Jan Royall on the consequences of the bedroom tax and changes to the council tax system on people in the West Country
As Labour has made clear – notwithstanding the facts that almost 50% of the welfare budget is spent on pensions, a mere 3% goes to the unemployed, and only 0.8% is lost in fraud – we need to rethink our approach to social security in the 21st century. We must ensure that a real job is available for all who can work and that we treat those who can’t work with dignity. Unlike the Coalition government, we will not make changes that are unfair and represent the economics of the mad house.
Just over a week ago, thanks to the excellent Two Rivers Housing Association, Shadow Housing Minister Jack Dromey and I met tenants in the Forest of Dean whose lives are being blighted by the pernicious bedroom tax. Of course the Housing Association encourages people to downsize where appropriate but they simply don’t have the 360 smaller houses that are needed. On average, 29 one bed homes become vacant each year and there is a long waiting list of new tenants, many of whom are elderly and desperate to move.
If private rented accommodation were available for the ‘over occupiers’, which it isn’t, the rent would be more and it would cost the tax payer more in terms of housing benefit. Two loving couples we met have health conditions that mean they cannot sleep in the same room. One of the women is physically disabled and their home has been adapted at great personal expense with some contribution from the Housing Association. Apart from personal pain and distress, it would make absolutely no economic sense for the couple to move into new accommodation which then had to be adapted to meet physical needs. The introduction of the bedroom tax and other changes to the benefit system will cost Two Rivers half a million pounds a year, as a consequence of which they will build fewer much needed houses than previously anticipated. None of this makes economic sense so why did Ministers introduce this immoral tax?
I was also in Bristol recently, with Thangam Debbonaire, Labour’s terrific PPC for Bristol West, I met Marion who has lived in her two bedroom house for two years and made huge improvements to the property, to the benefit of the Solon Housing Association. She is sick and depends on the company of her grandchildren, one of whom often stays overnight to enable him to work unsociable hours.
Marion was in despair until the Bristol Debt Advice Centre – whose funding has been slashed and, like the Citizens Advice Bureau, will now struggle to provide advice to increasing queues of people – found that she was entitled to an additional benefit which means that she will be able pay the bedroom tax. An additional £25 a fortnight, which might not seem much to those millionaires who have just been handed a £100,000 tax cut, but for many people it is the difference between making ends meet with dignity and going in crisis to a food bank. Unfortunately Marion was unaware that she would now have to pay some Council Tax and does not seem to have had advance warning from the local authority. We looked at her bill, which was impossible to understand, and suggested she seek further advice from the Debt Advisers.
As in the Forest of Dean, one of the main problems in Bristol is the lack of housing, so that even those who want to downsize are unable to because smaller accommodation isn’t available. The Bristol Labour Party has some excellent policies which would enable the City Council to build 4,000 homes, by using the local authority’s pension fund and introducing a Bristol bond. I hope that the directly elected Mayor George Ferguson will adopt these plans in the same way that, thanks to people power, he has agreed for now not to evict people from their homes if they are unable to pay the bedroom tax.
The people I met were dismayed and angry by Ministers’ attempts to portray them as ‘skivers’ or an underclass. They had all worked when healthy, when their caring responsibilities allowed and when work was available. They had made a contribution to society and their community as well as their families. And they wanted to be able to continue their lives with dignity and pride rather than stigma.
Those people desperately need a government that will help them achieve that – a One Nation Labour government.
Baroness Jan Royall of Blaisdon is Labour’s Leader in the House of Lords
Published 12th April 2013