Monday, 20 October 2014

Tragic lessons

From: Inside edge

‘She was fine before this bedroom tax. It was dreamt up in London, by people in offices and big houses. They have no idea the effect it has on people like my mum.’

I’m not sure how the architects of what ministers prefer to call the spare room subsidy will react to the words of Steven Bottrill or the tragic suicide of his mother Stephanie. A spokesman for the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) told BBC radio news yesterday that it would be ‘inappropriate to comment’ on an individual case but that did not stop a ‘source’ from adding that the government had made discretionary help available.

You can read more about the awful story in yesterday’s Sunday People and a fuller interview with Steven Bottrill in today’s Mirror. With her two children grown up and left home, Stephanie Bottrill, 53, faced a £20 a week under-occupation penalty on her three-bedroom home in Solihull. She left a notes to family and friends including one telling her son ‘don’t blame yourself for me ending my life, it’s my life, the only people to blame are the government’. Then she left the house and it’s believed she walked into the path of a lorry on the nearby M6.

Among the many heartbreaking details, one that really sticks in my mind was the way that she had her things packed in boxes marked ‘kitchen’ and ‘bathroom’ even though she had nowhere else to go. She wanted to be prepared in case the council found her a smaller place.

From the reports, it’s not clear what advice and support or what offers of alternative accommodation she received. What seems a little clearer is that she was under severe financial strain even before having to find that extra £20 a week and facing the prospect of having to leave her home of 18 years. Perhaps more will emerge at the inquest. 

In the wider context of welfare reform, will there be more individual tragedies like this? As I blogged in November, there have already been several awful cases and more look both inevitable and predictable.

However, the sad story of Stephanie Bottrill illustrates particular problems with the bedroom tax. Her circumstances were not those of the worst cases that have attracted all the publicity so far: the couples with a ‘spare’ room given over to medical equipment or who needed to sleep in separate rooms; the families with disabled children living in specially adapted homes; the victim of domestic violence facing a penalty for her panic room; or the fathers who have their kids to stay three days a week.

According to the reports, despite a debilitating illness that meant she could not work, she was not registered as disabled. After her daughter moved out, she was under-occupying her house by two bedrooms. It’s not clear whether she was offered discretionary help or whether she would have been entitled to it.

She would not even have been helped by the key amendment to the under-occupation penalty voted through in the House of Lords in the final stages of the Welfare Reform Bill debates in 2011 but reversed in the House of Commons. This would have exempted anyone under-occupying by one bedroom if no suitable accommodation was available.

However, her story prompted me to look back at the arguments made for and against that at the time. Welfare reform minister Lord Freud argued in the Lords that the exemption would be ‘too broad and would be complex and costly to administer’. He went on:

‘In most cases where there is no suitable accommodation, we expect that claimants and their partners will find ways of meeting the shortfall—through employment, we hope, or through increased earnings. For those who are genuinely struggling to meet the shortfall and who have exhausted all possible options, the local authority might consider a discretionary housing payment.’

In the Commons work and pensions minister Maria Miller trotted out the familiar line that:

‘If social sector tenants choose to continue to live in accommodation that is larger than they need, it is only right that they make a contribution towards the cost. They can meet any shortfall through employment or other means. Those are the sorts of everyday choices that people living in the private rented sector and those who are not getting housing benefit have to make every day.’

However, even at the time it was clear that the bedroom tax would be about much more than that for its victims. As Lord Best put it moving the amendment in the Lords:

‘Houses and flats provided by councils and housing associations represent people’s homes. They are not transit camps or hostels, with people constantly on the move as families expand and contract, but places to settle, put down roots and overcome some of the disadvantages that life has thrown at them.’

And Andrew Percy, one of two Conservative MPs who voted against the government in the Commons, made a similar and powerful point:

‘I am sure that the ministers understand this, but I plead with them to take account of the fact that houses are not only public assets; they are also people’s homes, and people have an attachment to them. This is not a simple matter to resolve, even though we should encourage an end to under-occupancy.’

They were both making the point that there are better, and fairer, ways to tackle under-occupancy than using the blunt instrument of the bedroom tax. Instead, despite a Conservative manifesto pledge to ‘respect the tenures and rents of social housing tenants’, the government is forcing people into a choice between giving up their homes (if something smaller is available) or paying the penalty. These are people’s homes, with all the emotions tied up in that idea, not just an aggregation of rooms. 

