Axe the bedroom tax Can’t pay – won’t pay!/FRFI 235 Oct/Nov 2013

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 235 October/November 2013

After months of prevarication, the Labour Party finally agreed at its September conference to repeal the bedroom tax if it is elected in 2015. Labour had held back for two reasons: first, because it wants to be seen as financially responsible, and second, because it needs to win back the electoral support of the middle class and better-off sections of the working class, the majority of whom think that welfare benefits are too generous. However, the bedroom tax is now completely discredited, with constant revelations about the appalling impact it has on the poorest sections of the working class, and especially on disabled people. This was underlined by opinion polls which in mid-September showed 60% support for abolition. Labour had no excuse for further delay. ROBERT CLOUGH reports.

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Atos fails the test /FRFI 234 Aug/Sep 2013

On 22 July the Minister for Welfare Reform Lord Freud announced that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) had decided to change its approach to contracting for the work capability assessment (WCA) in order to ‘ensure that it is as responsive to the needs of claimants as possible’. He stated that the quality of written reports which Atos produces following assessments and which are then used as part of the decision-making process on benefit entitlement had fallen in quality, and that this was ‘contractually unacceptable’.

The mainstream press welcomed this announcement as a sign that the government was planning to improve the system for claimants. Of the isolated voices which pointed out the futility of the proposal to bring in ‘new providers to implement a flawed test’, such as The Guardian’s Sue Marsh (23 July), opposition was limited to the advice that ‘only allowing healthcare professionals the time and space to do the job properly, with suitable descriptors, will improve the accuracy of assessments’. This appeal to the government – on the basis that it is unaware of the consequences of its policies – ignores its determination to deny benefits to those who need them most, regardless of whether they are ‘fit for work’ or not. The WCA serves this purpose and so it will remain in place, if not in name then in structure.

The misery which has been imposed on sick and disabled people subject to repeated WCA assessments, rulings and appeals (on average 40% of claimants found ‘fit for work’ win their appeals) is no accident. The ruling class is testing the ground to see how far it can go in cutting benefits before coming up against determined opposition. The refusal of the trade unions to take action in solidarity with claimants, which would force them into conflict with the government and the Labour Party, further isolates sick and disabled people, making them a target for yet more cuts and encouraging the ruling class to expand its attack on benefits to wider sections of the population.

It was the Labour government which introduced Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) as a replacement for incapacity benefit and hired Atos, a multinational IT company, on a five-year contract worth £500m, to carry out WCAs in order to force claimants on to ESA. The ConDem Coalition has extended Atos’s contract and awarded it three further five-year contracts worth £400m to carry out assessments for the new Personal Independence Payment (PIPs) which is replacing Disability Living Allowance (DLA). That Atos has sponsored both the 2012 Paralympic Games in London and the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow demonstrates the contempt both the British government and Scottish Parliament have for the rights and dignity of the disabled people these games claim to champion.

FRFI supporters in Glasgow have been working with the Glasgow Against Atos campaign (GAA) against the WCA and Atos. The campaign demands the scrapping of WCA and that Atos is dropped as sponsors of the Commonwealth Games.

Recent GAA actions have included an anniversary demonstration on 28 June and an occupation of the 2014 Commonwealth Games velodrome, alongside supporters of the Citizens United and the Black Triangle disability rights campaign. This action (pictured above) received national media coverage and led to a suspension of tours of the multimillion pound cycling track, which had been built in one of Glasgow’s most deprived neighbourhoods.

Dominic O’Hara

Building an open and democratic campaign against Atos

Glasgow Against Atos (GAA) was set up in 2012 by a diverse range of individuals and organisations. FRFI supporters were active from the start and were among those who set down the group’s founding principles, which stipulated that the campaign should be open and democratic, that all participating groups should be able to bring their banners and literature to events, and that everyone could have their say on the progress of the campaign. As we know from years of campaigning, it is only through this inclusiveness and lack of censorship that strong, unified movements can be built.

