Press release: Labour’s Julian Ware-Lane welcomes blow to hated bedroom tax

Labour MPs have won a victory in Parliament against the coalition’s Bedroom Tax. Andrew George’s private member’s bill, backed by Labour MPs, could be the first step to ending the misery inflicted on the poor and vulnerable.

In the East of England region, over 30,000 people have been impacted by the Bedroom Tax, but in too many cases there simply aren’t smaller houses for tenants to move into. In other cases the disabled face being forced from adapted homes into unsuitable accommodation.

Julian Ware-Lane, Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Southend West, said: “I have seen first-hand the misery the Bedroom Tax has caused, often forcing very ill people into making very difficult choices. It is an unfair policy that causes misery to thousands of people. This vote will not abolish the Bedroom Tax, but it is a step in the right direction and a glimmer of hope for many.”

“The Liberal Democrats voted with Labour on this occasion. However, the Bedroom Tax exists because the Liberal Democrats backed the Conservatives when it was passed into law. Only by electing a Labour Government next year can we guarantee that the Bedroom Tax is repealed.”

Compare and contrast

Those who cheat must be punished. Obvious. Somehow, though, it seems to depend on what type of cheat you are. The media appears to revel in the telling of those who swindle the benefits system. This does matter, every penny of tax dishonestly acquired denies that penny to the truly deserving, or to the NHS, education, etc. However, to butcher a Stalin maxim, to cheat a penny is a tragedy, to steal a million is a statistic.

Look at this: Benefit cheat swindled £13,000

And then this: Council legal battle to wrestle back £50,000 from Lord Hanningfield to be shelved

One cheat, a mere commoner, is to repay all that she fiddled. Another cheat, a peer of the realm, somehow evades repayment (and will return to the House of Lords after a year’s ban).

Brought up on benefits

My birth certificate shows my father’s occupation as ‘toy retailer’. Dad had a market stall selling cheap toys. By the time I had started school in January 1965 he had given that up and was a window cleaner. A year or so later he was sacked from his job, and never worked again; he was 52.

His career, if it can so be described, up to my birth appears to be an assortment of odd and badly paid jobs. He left school at fourteen and suffered with ill health, brought on largely by malnutrition. Times were hard in the 1920s and 1930s, and the first of my father’s two arrests came about as a result of his participation in a bread march. He claimed he was nicked to fulfil some sort of police quota; whatever, the fact that these sorts of protests existed is a testament to the grim times and grinding poverty endemic in many parts of the country at that time.

Life on the dole in the 1960s was no picnic. There were four mouths to feed, and the Sunday roast lasted three days as the leftovers ended up in stews and as cold meat and mash. The cheap cuts of meat that we had to endure meant that this fussy eater had many miserable childhood mealtimes. We had no refrigerator, never had takeaways, no holidays, nights out, and much that I wore was either hand-me-downs, knitted, or bought at jumble sales. I recall shoes held together by string, often with holes. The one word description of the period for me would be ‘humiliating’.

Father, in the early days, applied for many jobs. The frequency of applications and interviews diminished over time as increasing age made dad a less attractive employment prospect. He was offered jobs, but since these paid less than what he received from the dole he declined them. My recollections are somewhat flimsy, but an idle father made for a bad-tempered one.

Of course we had some luxuries. We rented a black and white TV, we did have a football to kick about, and library tickets opened up all sorts of possibilities. We even acquired a second-hand gramophone in my early teens. Card games were de rigeur, as was the occasional game of chess (which was not enjoyable owing to dad’s failure to accept defeat, ensuring re-run endings until he found that move to defeat me). He even made a shove ha’penny board – something that I still own (with some real ha’pennies).

This was no existence of idle grandeur, no leisurely stroll at the tax-payers expense. It was grinding poverty, a humiliating struggle to eke out a basic existence. Our rented home had no heating, no hot water, no bathroom. The loo was either outside, or a bucket under the bed. The weekly bath was a shared experience – and the bath hung on a nail on the outside back of the house.

We felt poor, and whilst we lived in a poor area with poor neighbours somehow we felt poorest. However, whilst I was aware that most of my friends had more, none approached the apparent wealth of today’s generations.

I never believed I would grow up and not work, although I cannot pretend that I have done anything other than muddle through. I had no grand plan except to escape the stifling crampness that poverty brings. I recall no ambition, and on leaving home just before my seventeenth birthday I had nothing but rebellion in mind. I was angry with what life had dealt me thus far, but it would be a few years before I figured out how to fix it.

