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Residents hit by the bedroom tax banned from meeting with Newcastle Council’s Housing Benefit department

This is an important update on the campaign against the bedroom tax in Newcastle. For the previous report see: index.php/reports/north-east-reports/3272-newcastle-residents-fight-back-against-the-bedroom-tax

Supporters of Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! and residents of the East End of Newcastle, directly affected by the bedroom tax, sent a delegation and held a protest at Newcastle Civic Centre on 19 December.

The aim was to get a meeting with representatives of the council's Environmental Health and Housing Benefit departments to demand that Environmental Health inspect all properties affected by the bedroom tax to investigate for health and safety hazards caused by the classification of rooms with less than 70sqft useable floor space as bedroom, and that the Housing Benefit department reviews all bedroom tax decisions taking this information into account. The 2004 Housing Act states that a to be classed as a bedroom a room must have at least 70sqft usueable floor space, otherwise using the room as a bedroom mayconstitute a Category 1 Health and Safety Hazard. It is also clear that it is the duty of Environmental Health to measure room sizes when requested by tenants (at no cost to the tenant) irrespective of whether the property is council owned or housing association.

Campaigners did not think setting up a meeting would be an issue as the Labour Party claim to be opposed to the bedroom tax and Newcastle is run by a Labour council, whose leader Nick Forbes boldly stated at the full council meeting on 2 October 2013 that he is 'leading the campaign against the bedroom tax in Newcastle'. All the council needs to do is act within its rights as a council and the laws laid out before them and they could stop the bedroom tax for hundreds if not thousands of the 5,500 tenants in Newcastle affected. However, campaigners were told that a meeting with these departments was not possible on the day as they were not available and an appointment could not be booked as they were unable to coordinate their diaries!

Campaigners were told that a request for an appointment needed to be put in writing. This was done on the day and the 6 January given as the deadline for a response.

6 January passed without a peep from the council. The anti-bedroom tax group decided to approach councillors to see if they would help get a meeting. On 13 January they went to the surgery of LibDem councillor Gareth Kane, who represents the Ouseburn Ward, an area of the East End of Newcastle. He spoke to the council's Housing Benefit department to arrange the meeting. He was told that the Leader's Office, which is Nick Forbes’ office and classed as the political leadership of the council, have stated that such a meeting is 'not to happen'. Councillor Kane has since spoken to the Leader's Office to ask them to lift the ban and is waiting for a response.

Nick Forbes' office has banned housing benefit recipients from meeting with the council's Housing Benefit department! Nick Forbes has complete contempt for the poor; as far as he is concerned he is the king of Newcastle and his working class constituents are just a bunch of dirty rascals.

The campaign will continue to fight to secure a meeting and put forward their demands.

We will not take this lying down! Smash the bedroom tax! Reverse all bedroom tax decisions now!

For future events and what you can do to help the campaign see:

index.php/events/newcastle

Newcastle residents fight back against the Bedroom Tax - 19 December 2013

On 19 December, Newcastle residents protested against the Bedroom Tax, both inside and outside the Customer Service Centre in Newcastle City Centre. The protest, organised by residents from Byker and FRFI supporters, targeted Newcastle Labour Council’s unlawful implementation of the tax. As FRFI has reported, Newcastle Council have adopted a blanket approach and ignored the 1985 and 2004 Housing Acts when defining bedrooms. The 2004 Housing Act specifies that a room must be at least 70sqft if it is to be used as a bedroom. Otherwise, it is a category 1 health and safety hazard. Tenants brought letters requesting inspection by Environmental Health to the protest and demanded to speak to representatives from both the Environmental Health and Housing Benefit (HB) departments.

Upon entering the building, protesters were manhandled by council staff and told that they were not allowed to protest in the building. These employees continued to harass the demonstration for filming inside the building, and then called the police. Following this, a police officer attempted to seize one of the protester’s phones. The Labour Council claim they are opposed to the bedroom tax and that it will ‘continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those affected, and do all in our power to support everyone in Newcastle towards a better future’.

Despite these attempts to intimidate the demonstration, the activists remained in the building and continued to demand to speak to Environmental Health and HB representatives. Civic Centre manager, David Moffat, spoke to the protesters on behalf of the council. Initially, he promised protestors that they would be able to speak to representatives, stating, ‘You will be able to speak to a senior officer’. Moffat then told protestors that both departments were busy in meetings, but that they could wait until the building shut. When challenged on this, Moffat again changed his position, stating that ‘no-one will be able to see you today’ and that ‘you need to put it in writing’. After two hours demonstrating inside and outside the building, the protesters submitted a letter setting out their a meeting, together with several tenants' letters requesting inspections by Environmental Health. As stated in the letter, we expect a response by 6 January, otherwise we will return to demonstrate at the Civic Centre again, and will continue to do so until representatives of Environmental Health and the Housing Benefit Office meet with us.

This charade should be nothing new to tenants. Wherever local councils have been challenged on the Bedroom Tax, they have attempted to fetter their responsibility. Newcastle, as we have reported, is no different. Councils have many grounds on which they can challenge the Bedroom Tax and could alleviate the suffering of tenants if they so wished. On 6 December, Newcastle council upheld an appeal and reversed a Bedroom Tax decision, yet they continue to claim in other cases that they have no discretion over implementing the bedroom tax. Newcastle Labour council is forcing tenants into further poverty and misery because it chooses to do so. Tenants must continue to put pressure on their councils and should take inspiration from the multitude of victories seen across the country. Councils and the DWP are acting unlawfully. If we organise now, we can win.

Smash the Bedroom Tax!

James Bell and Nica Evans

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

 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.

Marching against the bedroom tax in Newcastle - 27 July 2013

On 27 July hundreds of people marched through Newcastle and held a militant rally to oppose the bedroom tax. FRFI provided a sound system and stewards for the event and an FRFI representative spoke on the platform. The rally was open and democratic, compered by a volunteer from the crowd who ensured that everybody who wished to speak was able to do so. Speaker after speaker denounced the devastating impact of the bedroom tax on working class communities. Unlike the previous rallies, this time no Labour MPs showed their faces: how could they, given Labour’s increasingly open hostility to the working class and support for austerity? Labour Councillor David Stockdale spoke and called for the Labour Party to reverse its policies, but this is sheer fantasy. As an individual who heckled Stockdale asked, if he opposes the cuts then why doesn’t he leave the Labour Party? The fact is that Stockdale’s opposition to the cuts doesn’t go beyond words, when he had the choice he voted for £100 million cuts to local services along with every other Newcastle Labour Councillor.

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Solidarity with the workers of Bangladesh! Demand Justice from Primark!

On the 24th April, the Rana Plaza complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed, killing hundreds of garment workers. Two weeks later, bodies were still being found amongst the rubble, bringing the death toll to over 1,050 and rising every day. The workers had been toiling in sweatshops to produce clothing for companies such as Primark and Matalan and Mango.

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