Ever since the Tory-led coalition government got into power and ministers made it clear that they were seeking to do as much damage as possible to the poor, the ill, the unemployed and the disabled, and to dismantle, if possible, every state-owned enterprise, and anything that expresses some notion of communality and doesn’t involve naked profiteering, misery and uncertainty have been on the rise, and with good reason.
As I have stated in numerous articles over the last few years, the assault on the unemployed and disabled has been particularly heart-wrenching, as the Tories, their spin doctors, their Lib Dem accomplices and their cheerleaders in the mainstream media have portrayed the unemployed as skivers, despite there being only one job available for every five of the country’s 2.5 million unemployed, and have portrayed disabled people with similar flint-hearted distortions.
As a result, wave after wave of vile policies have been introduced with very little outrage from people who probably don’t regard themselves as particularly cruel or heartless — the reviews for the disabled, run by Atos Healthcare, which are designed to find people with severe mental and physical disabilities fit for work, so that their benefits can be cut; the workfare programs for the unemployed that are akin to slavery and allow well-off companies to fundamentally undermine the minimum wage; and the overall benefit cap, the most popular policy in this new Cruel Britannia, according to a YouGov poll in April, in which 79 per cent of people, including 71 per cent of Labour voters, supported it. This is forcing tens of thousands of families to uproot themselves — with all the attendant social costs, particularly for their children — and move to cheaper places, which tend to be those with high unemployment, creating ghettoes, as part of a disgraceful process of social cleansing.
All along, there has been very little scrutiny of the true costs of welfare and the lies being told to implement the policies outlined above — to cite just three examples, the fact that the ballooning housing benefit bill is the fault not of tenants but of greedy landlords, unfettered by any legislation whatsoever, operating with impunity in a bubble maintained by central government and the Bank of England, through artificially low interest rates; the fact that it constitutes just two and a half percent of the government’s welfare spending, as this graph shows; and the fact that much of the government’s welfare payments are to people who are working, but are not paid enough to live on by their employers.
The last 40 months, since the coalition government began its poisonous work, have been so morally and ethically dark that it is easy to be profoundly pessimistic about the future, especially as the talk of scroungers and skivers is so prevalent, and so virulent. It is sometimes hard to remember that the downturn after the financial crash in 2008, which followed a decade-long, delirious housing boom that first saw smug, self-seeking materialism embedded as the nation’s primary characteristic, was the fault not of the poor, the ill, the unemployed and the disabled, but of the opposite — the super-rich and their facilitators, global pirates working in the financial sector, fully backed up by governments, whose crimes were on an almost unthinkable scale, and who, in a surreal twist that I find almost inconceivable, were bailed out and almost entirely let off the hook, and are back making fortunes in a lawless, parasitic, almost inestimably greedy line of work that has been neither punished nor reformed.
This is clearly the big problem still, the elephant in the room that, if left unchecked, will, the next time, finish the hubristic job of global destruction that last manifested itself in 2008, but instead of seeing this, most people, it seems, have been looking down rather than up, peering through the curtains at their neighbours, and obsessing about skivers and scroungers, people without work in a workless world, disabled people and immigrants.
A glimmer of hope: an end to the bedroom tax?
Despite the inevitability of pessimism, it seems that there may be a glimmer of hope on the horizon. As part of its all-embracing mission to hit the poor and to dehumanise them, the Tories decided to punish unemployed people living in social housing who had a spare room, with a bedroom tax — or as they wanted it called, an ‘under occupancy’ charge, whereby, as a horribly cheery leaflet produced by the government explained, “If you have one ‘spare’ bedroom your housing benefit will be cut by 14 per cent of your full weekly rent. If you have two or more spare bedrooms, you will lose 25 per cent.”
They didn’t care that this might look a bit cruel coming from a cabinet of millionaires who might not even know how many spare rooms they had; nor did they stop to listen to those with knowledge of the housing sector who told them that there were very few smaller properties for people to move to, and that it would end up costing more as people would have to downsize to non-existent properties, and would then have to be rehoused in the private sector, which would cost more.