Six weeks in, the rent arrears are already mounting and demand for discretionary housing payments is far outstripping supply. We are left with a policy dreamt up in London with little idea of what the impact would be around the country. Or of the effect it has already had so tragically on Stephanie Bottrill and her family.

Readers' comments (19)

  • Steve Clarke

    As tragic as the loss of common decency this country is currently experiencing from the UK government. When people are forced to move away from friends, neighbours and the communities they have become used too, for many years, and with whom they rely upon for support and friendship. This could have been prevented! Had the government chosen to widen the discretion on who pays the bedroom tax, when and how. I'm sickened by this loss and by the tens of thousands of people who will experience the same despair as Stephanie over the coming months and years unless this evil policy is changed! My heart goes out to the family for their loss.

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  • Council tenants DO NOT choose their own home,
    nor its shape / size , but instead they apply for
    council housing and go onto a waiting list and then
    many years later they are allocated a home choosen for them by the council.
    If many years later their family size has changed then its not their fault that they have 1 / 2 spare
    rooms , and cannot find any empty/smaller/cheaper
    homes available due to chronic shortages.

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  • This government cannot be trusted with any decision concerning the welfare of vulnerable or poor people.

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  • Joe Halewood

    This was an inevitability waiting to happen.

    That sounds harsh and even uncaring but it is not. Having spent a lot more time speaking with and listening to tenants over the past few months the starkest issue is the stress tenants are feeling. It goes beyond emotional attachment to a home (as opposed to a mere house of flat as a commodity) it is the consequences that the tenant perceives of the bedroom tax.

    It is the single person or couple who sees that the grandchildren wont be coming every Sunday because Nanny now lives in a bed flat and not the 3 bed family home.

    Even if Nan of Grandma can struggle to keep it or cant move then there is less packets of sweets for here to sneak to her grandchildren when her son or daughter is not looking - or even going without a couple of meals so that Nan can still buy these little treats.

    Its what purpose does Nan have anymore if she cant give her kin their security and stability of knowing she will always be there in the family home.

    Its she cant help out by having the grandchildren stay over while mum goes to work nights in a chicken factory to keep a roof over here head

    A social housing property is much more than a commodity and much more than an emotional attachment. To lose that by being unable to afford loses not just sentimental nostalgia of what happened there in the past, its also what the tenant hoped and expected to happen there in the future - even if that is a simple bar of chocolate for the adorable grandchildren or just 'being there' for your family ready to cope with whatever s**t life brings.

    The stress of losing all of these 'simple pleasures' is what the bedroom tax and the other welfare reforms brings.

    Use the same arguments for the divorced dad and not being able to have his kids of a weekend and losing what he can never get back - time with your children - and such stresses become bl**dy obvious.

    Yet while the government and some landlords treat social housing as bricks and mortar and as commodities the bl**dy obvious that is right in front of your eyes is never noticed

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  • A very recent election showed maybe a protest vote and I feel a warning. I am sorry for the sad loss and sympathy goes to the family.

    We are seriously short of housing, we have a government insisting that they have the policy of bedroom tax, one of the most unfair taxes I have heard of. It is a tax because the housing is simply not there to offer choice and fairness. A few are forcing their ideas onto the many.

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  • michael barratt

    Just all very sad

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  • michael barratt

    Dear P Righteousness - People can be driven to their wits end to the extent that your self righteous logic has no meaning. This fatality is the latest in a long line of fatalities associated with so called 'welfare' reform

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  • michael barratt

    The bedroom tax is just another appalling measure that arguably has the effect of destroying many vulnerable lives

    http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/policy/projects/live/welfarereform.aspx

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  • Maybe people will now stop the scaremongering.

    HANG YOUR HEADS IN SHAME!

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  • Firstly, it goes without saying that this is a personal tragedy for the family and friends of this lady.

    However the second tragedy is that papers, columnists and, it would appear, website publications are so ready to make political capital out of the tragic story of one individual.

    The journalists who originally picked up this story knows a tiny fraction of the person behind it. But boy did it present itself as a good way to continue the attack on Government Policy. Similarly, the people rehashing the tragedy to make a point are clueless as to the full set of reasons behind this suicide but it isn't going to stop them either.

    Mental ill health, especially when it leads to suicide, does not happen as a result of government legislative change. Certainly, it can be a contributary factor. So can the weather, so can the loss of a relative or close friend, so can an accident or a scare.

    In one place or another, any legislative change will have a negative impact on a group of people. That argument could be extended to assume that this negative impact could be a contributary factor in the suicide of any of these people.

