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Cruel and unusual policy

JanRoyall2011.jpgJan Royall on why the LibDems are all in together with the Tories on the bedroom tax

Over the past few days I have been campaigning on doorsteps in Colchester, Gloucester and the Forest of Dean. On each occasion I have had questions about the bedroom tax. Not from those who have been personally affected but from people deeply concerned about the unfairness of the policy and the distress caused to grandparents, carers and the most vulnerable in our society. Their concern turned to anger when told that, despite their warm words, the Liberal Democrats have consistently failed to take any action to halt this cruel and damaging policy.

My own exasperation turned to anger after a meeting with my local housing association, Two Rivers Housing, which provides a fantastic service in the community. An innovative, efficient organisation, it has made The Sunday Times prestigious list of top 100 companies. But it is also suffering.  

A year after the introduction of the bedroom tax, hundreds of Gloucestershire tenants are in rent arrears, with only around 70 tenants known to have downsized. Two Rivers has 3,800 tenants and 289 have been directly affected, with 200 in arrears owing £37,000, reflecting the pattern of national figures cited by the National Housing Federation. 19 of Two Rivers tenants have downsized. But there are simply no smaller homes available at the moment, meaning longer time spent on the waiting list for those who need social housing – many of whom are pensioners.  

At the same time, the economics don’t stack up. 

To mitigate current and future problems for their tenants and themselves, Two Rivers now employs two debt and welfare officers. It is money that could be spent on housing rather than dealing with the fall-out of a dire government policy. Moreover, as local authority budgets get further squeezed, there is no longer money to be spent on prevention work in the homes of the elderly. So more trip or slips end up being dealt with in A&E, with some inevitable consequences for hospital bed blocking. Two Rivers used to offer a warden service for elderly tenants at a cost of £15.00 a week, which enabled them to stay in their own homes. Cutbacks however, have led to the demise of this support system with a knock on effect for social services. Short term savings and silo budgets mean long term misery for individuals and huge problems for our society.

As my colleague in the Lords, Maeve Sherlock said in a powerful ‘Regret Motion’ speech on the bedroom tax last Thursday, when she tried to persuade the LibDems to turn rhetoric into reality, “people have not moved because there is nowhere to move to”. Rather predictably, all bar two of the LibDems who voted on the motion (46 in total) joined the Tories to not just reinforce the bedroom tax but widen its reach. So much for them taking the rough edges offs the more ideological Tory policies – they really are all in it together.   

Two River’s excellent Chief Executive, Gary King has said of the bedroom tax: “It would have been better if benefits had been reduced or withdrawn for those people who had been offered a smaller home, but turned it down”. He didn’t realise it but he was agreeing with an amendment tabled during the passage of the Welfare Reform Act which said that the bedroom tax should not apply if someone could not be offered somewhere else to move to. The fact that the government did not accept that idea is testament to its lack of understanding of how it might affect people’s lives, especially the poor and most vulnerable. It is also a mark of incompetence. 

Up and down our country, thousands of tenants will ultimately be evicted from their homes. So what will the government do then? Michael Gove will no doubt offer the wisdom – as he did over the increased use of food banks – that it is because people are “unable to manage their finances”. The impact on individuals, families and society is almost too painful to contemplate, but not for Ministers who have had every opportunity to reverse this wicked and heartless policy but choose not to. 

Baroness Jan Royall of Blaisdon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets @LabourRoyall

Published 7th April 2014

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