They also didn’t care that some experts told them that they were punishing tenants for an under-investment in social housing that began with Margaret Thatcher’s great council house sell-off, when she prevented councils from building new homes — a policy, incidentally, that has been maintained ever since by Tory and Labour governments alike — and nor did they care, as I have been saying from the moment they made it clear that they want to get rid of social housing, abort tenancies, and drive up rents to whatever the market will bear, that people in social housing are human beings, the same as them, and have the right to regard their homes as homes.
However, while it would be an exaggeration to call the bedroom tax Cameron and Osborne’s poll tax — the single flat rate tax on every adult, regardless of income, that was introduced by Margaret Thatcher, and helped lead to her downfall when it met with widespread and sometimes violent protest — it has succeeded in doing what few of the Tories’ other heartless measures have done and that is to create a growing feeling that it is unjust.
One sign of this was the criticism by Raquel Rolnik, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on housing, who called for the bedroom tax to be scrapped after a recent fact-finding mission (and the Tories’ unpleasant response only made matters worse for all but the most rabid Little Englanders). As the Guardian explained in an editorial last Thursday:
Anyone who remembers the poll tax knows that some policies are so misconceived, and express so exactly the central criticism of the government that introduced them, that they become the token by which they are judged. The bedroom tax – an unjust attack on some of the most vulnerable in society – is well on the way to becoming the coalition’s poll tax. Two different surveys this week have confirmed that as many as half of all families who have lost some housing benefit – about £12 a week – because they have a spare room are now in arrears.
Last Wednesday, the Guardian reported that over half of families subjected to the bedroom tax had been pushed into debt since the policy was introduced at the start of April, and that the country’s largest housing groups were calling for it to be scrapped. As the paper reported:
The National Housing Federation, which represents housing associations, said a survey of 51 of its biggest members found more than half of their residents affected by the bedroom tax – 32,432 people – could not pay their rent between April and June. The survey shows a quarter of those affected by the tax had fallen behind with their rent for the first time ever.
At the National Housing Federation’s national conference on Thursday, David Orr, the chairman, was planning to point out that “over 330,000 households [were] already struggling to pay their rent and facing a frightening and uncertain future.” That is half of the 660,000 or so claimants of working age affected by the bedroom tax, of whom, as the Guardian also reported, 420,000 (63%) are disabled.
David Orr also stressed that ministers had “miscalculated the number of homes available for tenants to downsize into.” As the Guardian described it, “Although 180,000 households were ‘under-occupying’ two bedroom homes … only 85,000 one-bed homes became available in 2012.”
Orr was also planning to tell his conference, “Housing associations are working flat-out to help their tenants cope with the changes, but they can’t magic one-bedroom houses out of thin air. People are trapped. What more proof do politicians need that the bedroom tax is an unfair, ill-planned disaster that is hurting our poorest families? There is no other option but to repeal.”
The Independent also reported that there were at least 50,000 other families who have fallen behind on their rent and who face eviction. The paper stated: “Figures provided by 114 local authorities across Britain after Freedom of Information (FoI) requests by the campaign group False Economy show the impact of the bedroom tax over its first four months. The total number of affected council tenants across Britain is likely to be much higher than the 50,000 recorded in the sample of local authorities that responded to the FoI.”
That makes a total of at least 80,000 people, and, in its editorial last Thursday, the Guardian also noted that the crisis was so severe that housing associations were “recruiting extra bailiffs and setting aside large contingency funds to meet the costs of arrears and evictions.” False Economy noted that “only 16 of the 114 local authorities who responded to the FoI request have a ‘no-eviction’ policy, meaning many thousands of families risk losing their homes as a result of the bedroom tax,” as the Independent described it.
The Guardian editorial added, “It may be reasonable for Labour to be cautious about making spending commitments when the election is still 18 months away, but this is a policy unravelling, at huge cost to individuals and to councils, before our eyes.”
