Fighting the bedroom tax in Newcastle

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 237 February/March 2014

In January, a report by Newcastle’s Labour council stated that the bedroom tax has ‘withdrawn up to £3.26m of housing benefit (HB) across the city’. Rent arrears to Your Homes Newcastle (YHN), the city’s main social housing provider, increased by £274,208 between March and December 2013 and will total £1m by the end of 2014. 66% of the 5,117 households affected by the bedroom tax are now in rent arrears. 139 possession orders have already been granted to YHN and these families now face eviction.

On 19 December 2013 Newcastle residents, including FRFI supporters, protested in the city centre demanding to meet with the council’s Housing Benefit and Environmental departments. We also demanded that the council follow the definition of a bedroom as laid out in the 2004 Housing Act, submitting a letter requiring a reply by 6 January 2014, and a meeting by 6 February. To date, the council has not responded.

On 13 January, we challenged local Liberal-Democrat councillor Gareth Kane for a reply. Kane told FRFI he had ‘been informed by the Leader’s Office that such a meeting should not take place’. The ‘Leader’ is Labour council leader Nick Forbes, who, while claiming to be leading the anti-bedroom tax campaign in Newcastle, has banned the HB department from meeting with claimants.

When we confronted Labour councillor David Stockdale with this information, he didn’t want to hear it, and when we pushed him on Labour’s feigned opposition at a national level, Stockdale admitted that he had ‘no faith in the Parliamentary Labour Party’. Neither do we.

The 1996 exemptions

There may be over 750 tenants in the city who have been forced to pay the bedroom tax despite being exempt – Newcastle has yet to release the numbers. What is clear is that the 279 Newcastle tenants who had been forced from their homes by the bedroom tax up to last October, and the many more since, will have a substantial case for damages from the council and the DWP if they were in fact exempt. One such tenant, campaigning with FRFI, told us that ‘If other tenants knew about this, there would be a lot more people trying to stay where they are, and sue the DWP.’

Campaigners in Newcastle are confident they will win with proper organisation amongst those affected. As Anthony Morrow, a Byker tenant, told FRFI: ‘Everybody needs to fight back against this evil cut, because the government and the Labour Party are getting away with it too easily. It is against the working class, the disabled. When we stand against them, the wall comes up and we can smash it down.’ (See p15 for Newcastle events against the bedroom tax.)

James Bell

Fighting the bedroom tax - Loophole gives hope to tenants

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 237 February/March 2014

The revelation that possibly 15% of all tenants forced to pay the bedroom tax are in fact exempt because of a legal error must give hope to those fighting this vicious attack on the working class.

Described in the media as a ‘loophole’, it is in fact down to the criminal incompetence of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) who ignored clauses in housing benefit regulations set out in 2006. This error means that any tenant who has been on housing benefit since before 1 January 1996 and who has been occupying the same house over that period is exempt from paying the bedroom tax.

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War on the working class and another irrelevant election

The recent byelection in my home district of Wythenshawe and Sale East in South Manchester, was won easily by the pro-cuts, pro-war Labour Party following the death of its MP Paul Goggins on 7 January. In the runup, FRFI received messages and phonecalls from friends, worried about the supposed threat carried by BNP and UKIP racists, electioneering in Wythenshawe civic centre, as their leaders Nick Griffin and Nigel Farrage came to spew out their lines about Islamic 'terrorism' and EU bogeymen. But in a 'safe seat' for Labour, Mike Kane won with 55% of the vote. The more seasoned racists won easily. Immediately, bourgeois political discussion focused on UKIP beating the Tories into second place. The turnout was 28%. The real discussion should be about why the vast majority of people in this poverty-stricken, working class area refused to vote.

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Home care workers: marginalised and exploited / FRFI 236 Dec 2013/Jan 2014

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 236 December 2013/January 2014

Need replaced by ability to pay

As statutory care provision is reduced to the barest minimum, private companies have stepped in. Quality of care, and working conditions for staff who provide it, are driven down as companies compete for contracts and maximise profits. Those who can pay for care are increasingly divided from those who cannot. The hundreds of thousands of working class people who rely on affordable care and those on the front-line of provision are caught up in a race to the bottom.

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Focus E15 Mothers - ‘No room at the inn’ says Newham Labour council / FRFI 236 Dec 2013/Jan 2014

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 236 December 2013/January 2014

On 6 November 2013 young mothers in the Focus E15 Foyer in Stratford, east London, received a letter telling them that funding withdrawn by Newham council was being reinstated, while the council carries out an ‘impact assessment’. This is a significant victory for the women’s fight to secure social housing and oppose social cleansing. Further battles now lie ahead.

The Focus E15 Mothers Campaign was set up at the end of September, after supporters of East London RCG/FRFI met a group of young women who were facing eviction from the mother-and-baby unit at Focus E15 Foyer in Stratford, Newham. The mothers and mothers-to-be had been told that they must leave their homes by 20 October and that their only prospect of obtaining permanent housing was to move out of London, far from their family and support networks. They had decided that they would not be intimidated and would stand together and fight to get social housing in east London.

The E15 Foyer is run by East Thames Housing Association and houses over 200 young people. Support for the mothers living there is provided by Newham council through the Supporting People funding stream. In August the residents were told that this funding (£41,000 annually – a drop in the ocean to the council) was being removed. This prompted East Thames to issue eviction notices. The council and the housing association blamed one another, both saying that there was nothing they could do and that the young mothers should take up offers to be housed in Hastings, Manchester or Birmingham.

