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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.