Saturday, 28 November 2015

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.

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