RCG/FRFI saw the importance of fighting this attack, and with our organisational experience, resources, and politics, we helped build an organised and uncompromising campaign. The campaign has been active on all fronts, from weekly street events – including petitioning, leafleting, speeches, poetry and singing – to securing legal representation to challenge the council’s and housing association’s decisions. The young mothers and their supporters have lobbied the local MP, councillors and the mayor. They have been interviewed in The Guardian and Newham Recorder, on BBC, ITV, and Press TV, on Radio 1, LBC and NuSound radio – and still the interview requests are coming in.

Newham’s Labour politicians have behaved in a deplorable and anti-working class manner. Local councillor Terry Paul initially claimed to know nothing about the case and subsequently refused to do anything to help, claiming that his hands were completely tied by Tory cuts, and gave the young women just three options for staying in Newham: rent privately, buy a house or wait on the council house list for up to 14 years for two-bedroom accommodation.

On 23 November, some of the mothers, relatives and supporters went to the surgery of Newham’s Labour mayor and council leader, Sir Robin Wales. He was dismissive to the point of rudeness, showed no interest in hearing the mothers’ stories and made it clear that he sees no place in Newham for the poor or vulnerable.

As for national politicians, the local Labour MP Lyn Brown made sympathetic noises but said she could do nothing and referred the women back to Terry Paul.

Housing officers at the council have also been unhelpful, difficult to contact, bullying and inconsistent. In one instance a housing worker offered a young mother a two-bedroom private rented flat, only to take it back within half an hour, saying it was no longer available. On the day that the campaign was on the front page of the local paper, Chris Woodhead from East Thames arrived at the foyer, claiming that the eviction notices which the housing association had served weren’t really eviction notices but a helping hand in the process of moving the women on.

Jasmin Stone, one of the leading young mothers in the campaign, told FRFI:

‘Mothers of Focus E15 are still fighting to stay in London. We are still strong and will not give up. Newham council and East Thames have continually blamed each other for what is happening and failed to take responsibility. Sir Robin Wales was very negative; the meeting with him felt rushed and we had much more to say. This situation is very hard to deal with. The thought of being sent away from family feels like a prison sentence. We are keeping positive and aim to get heard. We have succeeded in extending our eviction notice and have been told we should all be rehoused by March; however we need to make sure we are rehoused in London. We have also been given back our key workers so this shows how powerful we can be if we all work together. That is why we are calling for any help and support with our campaign. We have been doing a street stall every Saturday outside Wilkinson’s on Stratford Broadway to raise awareness and support. We have nearly 2,000 signatures on our petition. We thank everyone for the support and hope many more will join and help us win!’

The campaign is demanding that the women and children are rehoused in social housing in east London and is stepping up the pressure on East Thames Housing Association which manages over 7,500 properties in east London and Essex. Private-rented accommodation is not a realistic option, as it is insecure, and requires impossible deposits. In addition, many landlords won’t accept the bond scheme, or refuse people on benefits especially since the introduction of the benefit cap.

Newham has the highest housing overcrowding rate in the country at 25% and the third highest child poverty rates in London. The Labour council has been exporting its vulnerable residents for years; prior to the 2012 Olympics, it attempted to move 500 families claiming housing benefit to Stoke-on-Trent.

At the same time Newham council seems to have plenty of money to spend on itself. In 2009 it spent £111m on offices which it is already considering moving out of after only four years. The council’s Chief Executive, Kim Bromley-Derry, receives an annual salary of £195,000.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! continues to support this vital campaign. A victory for the Focus E15 Mothers will be a victory for all those campaigning against the attacks on working class people in austerity Britain. The fight is on and we will win!

Find the online petition and details of campaign events here: http://goo.gl/BVGWoB

Hannah Caller and Martha Scott

More Articles ...

  1. No option but resistance / FRFI 236 Dec 2013/Jan 2014
  2. Newcastle Labour Council cuts: 8 million more reasons to break with Labour and build a new movement
  3. Fighting the bedroom tax in south London/FRFI 235 Oct/Nov 2013
  4. No to Newham’s social cleansing Defend the Focus E15 Mothers!/FRFI 235 Oct/Nov 2013
  5. Organise to fight the cuts!/FRFI 235 Oct/Nov 2013
  6. Axe the bedroom tax Can’t pay – won’t pay!/FRFI 235 Oct/Nov 2013
  7. Atos fails the test /FRFI 234 Aug/Sep 2013
  8. Benefit cuts - No refuge from violence /FRFI 234 Aug/Sep 2013
  9. Newcastle: Building resistance to the bedroom tax/FRFI 234 Aug/Sep 2013
  10. Overall benefit cap is social cleansing/FRFI 234 Aug/Sep 2013
  11. Tories dismantle welfare benefits - Labour promises the same
  12. Lessons of the Poll Tax/ FRFI 233 Jun/Jul 2013
  13. Fighting the Bedroom Tax in Newcastle: building resistance/ FRFI 233 Jun/Jul 2013
  14. Build resistance - Fight the cuts/ FRFI 233 Jun/Jul 2013
  15. Defend the Counihans! Fight evictions in Brent!/ FRFI 233 Jun/Jul 2013
  16. Attacking benefits and telling lies/ FRFI 233 Jun/Jul 2013
  17. Glasgow stands firm against ATOS/ FRFI 233 Jun/Jul 2013
  18. Fight library privatisation in Birmingham
  19. Wythenshawe opposes the bedroom tax /FRFI 232 Apr/May 2013
  20. Glasgow: Police ratchet up repression /FRFI 232 Apr/May 2013
  21. No ifs, no buts – PCS leaders collaborate with cuts /FRFI 232 Apr/May 2013
  22. Newcastle: Labour attacks protesters /FRFI 232 Apr/May 2013
  23. Camden: A London for the rich /FRFI 232 Apr/May 2013
  24. Manchester: Labour cuts and growing resistance /FRFI 232 Apr/May 2013
  25. Smash the Bedroom Tax - Cut the Bloated Bankers /FRFI 232 Apr/May 2013