The Guardian proceeded to note that, although the bedroom tax was intended to reduce the £22bn housing benefit bill by about £500m a year, through moving “the 650,000 or so housing benefit recipients in homes too big for their needs to somewhere smaller”:
[N]o one in Whitehall seems to have understood how one of their bright ideas would work on the ground. Households are not all the same. Some people do have more space than they need. Many others turn out to need it – families with caring needs, split families, families providing (free) essential support for children or parents with troubles of their own. And if that wasn’t the case, in many areas – especially in the north of England – councils have a long tradition of regarding a spare room as part of living decently. Many families have one, and there are not nearly enough smaller homes for them all to move into. And, since private rents have risen so much faster than social rents, if they move into the private sector, the housing benefit bill will surely rise.
The Guardian also mentioned “new evidence that as real living standards are squeezed, voters are becoming more sympathetic to people who rely on benefits,” as discovered in the annual British social attitudes survey, and hinted that now would be a good time for the Labour Party to promise to scrap it.
And that was indeed what happened. As the Independent reported on Saturday, in a keynote announcement at the start of the Labour Party Conference in Brighton, Ed Miliband “pledged to abolish the Coalition’s ‘vicious and iniquitous bedroom tax’ if Labour is returned to power at the next election.”
He added that Labour “would make up for the £470m the spare room subsidy is meant to save by reversing some of the Government’s tax cuts for businesses and George Osborne’s ‘shares for rights’ scheme,” and the party was evidently buoyed into action by a survey indicating that “nearly 60 per cent of people believe the policy should be abandoned entirely” – and the support for its abolition from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who pointed out that it “was likely to mean a rise in debts to housing associations.”
He said, “When a series of other things are combined, notably reductions in benefit to take account of what is seen as excess house space – the so-called bedroom tax – higher costs for energy, and for many the fact that short-term lenders can take money direct from an account within hours of it coming in, suddenly the problem and possibility of growing a large-scale arrears becomes very serious.”
The end of the line for Atos?
In another sign that the tide may be turning against callousness, Labour also promised to sack Atos Healthcare, the much-criticized corporation that runs the Work Capability Assessments designed to find disabled people fit for work.
As the Guardian reported at the weekend, Liam Byrne, the shadow work and pensions secretary, was set to announce at the Labour Party Conference that ministers “will legislate to introduce a specific criminal charge of disability hate crime amid growing evidence that victims are being let down,” and that he intends to sack Atos. As the Guardian noted, “Two in five assessments are appealed against and 42% of those are successful. The company has also consistently failed to meet targets on average case clearance times since mid-2011, with 35,000 claimants having to wait longer than 13 weeks to receive their decision.”
For his speech, Byrne wrote, “Like most families in this country, I know first-hand that disability can affect anyone. Therefore it affects us all. Someone is registered disabled every three minutes. Yet today disabled people are threatened by a vicious combination of hate crime, Atos and the bedroom tax. Today we deny disabled people peace of mind, a job, a home and care. We need to change this.”
The news on Atos is not quite as hopeful as the bedroom tax plans, as the BBC reported that Byrne also stated, “We need a system that delivers the right help to the right people, so assessments have to stay.” On that front, Labour will have to demonstrate that they can genuinely reform a system that is manifestly cruel, and not just replace one unprincipled, multinational, tax-gobbling corporation with another that will be just as heartless as Atos. The entire system needs to be scrapped and rethought, so that disabled people are no longer subjected to reviews that are the equivalent of a legal system that presumes everyone guilty until proven innocent, and so that those with long-term and incurable or degenerative disabilities — whether physical, mental or both — are exempt from review altogether, instead of being called back again and again, as is the case at present.
Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).
To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the four-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.
On Facebook, Adam Johannes wrote:
The election is 20 months away and one fear is that many people will already been evicted or forced from their homes by then. Where I live, Cardiff Council wrote to all it’s bedroom taxed tenants warning that if they don’t pay up, the council will have no choice but to evict and non-payment may be considered as having made yourself intentionally homeless so the council might not rehouse. With arrears rocketing rather than accept that it is inevitable that people can’t afford to pay it and dealing humanely, most councils and social landlords are seeking to frighten and bully people into coughing up money they don’t have. The key faultline now will be over evictions, if we can halt evictions the policy becomes unworkable and falls, that means demanding that councils and housing associations pledge not to evict.
