P is a single parent with five children. She lives in the local authority property she was offered nearly five years ago. It has five bedrooms.
P is disabled. She has a lot of difficulty walking due to injuries in her spine and legs. She also suffers from severe migraines, the pain from which radiates down her face, neck and arms. She has a history of periods of acute depression and suicide attempts.
P recently had to leave her job because she was not well enough to carry on. She made a claim for the out-of-work benefit Employment & Support Allowance (ESA) but her claim was turned down after she was assessed by a medical professional employed by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). Her assessment lasted less than twenty minutes and she was not asked any questions about her mental health. P is in the process of appealing this decision but the stress of the appeal and the fear of being unsuccessful is making P's migraines worse and more frequent.
This week, P received a letter from Bristol city council, the local authority that placed her in her current accommodation, to tell her that, under new government guidelines, she would soon be seen as having a 'spare bedroom' and that this would affect her entitlement to Housing Benefit.
P's four youngest children are a pair of girls and a pair of boys, all under the age of sixteen. Because of this, the letter says, each pair can legally share a bedroom, thus leaving one bedroom for P's eldest daughter of 16, a bedroom for P and an unoccupied bedroom. The letter from the council went on to say that having this unoccupied bedroom would mean that her Housing Benefit would be reduced by fourteen per cent. This is the 'bedroom tax'.
P is poor. She was not earning a great deal on the checkout at a supermarket while she was working, although she was getting a bit extra in the form of Working Tax Credit, enabling her employer to continue to pay her a pittance rather than a decent, living wage. She battled with herself for a long time before she decided to leave her job. She says that she was at breaking point because of the impact her work was having on her health problems. Now that she has been turned down for ESA, the money she receives while she is appealing is much less than it would be if her claim had been successful. Her appeal is likely to succeed but this does not mean that the appeal will be heard any quicker. The bedroom tax will come into force in April. P will be lucky if her appeal is heard before then. If P can't afford to pay the shortfall in her rent that these new rules have caused, she will face homelessness again.
A fourteen per cent reduction in Housing Benefit is a lot of money to P. It seems absurd that the very authority that decided a five-bedroom house was appropriate and right for her less than five years ago is now forced to penalise her by ruling that she is under-occupying. On the back of the letter to P from Bristol city council there is a list of 'options' for P to consider. These include working more hours (most people who work part-time do so because they are not given the choice to work full-time; they can't simply 'decide' to work more hours), moving to smaller accommodation (easy!), applying for a discretionary housing payment (these are very sparse indeed and rarely given out) and, lastly and arguably most laughable, getting 'further advice', as if there lies, in the oracle of all advice centres, a beautiful solution to this problem.
Some people might say that this bedroom tax is fair enough; that people shouldn't be under-occupying properties; that of course it makes sense to move to smaller accommodation if your house is too big. Maybe. But also, no, it's not fair enough. And the reason it's not fair enough is because it's not fair.
We need to think about who these people are. We need to think about what their lives are like, the kinds of choices they have. It's a very, very different kind of life when you're chronically ill, clinically depressed, poor, stressed, inarticulate, scared, vulnerable, paranoid and demonised. It's a very different life indeed. P lives in the house that she lives in because very recently the law said she was allowed to. She didn't really make a choice to live there, not in the same way that we choose where we live. P was homeless because she had run away from an extremely violent man. She had no choice but to run away from him or he probably would have killed her. The house she lives in isn't great. It sounds massive, doesn't it? A five-bedroom house. Well, P has five children so it's about the right size for them all, even though the bedrooms are absolutely tiny. When we think of a five-bedroom house, we think 'a lovely, spacious, airy five-bedroom house'. We need to think again.
We might think that it doesn't sound that hard for P to move to a smaller property; we might think that it sounds like a bit of a pain in the arse but ultimately not too much of a pain in the arse. Well, for a vulnerable person like P it will be really hard. Moving house is expensive, especially when you don't have a car and don't drive. P is scared that in order to move into a smaller property, she might have to move nearer to where her ex-partner lives which is a terrifying thought for her. This might be an irrational fear but it's a very real one for P. At the moment, she lives in a house that is near a bus stop, near to shops and her children's schools and the doctor. It's good for her because she doesn't have to walk too far and be in too much physical pain to live a decent life. She'll need a lot of support to move. P had a support worker but this had to end because the service was only available to her for one year.
Also, it's not unlikely that when P's children leave home, they'll find it difficult to find work, which will mean that they might have to sign on for a while. But they'll have a tough job finding their own rented accommodation that accepts people on Jobseekers Allowance. One of David Cameron's ideas for young people in this situation is that they move back in with their parents. How will P's children do that if every year one of her children leaves home, she is forced to move to a smaller property? P thought that when she was offered her house she would be settled for a good while. Sure, she'd probably have to find a smaller property when her kids had all grown up and left, but she probably thought that for the next ten years at least, she'd be able to stay still for a while, make a safe home for herself and her family. She'd had a truly awful life and the house that she was given was the start of something a little bit better.
So what is the answer to this problem of under occupation? The answer is that it's kind of a made-up problem. The answer is that P isn't really under occupying, not really. But we're supposed to think that she's being bad. And greedy. And ungrateful. In a year, when her second oldest child is 16, a four-bedroom house will be inappropriate for her and she will be entitled to a bigger property again. The answer is that the Government has decided to make a new rule up about the amount of Housing Benefit people are allowed to in order to be seen to be taking action in relation to this ugly thing called the Welfare Bill.
P is a very vulnerable person. Most people who live in local authority housing are vulnerable. And all the people who are being affected by the bedroom tax are local authority tenants. We need to think about what that means. A lot of us have a difficult time sometimes; we get a bit depressed, our relationships break up, we don't love our jobs, we wish we had more money, we'd like to go on holiday, we want better clothes. We might have an existential crisis from time to time. Some of us might decide that we need to 'downsize' to save money. But in the midst of all these worries, we exist on a totally different realm compared with the kinds of anxieties and problems in the life of someone like P. We can 'cope'. She probably can't. We are much more free than P to make privileged choices; we have the emotional resources to feel strong and of value because our parents like us and because we can read and because we don't think we deserve it when someone breaks our legs.