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Coalition Watching: Bedroom tax is attacking households on low incomes when millionaires get a tax break

This week the campaigning focus is all about the Bedroom Tax. I have asked various non-political friends what they think about the idea of moving households with what appears to be too many rooms out of their council or housing association properties and into smaller ones and they generally think at first glance, “good idea”.

Because at first glance this sounds like one of those “making the most of our scarce resources” types of policies. But not at second glance. Not if it affects you or someone you know. And I  have been spending this week talking to people who are affected, who are terrified of what is going to happen to them come April, who know that they are going to be pushed further into debt and often accompanying depression. Which isn’t going to help them or us or the deficit. At all.

A few facts:

The bedroom tax is for people in council or housing association properties who are deemed to be under-occupying. The idea is that if you are in social housing and also claiming housing benefit (remember this affects people in low paying or part time work as well as people unable to work due to illness or disability or people between jobs), you should be moved to a smaller property, if you have what the Tories are calling a “spare room subsidy”. The idea is then that this will magically free up social housing for other people who need more space. And – in theory – we all benefit because we will be spending less on Housing Benefit.

This week at council cabinet I asked Mayor Ferguson what he was going to do about it. He didn’t like me asking questions and said so – apparently cabinet meetings aren’t for politicians (which is odd, coming from a politician, sitting next to other politicians). I reminded him that I am a resident of Bristol, not an elected representative. And I asked some awkward questions – for which there appears to be no answers.  (if you click on the link to the youtube video, my bit starts at 11 minutes and Councillor Jenny Smith also asks questions on the same topic later. Let me know if you want  copy of the full written answers).

Except this isn’t going to work.  Many people will simply struggle on to pay their increased costs to stay in their own home. Some will agree to move out but won’t be offered any social housing to move into – BECAUSE THERE ISN’T ENOUGH! If you don’t believe me, go to the Bristol City Council Homechoice website and count them up. I found just 14 properties for the whole of Bristol West when I checked today.  This will mean they will be forced into private accommodation – WHICH COSTS MORE. So their housing benefit costs will actually go up, not down. And when they find work, they will be less able to pay their rent.

How does this affect people?

People I have spoken to in the last few weeks on the doorstep or as a result of visiting Bristol Debt Advice Centre in Old Market, include Anne (not her real name) who has lived in her home for twenty years, brought up her grandchildren there when her daughter couldn’t manage. They are in the teenage and early twenties years now but they still need to come home to Nanny’s house sometimes – just like most families, our children don’t stop needing homes at 18.

Dave shares care of his children with his ex-partner, an amicable arrangement till now. But he has now been told that the concept of shared care doesn’t fit the Bedroom Tax law – so he will either have to pay the increased rent/tax or move to somewhere smaller where he won’t be able to share care of the children. He’s working, but on a low income and it isn’t regular – like so many people in Bristol.

Cathy was in work until a work injury caused her to have to take sick leave. She is well qualified, experienced and wants to get back to work as soon as she can. She is trying to get a job. She is well loved in her local community and wants to stay there – and as soon as she gets a job again she will be able to afford her rent. At the moment she tells me she is facing a stark choice between heating, eating and paying the rent.

Remember – Housing Benefit doesn’t go to individuals, it goes to landlords. When the landlord in question is a social landlord or charging a fair rent for good quality property – fine. But much of the private accommodation in Bristol West is short term tenancy, poor quality and very expensive. When some of the people affected by the bedroom tax are forced into private accommodation they will be the ones coping with the insecurity, damp and poor heating (and high bills or cold as a result) but the landlords will be keeping the money and we will be paying for it.

This doesn’t make sense. And it is just wrong. Especially when at the same time, millionaires are getting a £40,000 tax break. That’s more than most of us earn.

Our Shadow Housing Minister Jack Dromey came to meet some of the people I’ve been talking to yesterday at the Bristol Debt Advice Centre to hear their experiences and let them know that as soon as we have a Labour government the Bedroom tax will go. But that’s two years away.

So what can we do?

Get informed – Bristol City Council has produced some leaflets on the impact of benefit changes – they include suggestions that social housing tenants “get a lodger” (no comment – this blog is long enough without my reactions to that suggestion) but they do at least give you clear information about who is affected, when and how.

Make sure you know where to go if you need help, or can tell others.Unfortunately the ConDems have chosen the exact same month to bring in cuts to funding for advice centres – but they are going to continue to try to help. Citizen’s Advice, Bristol Debt Advice Centre, the Law Centre, St Paul’s Advice Centre – they are all affected by funding cuts but they all still want to try to help people deal with the Bedroom Tax (as well as everything else).

Ask questions of the Mayor at cabinet or council - asking him how he is going to help families affected by the bedroom tax, or how he is going to avoid having to put people into private accommodation or suggesting he might like to build decent, affordable, social housing. Remember, Councillor Ron Stone came up with a brilliant plan for how we can build 4,000 new affordable homes in Bristol. Why doesn’t George just follow Ron’s plan?

Let Stephen Williams know the impact on his constituents- contact Stephen at his postal address: PO Box 2500, Bristol, BS6 9AH. OR call him on:             0117 942 3494. Make sure he knows what you think. Let me know if you need help or advice doing this.

If this doesn’t affect you yet, think about how it could. This isn’t something which happens to “other people”. My own nephews and nieces often use my home to live in or to stay in when they come home from university or working away. I’m currently in work. But if I lose my job and had to claim housing benefit for a while – and let’s face it, which of us at the moment can really be sure of our jobs – this would rapidly affect me. My home has been home to me and my family for 21 years, I am right in the heart of my community and active in community life.  All this would go. None of the people I have spoken to thought it would happen to them. How would this affect you?

And remember this is one of the many reasons we campaign for a Labour government. Because this treatment of human beings in our city, in our country, shouldn’t be happening. One of the main reasons I am running as your PPC is because I don’t think there should be any poverty, anywhere, any time – and because I think that a Labour government is one of the key ways we get to achieve that. More than half the children in Lawrence Hill now live in poverty – the child poverty figures came down significantly under Labour, and we now have even more to do. Let’s make sure of it. Let’s get out and campaign.

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