Yes, I agree, Adam, and my hope is that – although you may technically be correct about non-payment possibly being construed as tenants having made themselves intentionally homeless, removing councils’ obligation to rehouse them – the truth is that the reality on then ground will be increased homelessness and misery on a scale that cannot be easily ignored. I certainly hope so.
There have been some interesting developments to address the problems, in Bolton and Knowsley, for example, but obviously more joined-up thinking is required, and swiftly. The fact that tens of thousands of people are already in arrears as a result of the introduction of the bedroom tax shows, to me, that it is going to be difficult to ignore the damage caused by the policy. That, of course, is no help for the people currently being forced to leave their homes for no good reason.
For Bolton At Home’s ‘no homelessness’ policy, see: http://www.theguardian.com/housing-network/2013/aug/27/bedroom-tax-tenants-no-homelessness
For Knowsley Housing Trust’s response (downgrading properties), see: http://www.theguardian.com/housing-network/2013/feb/26/tenants-exempted-bedroom-tax-reclassify
Adam Johannes wrote:
And even more importantly mass community resistance to evictions when and where they happen – picketing the courts, forming human rings of steel round homes when the bailiffs come, everything to frustrate and make unworkable!
Good points, Adam. Do you know of any nationally coordinated efforts to resist evictions? I do also think that it’s important for people to push for legal challenges following the recent victories in Scotland:
When my friend Neil Mckenna shared this on Facebook, I wrote:
Thanks for sharing, Neil. As I hope I make clear in the article, I hesitate to trust the Parliamentary Labour Party, but my feeling is that the bedroom tax in particular has proven to be unpopular enough for the party to have gauged that it’s worth promising to scrap it. That, and some of the other promises – the cap on energy companies’ profiteering, for example – show a willingness to establish an alternative point of view to that of the Tories. I’m glad to see Ed Miliband defending it so vigorously, as the right-wing media launches into its predictable “Red Ed” nonsense, and also gald to see that Anthony Nelson, who served in John Major’s government, is backing Miliband’s position. As the Guardian reported today:
Ed Miliband is right to set out plans to freeze energy bills because the market is not working properly and desperately needs reform, a former Tory Treasury minister and prominent businessman has said.
Anthony Nelson, who served in Sir John Major’s government, said people should not listen to the scare stories put out by energy companies, who claim the plans could lead to blackouts.
The banker and ex-chairman of Southern Water dismissed the idea that this is a socialist proposal by Labour, saying he believes there needs to be a review of the balance between the profits energy firms make and the prices they charge.
“I welcome Ed Miliband’s proposal for a price freeze of gas and electricity for a period covering two winters,” he said.
“This will bring much needed relief to all consumers. It will also provide an opportunity to re-examine the balance that regulated industries must strike between the profits they make and the prices they charge.
“Scare stories put out by the energy companies that the lights will go out proves Ed Miliband’s point that this is a market that isn’t working properly and that desperately needs reform. This is not about socialism, it is about fairness.”
Neil Mckenna wrote:
Well I think you know I’m typically a sceptic about the Parliamentary Labour Party, Andy. The stand is important on energy. And Labour appeared to move early on the Bedroom Tax too though with gauged ambivalence. Not enough – never enough – but a modicum of progress.