Although initially everyone was in agreement about this method of organising, some individuals grew increasingly hostile towards the involvement of political groups and sought to keep its message within very narrow boundaries. As FRFI supporters have been among the most vocal both in calling for an open campaign and in linking the fight against Atos to other attacks on the working class, it was our comrades who have come in for the most vitriolic criticism. We have responded to these attacks by issuing two statements (see http://tinyurl.com/qzsdl5y and http://tinyurl.com/pd76dtj) and are continuing to work in GAA alongside Citizens United and Black Triangle campaign supporters, in solidarity with all those under attack from the ConDem British government and its apologists in the Scottish parliament and local government.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 234 August/September 2013

Benefit cuts - No refuge from violence /FRFI 234 Aug/Sep 2013

Domestic violence refuges for women are already at crisis point following the slashing of local authority grants. This has made them increasingly dependent on their other main source of revenue, housing benefit. This funding is now seriously jeopardised by the introduction of the overall benefit cap and universal credit. Whilst women are already bearing the brunt of the cuts, vulnerable women are set to lose yet again, and lose vital, life-saving services.

On a typical day, 230 women were turned away by Women’s Aid because of a lack of space in 2011; this number is set to increase. Services are closing, or they are forced to limit their support. Overall, domestic violence and sexual abuse support services have been cut by over 31% since 2010. For example, Eaves, a service for women who have experienced violence, lost 72% of bed spaces, despite demand increasing by 50%. Refuge workers at times have been reduced to suggesting women take refuge on night buses, in churches or A&E departments.

Domestic violence services have been providing support for women and their children since the early 1970s. They were established by women determined to expose domestic abuse at a time when violence taking place in the home was considered a private matter. Services have had to battle to stay open, relying on volunteers, activists and insecure funding. Refuge, a national domestic violence charity, receives no public subsidy: children make up the largest group dependent on its services. Services provide not only emergency, temporary bed spaces, but help-lines, counselling, specialist support and legal advice. One in four women experiences domestic violence. Two women a week are killed by current or former partners. Now an already embattled service is further threatened by changes to benefits, especially the overall benefit cap and universal credit.

Housing benefit is vital to the services, which collect relatively high rents because of the support offered. The provision of white goods and children’s play areas are often charged in with the rent, a mixture of service charge and housing benefit, to provide the basics to women who have fled with nothing. Refuge warned they could lose all of their services, which are currently accessed by around 2,800 women on an average day.

Mass lobbying led to certain supported housing providers being exempted from some changes, for example housing benefit being disregarded from the overall benefit cap to allow women to claim for higher rents. However, many services do not meet the exemption criteria – meaning women will still be fully subject to the cap. In addition, many women pay two rents, for the refuge they are living in and for the home they have fled. On 4 April Lord Freud, Minister for Welfare Reform, told worried refuge agencies that it would not be possible to put a solution in place by the time the benefit cap was rolled out, but that they were looking to find a solution ‘without increasing current spend’.

Universal credit brings another major issue for vulnerable women: it will be paid into one bank account for a couple, which limits women’s economic independence and may hand control of household finances to violent partners.

The bedroom tax has left at least one woman I have met unable to move out of a refuge because there are no one-bed flats and she can’t afford the additional rent. Another woman told me how she was forced to move out of a safe house, where she had been placed away from an abusive partner, because she cannot afford it. A woman in a similar position, who has reinforced windows, doors and a safe space in the house, is taking the government to court over the bedroom tax which threatens to expose her to danger from her partner: ‘If I have to move out I’ve been told I won’t get the security put into another property. The father of my son has threatened to kill me.’ Women fleeing domestic violence often need to move out from their local area, away from their abuser – as councils prioritise people with a ‘local connection’ their needs will not be met.

And in an additional vicious swipe at vulnerable women, in July, Conservative ministers proposed that teenage mothers should not receive housing benefit but should live with their parents or in a hostel: ‘Teenagers will be left in no doubt that teenage motherhood will not lead to an automatic right to subsidised housing and other benefits, while the general public can be assured that a teenager’s motivations for having a child are not related to housing access.’

Rachel Francis

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 234 August/September 2013

Newcastle: Building resistance to the bedroom tax/FRFI 234 Aug/Sep 2013

YHN hear us say! Can’t pay! Won’t pay!

On 25 July, local residents including FRFI supporters protested against letters threatening eviction sent out by Your Homes Newcastle (YHN), the arm’s length management organisation that manages the council housing stock. Protesters picketed the YHN ‘Working it out’ day in St James Park football stadium and staged a banner drop. The YHN event was targeted at tenants who have fallen into arrears and promised that ‘our staff along with many other organisations will be on hand to give you advice on how they can help and the support that is on offer. This isn’t just an information event, you will find out how to save money, learn about job opportunities.’