As bad as it was, my childhood was luxurious compared to my dad’s. He spoke of eighteen sharing two rooms in Peckham. He spoke of seasonal employment as a peanut vendor – goodness knows how he survived in winter. His radicalism, and ultimately mine, came from the injustices of those times. By the time I came along we had the Welfare State, and despite the stigma of living on benefits it did mean that we did not go hungry, or face eviction. It did mean we had clean clothes, a TV, a few books, and the occasional picnic. Despite its shortcomings, and I am aware that there are many, the Welfare State has made for a more civilised Britain.

Overpayments in housing and council tax benefit subsidy

At Audit Committee last week a number of reports were presented. Among their number was BDO: Grant Claims and Returns Certification Report for the Year ended 31 March 2013.

On page 5, under a section on Housing and council tax benefit subsidy is this:

Findings and impact on claim

The extrapolated errors all relate to over-claims of subsidy. If DWP decide to adjust for all of these extrapolated errors, then the total adjustment to the overpayments reported would be £236,921, resulting in a potential loss of subsidy of £716,043 because the Council would then breach the overpayments threshold within the scheme and therefore receive less subsidy. In total this represents a potential 0.6% reduction in subsidy.

This prompted me to ask some questions, and I summarise the responses here.

This loss in subsidy would be made up from reserves set aside for this purpose. These reserves could have been spent, as a one-off, on any other project of the council’s choosing. Since making no mistakes was considered impossible, the usual amount of error was quoted as around £200,000.

My interpretation then, is that the over-payments made in error are about half a million more than what is considered par for the course. That this will result in a draw down from reserves, reserves that could have been used in any special project, shows the real losers are Southend-on-Sea’s residents.

Under-occupied

I met with a resident this weekend.

Husband and Wife have lived at their address for nineteen years. Husband was diagnosed with hairy cell lymphocytic leukaemia in December 2013. Husband and Wife are both 59 years old.

Wife has degenerative osteoarthritis. Both are now registered disabled. Both have enhanced rates of disability.

As a result of Husband’s illness he has lost his job; he was a baker for thirty years. He is now in receipt of housing benefit. His home is owned by a housing association and is a three-bedroom mid-terrace. It is now described as under-occupied, and this means the bedroom tax kicks in, costing them £30 per week.

They are not opposed to the idea of moving to somewhere smaller, but do not want to live in a tower block or in a care home. Unsurprisingly, with such a bleak outlook quality of life figures high in their priorities. Wife struggles with stairs and needs an adapted bath.

I had a long chat with Husband, a long and difficult chat. His diagnosis in December is a death sentence, and the added stress of the bedroom tax is hitting him hard. Seeing a grown man reduced to tears is not something anyone would enjoy.

They are quite prepared to live anywhere in Essex, although it seems that this is not a possibility as they have no family outside of the borough. It does strike me as peculiar that potential properties are denied them because of where they live, yet legislation is attempting to make them move anyway.

Benefits justice day of action

BenefitsJustice

Where housing benefit really goes

A press release from GMB union last week stated: HUGE PAYMENTS FOR HOUSING BENEFIT IN EAST OF ENGLAND SHOWS LANDLORDS ARE THE REAL WINNERS FROM BRITAIN’S WELFARE SYSTEM. Amongst the statistics that accompanied this release were the following, directly relevant to everyone in south Essex:

• Regis Direct Plc – £725,000 from Southend, £24,000 from Rochford. Donated £7,900 to Conservatives in 2008.
• Thorney Bay Park Ltd – £1.45m from Castle Point. Donated £3,000 to conservatives in 2001.
• Horwood, PACE plc – £596,000 from Southend, £12,500 from Rochford
• Martin & Co – Letting Agents, £3.1m from 20 districts nationally. £484,000 from Southend and £19,000 from Rochford
• Hopson Property Management Ltd – £761,000 from Southend
• The Letting Shop – £136,000 from Colchester and £29,000 from Chelmsford
• Northwood – National lettings Agency getting over £2.3m nationally. £251,000 from Milton Keynes, £162,000 from Chelmsford

I oppose the housing benefit cap because, whatever the intentions, its actual consequence is to drive the poor out of expensive areas. The effects of this are being felt in Southend as Londoners seek to escape over-priced and unaffordable accommodation costs.

Tenants do not get housing benefit – it goes straight to landlords. Despite what some of the headlines may imply, no-one on welfare is being made rich by housing benefit. There are those who are coining it in – the landlords. I think there is a problem here, and the solution is not the cap. The solution lies ultimately in the need for affordable housing, which can only be met with a vigorous house-building program.

There are 16,439 private rented households in Southend-on-Sea. 10,282 (62.5%) are in receipt of housing benefits.

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