I’m happy that some of these issues – cruel and counter-productive welfare reforms, the greed of corporations – are out in the open, where they are being discussed, Neil. That’s progress to me. Generally I find that the conversations I have on a daily basis with people from all walks of life are not reflected in the mainstream media. If that starts to change, it can only be a good thing. One problem, of course, is that the liberal media will probably want to move on in the near future, as they always do, and the right-wing media, of course, may embark on a sustained program of brainwashing if they think their malignant world view is under threat
Neil Mckenna wrote:
As we all know, the greed of corporations includes the selfsame media that attempts to direct not only public discourse itself – which as you say often is markedly different from the commentary of much of the so-called mainstream – but selling to those feeling unrepresented or under-represented the idea that the discourse everywhere else beyond their immediate experience is as the corporate media sells their ‘mainstream’. Well, all power to journalists such as yourself who provide a very detailed, very grounded, and very principled, alternative to that. Pretty essential work. All the best Andy. And let’s hope people (as my FB friends certainly seem to do today) see through the threats coming from the energy elite.
Something is turning, Neil. People aren’t coherent, obviously, because they approve the welfare cap (without ever thinking who’s getting most of the payments – the greedy landlords), but then feel sympathy for people affected by the bedroom tax. I do, however, think that it may mark the return of people identifying with those less fortunate than themselves rather than, as has been the case for the last three years, attacking them, and vilifying them as scum. The assault on the poor, the unemployed and the disabled for the last three years has been, genuinely, a low point in my life as a British citizen, so I’m very much hoping that it was a blip, and that some sort of sympathy and empathy is back in play. With it, we can make progress. Without it, we continue to sink into dangerous territory – of the kind that breeds pogroms.
Adam Johannes wrote, in response to 4, above:
The main wave of evictions hasn’t started yet as it will still take some time for arrears to build up to the level where people will be evicted, though some Housing Associations use a form of eviction ‘Ground 8’ that permits evictions more easily and quickly, obviously there are some people who were already in arrears who will have been pushed over the edge by additional bedroom tax debt who will be the first, a group of canvassers from my local bedroom tax group met someone who was currently being threatened with eviction by her Housing Association, but obviously the big wave is yet to come. Every grassroots anti-bedroom tax group I think is aiming to halt evictions, my local group is part of a loose national network – the Anti-Bedroom Tax & Benefit Justice Federation of bedroom tax campaigns (set up after a conference organised by DPAC/Defend Council Housing etc) that aims to halt evictions.
Adam Johannes wrote:
Two accounts of halted evictions I’ve read using different methods –
Adam Johannes wrote:
In Manchester –
There was also the case of the disabled woman, according to the Daily Record, the first bedroom tax eviction in Scotland who was threatened with eviction by North Lanarkshire council. She confronted the Council Leader at his own front door and after a huge public meeting and massive publicity, the council did a u-turn and has adopted a limited no eviction policy.
Thanks for the links, Adam. I think campaigners need to be aware that it’s early days for tenants’ arrears to have built up to a point where their landlords may try to evict them, and need to start making plans to resist – by confronting local councils and other housing providers (housing associations, primarily).
Thanks also for the mention of the Anti-Bedroom Tax and Benefit Justice Federation. Website here: http://www.antibedroomtax.org.uk/?start=4
Good to see John McDonnell MP stating, on Twitter, “Great that Labour comes off the fence & commits to scrapping bedroom tax. Labour Councils should now refuse to evict anyone hit by the tax.”
That’s got to be worth pursuing.
Also worth noting are the 36 councils who called on the government to scrap the bedroom tax: Bassetlaw, Birmingham, Blackburn with Darwin, Bolsover, Bolton, Bradford, Bristol, Bury, Calderdale, Cambridge, Camden, Doncaster, Dudley, High Peak, Hyndburn, Kirklees, Knowsley, Lancashire, Leeds, Lewisham, Liverpool, Manchester, North East Derbyshire, North Warwickshire, Norwich, Nottingham, Oldham, Oxford, Preston, Rochdale, Rossendale, Stockport, Telford & Wrekin, Wakefield, Wolverhampton and York.
