‘Bedroom Tax’ letting disabled people go hungry

‘Bedroom Tax’ letting disabled people go hungry

The Welfare Reform Act 2012 was introduced in March of that year to try to remedy the global financial crisis that led to the collapse of major banks and other financial institutions and the bailout offers by world governments to keep them afloat.

Despite bank executives receiving bonuses of millions, it was the poorest and most disadvantaged in society, like the sick and disabled, that got most of the criticism, particularly those in Britain who relied on the UK’s social welfare system.  In an effort to simplify the complicated and confusing package of benefits available to varying members of society and save money in doing so, the Welfare Reform Act was passed. It included an amendment in April 2013 which limited the number of bedrooms a person could receive housing benefit for if they were living in council or housing association properties. If the tenant had more bedrooms than was deemed acceptable for the number of people living in the property, then their housing benefit allowance would be cut. Officially called the ‘under-occupancy penalty’, it was dubbed ‘the bedroom tax’ by the media and this name seems to have stuck.

While not a tax in itself, affected residents have to come up with the rent deficit themselves even if they are too ill to work or they find themselves facing discrimination when trying to find a job (double the amount of disabled people are unemployed compared with their able counterparts) and many simply cannot afford the extra rent and face mounting debts, eviction and possible homelessness. The government’s idea is that forcing residents out of homes that are too large for them will free up accommodation for families who need more rooms, shorten housing waiting lists and lead to better allocation of properties.

However, the bleak reality is that not everyone is able to move to a smaller home (there is a shortage of those too) and if they have a disability they may need the extra space. Wheelchairs, stairlifts and other adaptions all take up space that just isn’t there in a one or two bedroom flat. If the person affected is also a divorced or separated parent who doesn’t have residency of their children (and more disabled parents lose custody of their children compared with able parents) then they will not be able to keep a bedroom for their child during visits.  Bedroom space is only allowed for children in the house of the parent who receives child benefit. This means that some disabled parents and their children will be forced to live in grossly overcrowded conditions or be forced to forego overnight visitation.

Vulnerable people are also being forced to ration their food and leave their heating off even in cold temperatures just to be able to save sufficient money to make up the remainder of the rent. The prospect of losing their home (which for disabled people has often been adapted to suit their needs) and feeling the pressure of bills they can’t pay, some tenants have become so distressed that they have harmed themselves or committed suicide.

Bedroom Tax Death

A highly publicised suicide has occurred as a direct result of the ‘bedroom tax’- the sad and avoidable death of Stephanie Bottrill, a 53 year old disabled mother of grown children who walked in front of a bus after being forced to part-fund her rent on the home she’d lived in for 18 years or move to a smaller property six miles away from her family and friends. Suffering from Myasthenia Gravis, an auto-immune condition that weakens muscles, she was too ill to work so could not earn her own rent money.  As she wasn’t registered as disabled, she didn’t apply for any disability benefit and instead stopped heating her home and limited her food in an effort to meet increased bill demands.  After Mrs Bottrill killed herself, the only food item found in her cupboards was tinned custard.

Others have attempted suicide.  Lawrence Keane, an ex-miner who was unemployed through no fault of his own, was driven to such desperation that he slashed his own wrists in a council housing office in Fife.  The slew of reports on attempted suicide was enough for the United Nations to head an official investigation into the UK government’s treatment of its citizens. Raquel Rolnik, the UN special rapporteur on housing, said that the ‘bedroom tax’ was breaching the human right of British people to have adequate housing and causing great stress and anxiety to very vulnerable people. She added that the right housing was not merely about having a roof over your head, but about maintaining social bonds, communities and work places. The prospect of losing her community was what kept Stephanie Bottrill in a house she could no longer afford and this was one of the instigating factors in her suicide.

Disabled Woman’s Court Win

There is hope as one disabled woman made history by challenging the ‘establishment’ and winning.  The woman, who prefers to remain anonymous, was left in a wheelchair after she suffered a stroke.  She also had additional health problems and required adaptions to her house and sufficient space.  Due to this she needed a separate bedroom from her husband. Despite this, the couple were told by Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council that they had to pay extra towards their rent or move to a smaller, totally unsuitable property. A tribunal ruled in their favour, saying that the council hadn’t taken her disabilities into consideration or thought of her requirements in their decision.  The woman’s husband said

“We took on the Government on the spare room subsidy and won.”

This ruling is good news for all disabled people everywhere in the UK, as courts tend to base future decisions on what has been established before and means it should be easier for disabled people to assert their rights in the future.

Welfare Rights

If you’re disabled you may be afraid to ask for assistance in the current financial climate or feel uncomfortable taking disability benefits, but there is financial help available and it is there to cover your increased expenses and help give you a better quality of life. Money.co.uk say that your first step in obtaining help is to have a health and social care assessment (England and Wales only) and a work capability assessment (England, Wales and Scotland).  This is done to determine the amount of benefit you are entitled to.  Benefits include Disability Living Allowance (DLA), Employment and support allowance (if you cannot work due to disability), carers allowance (extra money for people caring for the sick or disabled), attendance allowance (to help pay for services if you need help with personal care), direct payments (so you can hire your own assistance) or blind person’s allowance.  DLA is being changed to personal independence payment. As a disabled person you may find it harder to get around, or live with daily pain and your expenses could be higher (for instance, having to get a taxi instead of walking or paying rental costs on a stairlift) and disability benefits can help meet some of these costs.

Help Finding Work

If you need help finding work, see your local jobcentre about the possibility of applying for a grant.  The access to work grant is there to help you start your own business, stay in your current job (by paying for adaptions in your office, or equipping you with a mentor to help you at work or to pay for the cost of getting to work if you can’t use public transport). There are Disability Employment Advisors in every job centre who can identify what you’re interested in, help you find work or enrol you in residential programmes so you can train while you work. If you’re not happy with what’s on offer or your illness tends to get in the way, they may also be able to advise you on working from home.

By Laura Chapman

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