Bolton Against the Bedroom Tax was once again in the news recently when protesters interrupted a council meeting in the central library to draw attention to the Bolton Council’s refusal to act on the petition delivered to its leader Cliff Morris back in October 2014.
It was one of many protests the campaign group has mounted since handing over the petition, calling for a “no evictions” policy for victims of the Bedroom Tax. Earlier protests have seen campaigners don Cliff Morris masks en masse in the council chamber and chaining themselves to the seats in the chamber to prevent removal by the police. (In the event it was the council that moved out.)
The petition, according to the council’s own guidelines, should have initiated a full council debate, opened by the campaign leader, Linda Charnock, addressing the council. Instead, and despite public promises by council leader Cliff Morris, the petition was shunted around various committees before being dumped in the bureaucratic long grass. But if the intention was to silence the campaign, the council leader’s strategy has badly misfired. After announcing a ban on campaigners entering the council chamber, the council has been forced into rescinding such a move as a breach of constituents’ rights.
Bolton Against the Bedroom Tax was formed after the introduction of the Welfare Reform Act by the Liberal-Conservative coalition government in 2012. The Act contained measures to impose an “under-occupancy” charge on social tenants deemed to have spare rooms. Affected tenants faced a reduction in housing benefit of 14% for one spare rooms and 25% for two spare rooms. Supporters of the measures like to refer to the system of paying housing benefit to “under-occupiers” as the spare room subsidy, the implication being that such tenants enjoy accommodation beyond their needs at tax-payers’ expense.
The coalition government’s stated rationale for the Bedroom Tax was to make more efficient use of the available social housing stock. In reality it was part of a raft of measures designed to reduce social security payments, penalise unemployment and stigmatise benefit claimants. The broader political narrative is one of forcing people into poorly paid jobs with little security, often on zero hours contracts, in effect driving down living standards for those at the bottom of the income tree. This has been the pattern since the Thatcher government of the eighties. Since then, as labour laws have been weakened, trade unions attacked through punitive legislation and financial regulation stripped away, wealth and income inequality have increased massively. The annual Credit Suisse global wealth report of 2014 reported:
• The amount of the country’s wealth controlled by the richest 10% increased to 54.1% this year, up from 51.5% in 2000, according to the annual Credit Suisse global wealth report.
• The increase in inequality has coincided with a boom in the number of rich and super-rich people in Britain. There are now 44 dollar billionaires in Britain, compared with eight at the start of the century, while the number of people whose net worth is at least $50m (£31m) almost quadrupled to 4,660.
• As the rich have got richer, low and middle-income households have been squeezed by falling real incomes caused by years of rising household bills and lack of wage increases.
Since then things have deteriorated further as the grip of the government’s austerity measures tightens.
Seventy percent of those affected by the Bedroom Tax are disabled. Many of those affected had already suffered at the hands of the other prong of the government’s assault on disabled people at the hands of ATOS, a private company contracted to reassess the condition of those claiming disability benefits but whose incompetence forced to pull out of the arrangement after a series catastrophic failures. (http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/jan/18/after-hated-atos-quits-will-maximus-make-work-assessments-less-arduous) Time after time disabled claimants were having their housing benefits cut despite the so-called ‘spare room’ being essential for their life-enhancing, or life preserving equipment, or for the partners or carers to sleep in. In other cases they were being told to move from specially adapted homes because they were deemed to be too large for their needs. In other cases parents separated from their former partners were told their children were not entitled to a room of their own when staying at weekends and during holidays, but should either share a bed or sleep on the couch. In every case there was a callous disregard for the tenants’ welfare and quality of life.
Bolton Against the Bedroom Tax has collected the stories of many victims of the tax. They reveal that far from being “spongers” looking for an easy ride, the vast majority are extremely vulnerable people who have suffered poor health or misfortune and often both, and found themselves caught up in a downward spiral of mounting debt with no means of escape. For many Bolton Against the Bedroom Tax has been a lifeline. Over the past two years the campaign has held over twenty public meetings, petitioned relentlessly, set up a drop in centre and personally supported tens of victims in meetings with the council, at tribunals and in court. It has held demonstrations in the town centre, outside the law courts and the council chambers and stands ready at any time to support those under threat of eviction. In doing so it has given campaigners hope, a sense of purpose and immense pride in what the campaign has achieved. Last year Bolton Against the Bedroom Tax was acclaimed Campaign of the Year by Bolton Socialist Club. It was a well-deserved tribute to an essential, hard-working and never-say-die campaign. It will continue to work for victims of this pernicious tax for as long as it’s needed.