Neil Mckenna wrote, in response to 9, above:
Aye indeed, Andy. Hard times, stark times too … It was ‘over there’, it seemed, for years, but now as Billy Bragg put it ‘the third world is just around the corner’ …
Yes, Neil, far too many people haven’t understood that, as far as the Tories are concerned, they no longer want to have an obligation to look after the least fortunate members of society. That’s not happened in our lifetimes, to be honest, so where it’s taking us back to is worth examining – perhaps the 19th century, with its workshouses. If governments don’t want to fund a state and don’t care that there aren’t actually anywhere near enough decent jobs, and only want to facilitate greedy people getting richer and richer by ripping everyone else off for everything more and more – from housing to food to energy – it’s a bleak future for all but those with assets to exploit. They make up – what? – 15, 20, 25% of the population, with their investments and properties, so if you’re not in that demographic, it seems to to me you need to be looking at solidarity with everyone else regarded as disposable.
Neil Mckenna wrote:
Aye indeed so. All notion of universal service obligation being torn up. Labour needs in my opinion if it gains power to do some bigger stuff. Dare i discuss renationalisation? The threateners thus far are distributors, not suppliers. The suppliers will still be there and so will the demand, nay the necessity. I think I see a way in for democratisation there …
Well, Labour did make a move toward mentioning nationalisation by stating that they want the nationalised rail company – Directly Operated Railways, which runs the East Coast line – to be able to bid for franchises. It’s a start – not much of one, but better than nothing, given the general climate of cowardice in the Parliamentary Labour Party:
Joyce McCloy wrote:
why do the bankers and privateers continue unpunished but the ordinary people have their safety net taken away?
Yes, it’s horrible isn’t it, Joyce? That’s what we get for 35 years of lies, starting with Thatcher and Reagan, about how state-owned enterprises are inefficient (which is generally untrue), and the private sector is better. These lies should have been thoroughly exposed by now, because the private sector, of course, puts profits before anything else, which is particularly disastrous in areas such as health, where the needs of the patient should come before those of shareholders. And funnily enough, of course, many of the best medical professionals are those who believe in it as a public service – not as part of a profit-making corporation. And obviously the same goes for many other professions – teachers, the Post Office (about to be privatised here in the UK), the fire brigade, many people involved in social work, to name just a few.
The same used to be true of the utilities, as well – electricity, gas, water, telecoms. And privatisation of those has generally been a disaster for the consumer, of course, as Labour has recognised with its pledge to freeze energy prices. Of course, mobile phones and the internet have both emerged since the great privatisations of the ’80s. It would be interesting if their unfettered profits were turned to the service of the people, wouldn’t it?
Neil Mckenna wrote, in response to 18, above:
Yes, it’s something. And the conference votes on Royal Mail and British Rail show the battle for the soul of the Labour Party isn’t completely over …
The soul of the party’s not the problem though, is it, Neil? Socialism hasn’t been excised from the rank and file like it has from those who want power. Hence the difference between what delegates unanimously voted for – “to renationalise Britain’s train operations and reverse the coalition’s decision to sell off a majority stake in Royal Mail,” as the Guardian put it – and the senior Labour sources saying that “the leadership was prepared to ignore the motions in its election manifesto”: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/sep/25/labour-conference-renationalise-railways-royal-mail
I’ll accept the small steps for now, but there will need to be boldness from now on, and a willingness to keep looking at how a different economic models can be made palatable. If we end up just stuck with unfettered capitalism still, as the only game in town, we’re all screwed.
Beebs Tweet wrote:
Unless there is regulation of UK financial institutions, rent market control, utility companies, investments in sicences/technology, education, recycling economy, creation of jobs, immigration control, etc.. and perhaps looking at various incentives such as the Initiative for a Basic Income in Europe, this oligarchic type of economy will worsen standard of living for everyone, excluding the deserving few.
The undeserving few, I think you mean, Beebs!
Yes, it’s the bankers, corporate bosses and various other super-rich players who alarm me the most, contributing nothing to the common good, and yet still flaunting their ill-gotten gains so conspicuously.
On a day to day basis, I’m also concerned about the lack of rent control, which is increasingly making life harder and harder for more and more people in London in particular, and that, of course, is also tied in to the housing bubble that no one in power wants to see burst, even though the current situation is insane.
Writer, campaigner, investigative journalist and commentator. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
Email Andy Worthington
Please support Andy Worthington, independent journalist: