Seb Cooke meets Kay Harris, a South Wales grandmother who has found herself at the forefront of a campaign to fight the Bedroom Tax.
Kay Harris lives with her family in Betws, a small ex-mining community in the South Wales Valleys that has been her home for the past 27 years. 16 of those years have been spent in the same three bedroom council house where she has raised her two children and now lives with her husband, Terrence, and her son, Gareth, 25. For the first time in Kay’s life, this family home is under threat.
The house sits on top of a hill, and when you stand outside you can see the surrounding valleys, where once the spectre of coal mining marked the landscape. Inside there is a wood panelled fireplace that was handmade by Terrence. The centrepiece of this is an electric coal imitation fire that reminds Kay of growing up in the nearby Gawr valley. When she was a child she would bathe in a tin tub next to a coal fire in her parents’ living room. The surrounding area was heavily mined, and most people worked in the pits. Coal was cheap and plentiful.
‘I’d love to have my coal fire back,’ she says. ‘That’s why I have the electric fire. It’s never on because it takes all my electric but it’s there as a feature, because it looks like coal.’ She pauses for a moment. ‘Them days are gone’.
When I meet them, Kay and her family are facing eviction from their home if they do not pay the bedroom tax. Officially referred to as the ‘under-occupancy penalty’, the bedroom tax is applied to anyone in a local authority or housing association run property who is deemed to have an unnecessary spare room.
In the case of the Harris family, the spare room in question is their third bedroom. Kay takes me upstairs to show me what it looks like: a small box room that just about fits a single bed on one side and a toddler’s bed on the other. She explains that her husband is seriously ill with heart disease and has recently had an operation after being rushed to hospital. Due to his condition, Terrence sleeps by himself in this bedroom every night during the week. On weekends, he vacates the room so that their grandchildren Damien and Maisy can come and stay. ‘But according to them,’ says Kay, ‘they don’t take that into account. ‘Them’ are the local housing association, Valleys To Coast.
Bedroom tax rules are incredibly strict. The only reason a person would be automatically exempt from the charge is if they were a disabled adult and needed an overnight carer. Factors such as having relatives come to stay, having a disabled child, the length of tenancy or having dependants who use the room are rarely taken into consideration, and if they are it is often as a result of long drawn out appeals.
For one bedroom that is deemed surplus to requirements a tenant can face a 14% reduction to their housing benefit, meaning that they have to pay back that amount to make up the shortfall on their rent. If they are unable to pay back the money, bailiffs can be sent in to evict them. The government have said that people can be rehoused in smaller properties instead of being evicted, but the number of people who would require a one or two bedroom house massively outweighs the number of those properties that are actually available. This gaping hole doesn’t seem to have deterred the Department for Work and Pensions from enforcing the bedroom tax with little remorse. It is no overstatement to say that the effects of this ‘no nonsense’ approach have quite literally been deadly.
On 4th May 2013, Stephanie Botrell took her own life in her home in Solihull. Next to her was a note to her son titled: ‘Don’t blame yourself for me ending my life. The only people to blame are the government.’ Stephanie had lived in her three bedroom council house since 1995. She raised her two children there but was living by herself after they had both left home. When the bedroom tax came into force in 2013, she was told that her housing benefit would be cut by £80 a month and that she would have to make up the rent or leave. On the day before she killed herself, Stephanie visited her GP and said she felt she was being pushed into deciding whether to stay or move and that she couldn’t cope with the stress. A year after she was found dead, a coroner ruled that Stephanie Botrell had been worried about the bedroom tax before committing suicide. In a statement defending the measure after the incident, the DWP said that it was ‘returning fairness to the system and making better use of social housing stock’.
This unshakable commitment to ‘return fairness’ manifested itself again this year when the court of appeal ruled that in two cases the bedroom tax was discriminatory and unlawful. The people at the heart these cases were a Welsh couple who cared for their disabled grandson and a victim of domestic abuse. Both had houses that were deemed ‘under-occupied’. After a two year fight against the DWP, they won. It was hailed as a landmark ruling; one that could help thousands of others who found themselves in such a position. However, no sooner had the verdict come through than the government announced they would appeal the decision in the Supreme Court, where the ruling would be final. Those who had been following the case were left stunned.
In the case of the woman, ‘A’, she has been raped, beaten and had her life threatened by a former partner. The DWP claimed she was ‘under-occupying’ her house as she had a spare room: a specially equipped secure ‘panic room’ that was installed for her to go to in case her abuser returned. Both lawyers represented their clients effectively, and together they inflicted a rare and potentially devastating blow to the solid exterior of the DWP. Then, as news of the appeal filtered through, it suddenly became clear that the government was prepared to spend potentially millions of pounds in order to force a woman who could be murdered by her abuser into paying a penalty of £11.65 a week on a room that could save her life.
The way that the bedroom tax is administered means that people can quickly get into a huge amount of debt with their council or housing association. This happened to Kay Harris when the charge first came in. She was quickly in debt to the tune of £172, placing her under enormous financial pressure. The bedroom tax amounts to £127.60 a month for Kay and her family. This exact figure is made up of various charges. As she explains, ‘We’re paying £127.60 a month. Because [Terrence] claimed the PIP (Personal Independence Payment) they’re charging us £26.25 a week, plus I gotta pay £4 off the arrears. That only worked out at £120 but the other £7.60 is coming back off the arrears again.’
Hearing Kay talk about her budget is confusing, but only because it’s made up of so many different calculations, subtractions and penalties that seem to tighten around her all the time. She can talk about this mix with ease, knowing the figures down to the last penny. But if talking about her finances is easy, then deciding how to divide them up is not. Her total income is £610 a month. This has to pay the Bedroom Tax, feed her family and pay for gas and electric, as well as covering anything else that comes up; clothes, Christmas, travel, things for her grandchildren. ‘I’m shopping once a fortnight and I’m struggling doing it because of the amount of money I got left. I can’t even afford to have my haircut or buy a pair of shoes!’
Speaking to others, it’s clear that Kay’s situation is not rare. The community is close, and often people socialise in Kay’s kitchen, something she is very proud of. ‘They just come in and make it their own’ she says, ‘That’s the way I like it. It’s not bickering or arguing all the time because there’s no need for it. This complete street is just one clique as you can see. In this street everybody knows everybody.’
Kay plays a big part in this closeness, regularly organising trips for the children in Betws to go to theme parks like Oakwood and Alton Towers during the summer. ‘There’s six weeks summer holiday and going away just once, it helps. It relaxes them and everything and gets them out of the village,’ she says. ‘I’m only doing it because there’s nothing round here for the kids.’
When hearing about what Kay does, I can’t help but be reminded of past speeches by various politicians where they hail this kind of community spirit as integral to their vision for Britain. In fact, the term ‘community’ has been used to sell so many hollow policy initiatives over the last ten years it’s become almost meaningless. By far the most obvious of these was David Cameron’s Big Society, a vision of Britain where people apparently help each other out. The deep irony of this only begins to sink in when you realise that it is another of Cameron’s ideas, The Bedroom Tax, that could see this very real community spirit in Betws ripped apart.
‘Almost everyone here has had a Stage 2 eviction notice,’ Kay tells me, waving hers in the air. These get sent to anyone who has failed to keep up with their payments, and can result in a court appearance followed by eviction.
According to Kay, some are now finding it hard to pay for their children to go on the trips that she puts on. ‘We’ve organised this trip since February and some are giving me so much a week for the bus fare, you know, which helps them to afford it. They have been struggling to pay for it.’
Unemployment in the borough of Bridgend is above the national average at 7%, a figure that rises dramatically to over 20% if you’re unlucky enough to be aged 16 – 24. ‘All the jobs that are out there now you need qualifications for,’ says Kay. ‘Well, some people haven’t got the qualifications. It is hard, but especially for the youngsters. It is hard for them. Like they go to college and what’s it worth because there’s no jobs when they come out.’
The mines around Betws used to provide work for thousands of local people. The biggest of these was St John’s Colliery in Maesteg which employed 700 workers in the 1970s but was closed in November 1985. ‘The mines closing had a heck of a lot of an effect on an area like this,’ Kay tells me. ‘It disrupted everywhere, because as I said I wouldn’t have minded working down the pits. A job is a job at the end of the day. But it affected everywhere. Not just mining villages but everywhere. The Conservatives have got a heck of a lot to answer for. Heck of a lot. Because they’ve ruined this country.’
Kay informs me that her father used to be the secretary for Ray Powell, the Labour MP for Ogmore from 1979 until his death in 2001. Despite this association, Kay says she retains little faith in politics. ‘I don’t trust Labour, I don’t trust any party. My mother’s neighbour said you want to leave Labour because it’s coming into New Labour and go to UKIP. I said I’m not even voting for UKIP, I’m not voting for any of them. What’s the worth? They’re not listening!’
Many modern political commentators would describe Kay’s attitude fairly sweepingly as part of the new ‘anti-politics’. But as we go on talking, it’s quite clear that Kay is far from anti-political or apathetic, and such a description seems patronising at best. Kay has seen Conservative and Labour Governments come and go and come back again. So why, when those governments have presided over a haemorrhaging of good jobs and increasing poverty, should she retain any faith in the political system that gave them power?
It would also be wrong to describe this disillusionment as anti-political because it would ignore the activism that Kay is involved in locally. In fact, she holds regular organising meetings about the Bedroom Tax in her kitchen: ‘We held a meeting last Tuesday,’ she tells me.
Kay is involved with South Wales Against the Bedroom Tax, a broad alliance of trade unions, faith leaders, campaigners, charities and homelessness organisations. They estimate that 31,850 people are affected by the Bedroom Tax in Wales and are lobbying the Welsh Government to copy Scotland and end the measure here. Last year, they successfully stopped a disabled woman who quickly got into over £700 of debt with her housing association being evicted from her home. Had it gone ahead, it would have been the first eviction of its kind in Wales.
There is now a far bigger fight over housing, which has grown sharply across the whole of the UK since 2010. This movement has been led mostly by working class women, the worst affected group when it comes to housing policy. A key moment in this battle came through the E15 Mothers, an incredibly successful campaign led by mainly single mums who faced down Newham council and halted a series of potentially devastating evictions.
Kay is now part of this wider movement. As well as organising against the bedroom tax, she also helps others in appealing against it. One person she gives special credit to is Alan Short, a local man well into his seventies who spends his spare time driving people to and from their appeals and helping them to win their cases. ‘If it wasn’t for him, this campaign would be nowhere,’ Kay says, explaining how they work together. ‘I take the phone calls and get the details and then Alan goes to see them and measures it up and he goes to court with them.’
Alan recently put Kay’s number in the local paper for people to get in touch if they want help with their appeals. ‘I’ll get a lot more calls,’ Kay says. ‘But I don’t mind that coz I’m fighting for our rights. We’re being walked all over is how I feel, but no more. We’re going to fight and we’re going to fight until the end. It’s the only thing we can do isn’t it? Keep going…”
All images courtesy of Seb Cooke.