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Bedroom Tax: make Labour pledge ‘no evictions’

By an activist in Armley Hands off our Homes

The Bedroom tax came into effect on 1 April, cutting the housing benefit of a working age social tenant (council-owned or housing association) by 14% if they are deemed to have one more bedroom than they need, and by 25% if they are deemed to have two or more spare bedrooms.

But nowhere are there enough single bedroom properties available to move into, thanks to three decades of failure to build new council homes. As a result there are scores if not hundreds of potentially affected people to every single bedroom property available.

Nearly a million households across the country are on council waiting lists for single bedroom properties. In Leeds at one point there were forty such properties for 9000 affected, and the same figures apply everywhere – there’s nowhere to move even if people were willing to leave their homes.

Benefit cuts mean private profit

Of course the Tories are happy to force people into the private sector where they face higher rents, substandard overcrowded properties and dodgy landlords – who the taxpayer will then subsidise with higher housing benefit. The bedroom tax is a clear attack on social housing since it only applies to this sector not private tenants receiving housing benefits – so you might as well leave your council house and go private, rather than see your benefits slashed.

So it isn’t just an ideological attack on those relying on benefits, it also is a big gift to private landlords. On the 5 March the Mirror newspaper exposed that one third of council housing bought by tenants in the 1980s under Thatcher’s right to buy scheme are now in the hands of private landlords, including big Tory millionaire tycoons like Charles Gow, son of Thatcher’s housing minister, and his wife who own at least 40 ex-council flats on one South London estate. Many others are owned by holding firms based in offshore tax havens. They are the ultimate beneficiaries from the bedroom tax and other attacks on council homes, like a renewed drive to flog them off to tenants at bargain basement prices, and further degrade the sector. The National Housing Federation says the housing benefit bill could go up by £143 million.

Enter Labour

Already thousands are going into arrears, sparking unusually large and angry demonstrations like the one in Leeds on 20 April of over 1000 protestors, and growing organisation, exemplified by the launch of a Scottish anti-bedroom tax federation on the 27 April.

In a classic case of waiting to see which way the wind was blowing it took Ed Miliband over three weeks to pledge to scrap it – time for growing anti-bedroom tax campaigns to worry Labour’s May local election planners.

The delay was a bit hypocritical too, since Labour’s official website as early as 2 April stated “Labour calls on councils to vote in opposition to bedroom tax”. It quoted a statement by Hilary Benn MP, Labour’s Shadow Local Government Secretary and Leeds Central MP, aimed at councilors specifically, arguing “let’s stand up against this unfair policy which has not been properly thought-out.”

What a contrast to Labour councils across the land – including Leeds – threatening to evict nonpayers and sending out intimidating letters every week to those falling into arrears!

SNP and Greens pledge no evictions, sort of

To Labour’s shame, not only are its actions lagging behind its own words, they’re lagging behind the Greens and “Tartan Tories” in Scotland.

In Dundee, where tenants affected would lose on average £600 a year, the SNP council on 11 March voted on a policy of no evictions (for one year) while Green councillors in Brighton a few days later pledged there would be no evictions – which provoked criticisms by the leading Labour councillor – but was confirmed by the 9 May council meeting.

On 23 March Alex Salmond announced at the SNP Spring Conference that councillors from the nine SNP-led authorities would follow the Dundee policy of no evictions. However nationally SNP leaders have refused Labour’s calls to make them change the law to make it illegal for any local authority to evict tenants affected by the bedroom tax, leaving it down to local councils.

The Labour-led Fife council (6300 affected) in late March also pledged no evictions; however it has since blocked proposals from the SNP opposition to give a stronger commitment on no evictions.

The Labour–SNP Edinburgh council followed suit on 16 April, where 4,000 council tenants and a similar number of housing association tenants are affected. The Labour Glasgow council, with 15,600 affected, has given no such assurances, despite a 5000-strong demo at the end of March.

Even where anti-eviction policies have been passed, they are only a temporary halfway house with conditions attached in the small print beneath the headlines.  The SNP council guarantees are for the next year only, to see them through the current wave of protests. Eviction guarantees only kick in if people are “genuinely in need of support” and have done “all they reasonably can” or tenants don’t turn down offers of alternative support, for instance refusing to move.

This is a divide and rule policy, it could see political campaigners who refuse to pay the tax are targeted for eviction while the “good” tenants who just can’t pay are temporarily helped out.

And even the “good” tenants won’t be safe if they can’t pay. The SNP and Brighton policy, saying using all “legitimate” means other than eviction means weekly threatening letters, pushy visits from housing officers, requests for meetings where you will be bullied into coming to a financial agreement. These “anti-eviction policies” are just a tactic to defuse the resistance to the bedroom tax, using the carrot and stick to push tenants to pay, and isolate the campaigns.