Inside, YHN offered face painting stalls, guidance on how to eat healthily on a budget, and free condoms. A fine display from the same landlord that has been issuing ‘Notice of Seeking Possession’ letters for rent arrears as low as £70, an act of intimidation designed to frighten tenants into paying up rather than feeding themselves. Opposing this harassment, Newbiggin Hall Action Group and East End against the Bedroom Tax have picketed local customer service centres, handed in letters of complaint and also letters of appeal against the council’s unlawful decisions on bedroom tax liability.

For many residents, paying the bedroom tax simply is not an option. As Alison, an activist with the Newbiggin Hall Action Group, explained:

‘I work part-time, 25 hours a week as my husband used to have a full-time job until his accident. Now he can’t get a job or benefits (he is a scaffolder and has been for 40 years) and it’s not through the lack of trying either. This means I have to keep him now on my small wages of £160 a week. If I include the full bedroom tax we are left with just over £5 between us for food and everything else. This is why I have been unable to pay, as £5 a week is not enough for two people to feed themselves on. We have paid over £100,000 in rent during our time as council tenants and well over £20,000 for rates for a home which can be taken off us without any help.’

In fact, as many are unable and unwilling to pay the bedroom tax, Tyne Tees News has reported that local councils are now owed more than £500,000 in unpaid rent. In implementing the bedroom tax on top of council tax benefit cuts and £100m in local service cuts, Labour-led Newcastle council has shown no qualms in attacking the living conditions of many working class people across the city. A campaign of non-payment and local work supporting residents to appeal against the bedroom tax could make the bedroom tax unworkable.’

Smash the bedroom tax!

Sam McGill

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 234 August/September 2013

Overall benefit cap is social cleansing/FRFI 234 Aug/Sep 2013

The Overall Benefit Cap (OBC) came into effect on 15 July. It places a ceiling on the total working-age benefits a household can receive. The cap has been set at £500 per week for a couple, regardless of how many children they may have, and £350 per week for a childless single person. If total benefits exceed the cap, money will be taken off any housing benefit the household receives. The cap does not affect pensioners, or families in receipt of disability benefits, or if one adult is working more than 24 hours a week (16 hours for a single person). The government presents it as a matter of fairness, saying that families of the unemployed should not receive more than the average wage. This is a sleight of hand: the average wage is for an individual, not for a household. In fact, the cap will result in the possible eviction of tens of thousands of people, overwhelmingly children, some within a matter of weeks. MARTHA SCOTT explains.

The average loss for affected households is estimated at £93 per week – this will be a net deduction from housing benefit. Although the Depart­ment of Work and Pensions claims only 40,000 families will be affected, unofficial estimates put the figure at over 80,000. More will be added as the number of unemployed swells in the future and as private rents continue to rise. 47% of the affected families live in London, and nationally 46% live in social housing.

As an example of how the OBC works, a couple with three children can receive up to £327.05 per week in benefits before housing is considered. This means the maximum that would be paid in housing benefit or local housing allowance is £172.95 per week (£500 less £327.05). So such a couple living in three-bedroomed accommodation in inner London, al-though nominally entitled to local housing allowance of £347.88 per week to cover the rent, will now only receive half of it. This means that they will face eviction under the ‘Ground 8’ rule within 16 weeks unless they find the means to pay it. A couple with five children receiving £458.47 per week in welfare benefits will get just £41.53 per week in housing benefit. If they live in a four-bed council house in the lowest cost rent area, paying £100 per week in rent, they will have to find nearly £60 per week. If however they live in private accommodation in inner London, they will have to find £360 a week (see speye.wordpress.com).

The larger the family, therefore, the sooner they will face eviction, and the majority of those involved will be children. The cap will make it impossible for unemployed people or their families to live in London. It will represent a terrible threat to those who are in insecure employment, or those who cannot work the minimum hours to escape the cap. Anyone losing their job in London will face the prospect of having to move out of the city. Brent Council admits that it has procured properties for evicted families in Luton and Hertfordshire; Camden Council is planning to move 761 poor families out of the capital. This is social cleansing.

The Labour Party supports the benefit cap, criticising it only for not being stringent enough. Labour Sha­dow Secretary for Work and Pensions Liam Byrne says that ‘ministers have bodged the rules so the cap won’t affect Britain’s 4,000 largest families and it does nothing to stop people living a life on welfare.’ 4,000 is a tiny proportion of all families receiving benefits yet Byrne uses them as a rod to beat all claimants. In his determination to be seen as hard on those he calls ‘shirkers’ he echoes the most vindictive and hate-filled attitudes of the tabloid press towards the poor.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 234 August/September 2013