. It was for this reason that the council allocated the family a three-bedroom flat in 2011, enabling the children to have a room each. From 1 April, they will lose just over £15 a week because of it.

“We don’t have any spare money at all,” Holly says. “We don’t have family or friends who can support us and we don’t have any savings.”

Isaac has previously attacked his sister, cutting her hair. It’s clearly frightening for Holly to consider them sleeping in the same room but to stop this from happening, she’ll have to lose money she relies on. “I’m worried we won’t be able to manage at all if our housing benefit is reduced,” she says.

Holly is aware that if Isaac was a couple of years older, the family would not be going through this (under the regulations, children of different genders over ten do not have to share a room). In a couple of years, the family will be re-eligible for a three-bedroom flat. Housing shortages mean it’s uncertain whether one will be available then, and even if it is, another move will result in the children going through more disturbances in order to get back what they have now.

That absurd situation seems reflective of the lack of sense or consideration running through these changes. Disabled adults are being charged for a room they sleep in, while parents of abused children are being advised to invite a stranger into their home to lodge there as a means to get by. 

As Rebekah Carrier , the solicitor acting for the claimant children and their parents, says: “A year ago the Children’s Commissioner warned the government that these changes would have a disproportionate and devastating impact on families with disabled children and those fleeing domestic violence. The appalling situation my clients now find themselves in was entirely predictable and avoidable.”

Holly hasn’t told the children what’s happening yet. She knows the emotional impact it would cause and says she doesn’t want to upset them.

Joy is scared of Isaac and they both just need stability. “I don’t know what to do,” Holly adds.

* some names have been changed.

Bedrooms classified as "spare" will result in a loss of housing benefit. 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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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war