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Bedroom Tax Campaigners in Newcastle Place Demands on the Council - 2 October 2013

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 On 2 October, campaigners against the bedroom tax in Newcastle including FRFI supporters marched on the city’s Civic Centre where the monthly meeting of the full council was being held. We had collected over 3,500 signatures on a petition which allowed us to give a five-minute address to the council meeting. This is what we said:

Up and down the country benefit tribunals are ruling in favour of appellants and against the way councils have implemented the bedroom tax. They are saying councils could not make reliable bedroom tax decisions using a blanket approach.

This is what we have to conclude from the judgements in Fife, Westminster and Glasgow. There can be no reliable bedroom tax decision outside of a consideration of the facts of each individual case. There can be no reliable decision without a definition of what a bedroom is, and what it is not. Each benefit tribunal has overturned council decisions because the way that councils went about making bedroom tax decisions was defective: they all adopted a blanket approach and handed the decisions over to landlords. Newcastle Council is no different. Let me be clear: it is not up to Your Homes Newcastle to make decisions about bedroom tax liability; it is up to the Council’s Housing Benefit department looking at each individual case.

Every bedroom tax decision that Newcastle Council has made is unreliable. Each and every one of them can and must be appealed. Grounds will include: size and usable space of individual rooms; purpose and usage of such rooms at the time the decision was made; human rights. Responsibility for this situation lies with council officials who failed to consider existing legislation and abandoned responsibility that was in fact theirs.

Responsibility also lies with councillors who failed to scrutinise and audit Council policy and procedures. The email from Joyce McCarty [Labour Deputy Leader of the Council] shows that she does not understand what the three tribunals are saying: that it is the fact of each individual case that matters, not the landlords’ say-so. In simple terms, how can Newcastle Council decide if a tenant has too many bedrooms if it refuses to define what a bedroom is?  Ms McCarty, answer that!

Ms McCarty says ‘The DWP have confirmed that it is the responsibility of landlords not Council benefit departments to assess what is a bedroom.’ This is a reference to DWP’s U6/2013 possibly the most obtuse guidance a government department has ever issued.

Obtuse? Look at Para 5: a room is a bedroom ‘if it is large enough to accommodate at least a single bed.’ Literally, it need be no more than 15 sq ft, the size of a single bed.

Para 5: it is the landlord who defines the size of a bedroom. How does this square, Ms McCarty, with A6/2012 para 20 which is quite clear: for new claims from 1 April 2013, ‘we would normally expect claimants to provide the information about property size on their claim form.’

So which is it Ms McCarty? The landlord or the claimant? If you want to follow this mish-mash of guidance, that is your choice. But the consequence of your decisions so far has been misery for thousands of Newcastle tenants.

We say the council has a chance to rectify the problem by adopting and working through the resolution [a model resolution we had submitted earlier based on existing benefit tribunal judgments]. If you do not do so, how many more benefit tribunal rulings will have to be made. 10? 20? 50? We say face up to your responsibilities and adopt the resolution!’

Despite benefit tribunal rulings in Fife, Westminster and Glasgow which clearly showed that Newcastle Council could take action to alleviate the impact of the bedroom tax for thousands of tenants if it wished to, the Council refused. All that Labour Council leader Nick Forbes would offer was a meaningless statement that the council is ‘doing all that it can’ and that it has already ‘voted to oppose the bedroom tax’. Labour Party opposition to the bedroom tax is a fiction, Forbes’ claim that he ‘has been leading the anti-bedroom tax campaign in Newcastle’ will ring hollow in the ears of any tenant affected.

The decision of Newcastle Council is simple: it will pass the petitions to central government. In short, it will do nothing. After heckling this decision, we were ejected from the meeting. Newcastle Council, and Labour councils across the whole country have made their stance clear. They are not out allies. They will do nothing practical to fight the bedroom tax. The time to organise a real alternative is now.

Smash the Bedroom Tax!

James Bell.