Wales must stand up to ‘bedroom tax’.

Jamie Insole says Welsh Labour should follow Scotland’s lead on the removal of the spare room subsidy.

In Scotland, no social tenant is evicted for bedroom tax debt. Scottish Government has effectively covered the cost of the bedroom tax since 2013. In Wales, this is significant;

Last Wednesday, I received a call. A tenant was due to be evicted by her social landlord at 10:30 the following morning. Having staved off over 30 similar attempts across South Wales, I knew that time had run out. All the same, we tried but, for the first time ever, ultimately failed.

The corollary of this failure left a vulnerable woman sitting with her dog in what had been her garden. Her daughter, a 17 year old A Level student, had been offered no alternative accommodation and was thus forced to stay with friends. Whereas it would be inappropriate explore her circumstances in any great detail, the tenant had experienced severe illness, a recent bereavement, lost her job and ultimately slipped into the psychological paralysis that accompanies extreme poverty and suffering.

Unfortunately, her landlord took this paralysis as a signal to default on its own duty to protect. At a hearing prior to the eviction, the judge opted to hear the case even though the duty solicitor was not present. This was at the Cardiff Council presenting officers insistence. Efforts to sign-post or refer the tenant to a champion capable of fighting her corner had fallen at the first hurdle due to core funding cuts. So much for mitigation.

With this in mind, I examine the third report of Public Accounts Committee. Whilst the first provided food for thought, criticising ‘lack of progress’ with respect to the 23% of Welsh people living in poverty, the third is a dismally brilliant object lesson in how not to fight a fire.

This report tells a story about a failure to plan, a failure to project and the absence of desegregated data to support either. It describes task groups which whilst established, rarely meet. Information is neither requested nor shared whilst the sector is largely left to its own devices. Only now do we see any effort to coordinate a minimal safety net – the attempt to standardise the allocation of discretionary housing payments across 22 local authorities. We see funds being diverted to high profile bromides (the construction of 300 homes) as opposed to alleviating immediate suffering and converting existing stock. Inconvenient facts such as the escalation in evictions and suspended possession orders are ignored and all is justified under the catch all; “we cannot afford to bare the burden of Westminster legislation if funding is not addressed”.

In all honesty, much of what I read reminds me of the chaos that accompanies the early phase of a disaster relief effort – dislocation, duplication and no forums or processes through which consensus and leadership can emerge. However, this is not Nepal or Sierra Leone and Welsh Government have had four years to crack it.

Rather than doing so, they hunkered down and awaited the election of a UK Labour Government.

So what now? As the funding gap widens; the perfect storm of welfare reform and uncertainty surrounding the implementation of universal credit seems set to paralyse the sector as surely as rent arrears might stun a vulnerable tenant. Already, we see signals indicating a return to the same old expedient: equalise the cost of the social/private rented sector, raise rents to fund repairs and new build, squeeze the tenant as the single unfixed point!

However, even if this strategy was morally sustainable, it cannot work in practise. For two years, the discretionary housing fund has been used to square the circle for those left with the choice of paying money that they do not have or downsizing to properties that do not exist. Topped up by Welsh Government in 2014, many vulnerable tenants would be unable to sustain their homes in it’s absence. Westminster’s plan to cut this budget and share it equally between the social and private sector portends a social train wreck.

As evidence of this, consider the 5136 suspended possession orders in place during 2013/14. Whereas we cannot discern how many of these were affected by the bedroom tax, we can say that all of these tenancies are highly vulnerable – the court has already granted possession to the social landlord and it will require a very small infraction to trigger repossession.

Can we imagine the social and material effect of even 150 evictions across Welsh communities; what of 1500 or 2500?

Scottish Government, under pressure from a radical social movement joined by, amongst others, the Scottish Labour Party, opted to cover the cost of the bedroom tax in 2013. The Public Accounts Committee report recommends; “a cost/benefit analysis of mitigating the full impact of the removal of the spare room subsidy through discretionary housing payments, as the Scottish Government chose to do.”

We all want to see ambition and imagination. Community energy generation; releasing local authority pension funds for a programme of social new build; initiatives that will tackle poverty whilst giving people a stake.

However, we also demand social compassion and the minimal decency.

Most pressingly, Welsh Labour needs to end its prevarication and take tenants out of this hated tax. If it fails in this, not only will it have to live with the dire social consequences but also endure the justified anger that accompanies every contested eviction!

Jamie Insole is an NUJ activist and works to coordinate Cardiff & South Wales Against the Bedroom Tax.

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