And with 2013 the year that 80 percent of the Tory cuts occur with a sea change in welfare – council housing benefit cuts, benefit cap, universal credit in Autumn, etc. – it will be hard for tenants to prove they have fallen into arrears as a result of the penalty or because of other cuts, as the sector magazine Inside Housing (25 March) has noted.

Hard Labour

Generally in England, even where they have reacted, Labour Councils have been even less forthcoming with promises than the SNP.  The great majority have refused to give no eviction pledges, with Islington one supposed exception.

The most that some have done is to regrade a minority of properties or set up hardship funds – for those who show they are not simply refusing to pay for political reasons. The Labour-controlled Nottingham council have reclassified a thousand two-bedroom flats in high-rise tower blocks as one bedroom so they avoid the charge, and Leeds councillors have floated the idea of doing the same for 865 properties – though this is a drop in the ocean compared to 9000 affected in Leeds alone. They will be under pressure to keep such measures token as fewer bedrooms in a home means lower rents and less money for councils. In some cases residences are merely regraded from two extra bedrooms down to one, so the tenant still gets stung by the bedroom tax. As Helen Williams of the National Housing Federation says “reclassification is not a long-term viable solution for this unfair policy.”

Doncaster council has created a temporary hardship fund for its 3500 affected tenants who will collectively face paying £2.1 million more in rent this year – but only “where tenants will work with us on a sustainable solution. If tenants do not engage with us, we will use the existing rent arrears policy to deal with the debt” i.e. eviction. In Darlington the message is the same, as one councilor stated: “We can find ways round helping people, but if they ignore it there’s very little we can do. For those who can pay, but simply won’t, there’s nothing we can do to help them further down the line. Those in genuine hardship must talk to us.”

Even Islington’s pledge is partial. At a meeting of the Islington Hands off our Public Services (iHoops) campaign group, the Labour Town Hall treasurer Richard Greening promised not to evict anyone who falls victim to the “tax” if they had no alternative place to go, but wouldn’t give a categorical pledge that there would be no evictions.

From the report of the meeting on the iHoops website, one audience member said to Greening: “They’re asking people to move out of their homes when fat cats have dozens of rooms. I say to the council, we want to fight to defend our welfare state and if you want to stand with us, you’ve got to say you won’t implement the cuts. You’ve got to put your money where your mouth is and say no evictions.”

Absolutely right! Greening’s reply: “You are absolutely correct to demand no evictions, we understand that, but we also have to find money to keep public services running. I’m not going to give you the answer you want. But I’m going to say that we’re with you in campaigning against this tax.” We have to campaign till they do give us the answer we want!

No divide and rule: no evictions pledge, no exceptions!

Nigel Minto, from umbrella body London Councils, said “no London borough would be likely to give a categorical no eviction pledge”, and the same has proven true of the Scottish councils that have said they will not evict. Even in Brighton, the Greens are a minority on the council and hardly a strong guarantee of no evictions, considering the other cuts they have made to council services and bin workers’ pay – the only guarantee is a mass non-payment campaign that forces them to avoid evictions.

In Leeds three or four local union branches have passed motions demanding a no evictions policy, which have gone on to be debated at local CLPs and now will go to the District Labour Party to debate in the coming weeks. Even then that is no guarantee that councillors would be bound by such a policy.

Armley Hands Off our Homes has decided to lobby our local councillors, and produced a pledge for each one to sign so it’s crystal clear that their position is ‘no evictions without exceptions’. We should use it to name and shame every Labour councillor and MP who won’t pledge to defend their tenants, the great majority of who will have voted Labour.

Putting pressure on Labour to act is important – most people in the working class community voted for them – but it is not enough. We need to root our campaigns on the estates and streets hit hardest by the bedroom tax. We need to build up community organisation to resist evictions and bailiffs, just as many communities did during the poll tax.

The poll tax affected everyone and millions refused to pay. We are not in as strong a position but everywhere we have gone we have leafleted we have met with almost unanimous support. We will be much stronger if we can tap and help organise the widespread anti-Tory feelings and deep anger against the cuts. Our campaign will be miles ahead if we have a mass anti-cuts movement alongside, using the opening of the People’s Assembly as the launchpad for a national anti-cuts federation.

A national movement would allow us to develop active solidarity from those not affected by the bedroom tax, besides widening the struggle to defend all the things we all need – health, education, pensions, services, housing.

The Left Unity initiative means we can organise a new party that will fight consistently against every cut, aim to turf out the Tories and link this to the struggle for Socialism.

In Leeds the Trades Council is preparing to mobilise for the People’s Assembly, and Left Unity will have its launch meeting on 22 May.

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