    For what its worth, I am not anti the bedroom tax. I am however, anti the way the government has introduced it, especially the way they have mishandled the introduction with regard to exemptions and the rhetoric they have used to describe those being affected.

    I am anti the knee-jerk, irresponsible way that both sides of the debate have started to frame their arguments and I think - hope - that this latest example is the final scraping of the barrel.

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  • patatwirra

    PLEASE ALL SIGN THE ONLINE CONDOLENCE BOOK FOR STEPHANIE,
    Who committed suicide because she could not afford to pay her bedroom tax
    http://www.cutlerfunerals.com/memorialmessages.asp?id=657&sendmessage=yes

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  • Please sign the petition calling for IDS to be sacked after Stephanie Botrill's suicide. Please send the petition to your email/social network contact lists.

    https://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/the-prime-minister-the-rt-hon-david-cameron-mp-sack-iain-duncan-smith

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  • michael barratt

    I would agree with ‘Middle Management’ that Stephanie Botrill’s suicide is too painful to be a political football that is why all I could manage in my initial contribution to say “Just all very sad.” A contribution posted and since removed on this site motivated me to expand on my initial remark. I wish to also response to ‘Middle Management’s” contribution, that in my reading puts the potential impact of the bedroom tax on a par with the weather or a scare.

    Those smart individuals in Government with their Oxbridge PPEs (Philosophy, Politics and Economics degrees) frequently have little idea of subsidence living relying upon disability benefits. However they do know that it was virtually impossible through the courts to make secure or assured tenants move if they are unwilling. However a masterstroke was the introduction of legislation so many of those unwilling tenants would likely fall into debt and be easily evicted. Assured tenants before the court regarding rent debts have no chance if they do not pay up, eviction is mandatory the Judge has no discretion. In respect to secure tenants they can have their day in court however they may receive little sympathy, because by falling into debt in respect to overdue rent they are considered in effect to be making themselves homeless.

    The bedroom tax is the latest in a raft of cuts to disability and other benefits. Many individuals face not just one but a combination cuts that plunges them way below the poverty line. Many just do not know which way and who to turn to. For some it is all too much. Perhaps ‘Middle Management’ should read my blog of the 8th April 2013.

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  • The people who were very keen and very quick to draw all sorts of conclusions about the benefits system from the Philpott case only a month ago are now the same people saying "no knee-jerk reactions" and "stop making political capital" in relation to the case of Stephanie Botrill.

    Funny that....

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  • I started to read the online Book of Condolence (linked to by patatwirra above), but I found I couldn't read it for very long.

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  • In the wake of the horrific case of Stephanie Bottrill, Lord Freud has apparently said that those wishing to retain their spare bedroom, now the Bedroom Tax has kicked in, could ‘go out to work’. Yet again, he chooses to ignore the fact that most recipients of Housing Benefit are ALREADY WORKING - they just don't earn enough to afford the cost of living. Still, much easier to get the electorate to look down on the 'feckless unemployed' than deal with the fact that under this Government, working people simply do not have enough money to get by.

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  • Although i feel very sad for the suffering of this lady with depression made worse because of how benefits are changing ,i really do not feel the sole reason for her suicide can lay with just the "bedroom tax" ,it is possible that it may be part of the reason but i feel was not the only one...... one of the main problems social housing is facing there are not enough houses for people to downsize to and also i feel like the previous comment ...the fact the higher% of people who are hit by this are working people who are on the low pay claiming housing benefit and working tax credits, because with this goverment the rich will always get richer and the poor get poorer.......my condolences to the family .... sad times and they not going to improve anytime soon with the ETON boys in charge

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  • What this Government doesn't seem to want known is that if you DO get a lodger (otherwise know as a complete stranger using your home and its facilities) you will then loose benefit as any monies paid to you will be classed as income and deducted from you're benefits at a rate of 100%.
    This Government already has blood on it's hands. The likes of Ian Duncan Smith are particularly culpable. This person purports to be a devout Christian but his actions gives a lie to this assertion. A viscous, unholy man who revels in the blood and misery of his victims. A disgusting member of an disreputable un-elected and un-representative Government.
    People haven't forgotten their Quisling enablers, the Lib-Dems but who cares what this soon-to-be-defunct so called political party think anyway.

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  • @middlemanagement, are u suggesting this poor lady had a mental health disability or your two other silly suggestions? And who are u to attempt to heap a health or social diagnosis on this dear lady just to fit in with your perspective; shame on you!

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