Fighting the bedroom tax in south London

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Lambeth in south London has one of the highest numbers of inhabitants affected by the bedroom tax, around 4,600 or one in every six people. Just in Brixton, in the heart of Lambeth, there are 714 households affected, losing an average of £20 a week.

At a meeting at Lambeth Town Hall organised by Brixton Blog in September, Labour councillor Pete Robbins stressed that the council was ‘doing all we can’ to help people move ‘into work’ or into ‘more appropriate accommodation’ to avoid the bedroom tax. Yet it is the working poor who are amongst the most dependent on housing benefit – and Lambeth has the second-highest rate of benefits claimants of any council in London. As for ‘appropriate accommodation’, there are around 21,000 households on the waiting list for social housing in Lambeth; last year the council housed 325 applicants. There are a total of 13 one-bedroom flats available and around 1,500 households who need them.

The council’s help so far seems to amount to shunting the poor out of London altogether to the Midlands, or to seaside towns like Margate. At the meeting, a woman who has lived in her home for 30 years and receives incapacity benefit for terminal illness is liable for the bedroom tax now her daughter has moved out. ‘Now I’m £1,000 in debt and the council’s only solution is to tell me to go to Lincoln. Lincoln! I don’t even know where that is!’

One man, whose mother had recently died, and who was paying the bedroom tax on her room out of his benefits, had ended up at a food bank and then in hospital. He asked if the Labour council could promise him that he wouldn't be evicted so he could actually spend money on food again? A woman told us how she had worked for 19 years and never been in debt but was now on incapacity benefit and with the combination of the bedroom tax and the cut in council tax benefit had found herself £127 in debt. She then had to go to court where she was fined a further £122. Should she buy food, she asked, or should she buy school uniform for her child? The local food bank has seen those using its services rise in the last few months from around 30 people a week to 200, and is now giving out between three and four tons of food a month.

When Councillor Robbins complained that the council’s ‘hands were tied by government’ and the most important thing was that people continued paying their rent, a spokesman for Lambeth Tenants’ Association accused the council of acting as an executive branch of government and that, given the legal challenges over what constitutes a bedroom, Lambeth council had a huge amount of manoeuvre available to challenge the tax, and indeed, as the major local landlord, had a responsibility to do so.

Robbins then caused uproar when he said ‘The quickest way to get rid of this hated tax is to vote in a Labour government at the next election’. One speaker pointed out that Labour shadow chancellor Ed Balls had committed himself to at least two years of Coalition austerity measures – Labour had no principles and wouldn't fight for ordinary people. The tenants council added that many of us remember the last Labour government and we weren't very impressed then.

Councillor Pete Robbins is wrong. The quickest and only sure way to defeat the bedroom tax is to fight it. For tenants and activists, that means appealing every decision the council makes on the bedroom tax. And it means demanding of the council, which whines that it hates the bedroom tax too, to prove it by taking a stand and using the legal tools it now has to review all the homes it has designated as liable to pay bedroom tax.

Cat Wiener

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 235 October/November 2013

 

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