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How the bedroom tax is unfolding

Update Wednesday 8 May 2013:

We've had several calls from Sean and Maggie in the last two days. They've paid the first installment on their bedroom tax. Then yesterday, Maggie got a letter from the jobcentre saying that she is being moved from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance and will be called to an Atos assessment as a result.

Maggie has schizophrenia (there's more about this in the post below):

"I was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1997. It's hard to tell the difference between what's real or in my head with paranoid schizophrenia. Seeing things that aren't really there. Hearing voices in your head and things like that. Suspicious of what people are thinking. Not knowing what's real and what's not. I first had my breakdown when I was 21. I'm now on daily medication. I was sectioned in 1997.

I go out shopping, but I don't really like it. It is hard, going out. If you have schizophrenia, you see the world differently. You are very suspicious of people. So, it's hard when I go out, but I force myself, because I think if I don't go out, I'll feel isolated and I won't be able to cope with anything and deal with everyday life."

She's obviously concerned about the assessment and asked if it was true that people's benefits could "just be cut off." She wanted to know what she should do next. Her letter says that she'll be contacted about her assessment in a fortnight. In the last month, she and Sean have had bedroom tax demands (they have one "spare" room), a council tax demand (their tax used to be covered by council tax benefit) and now this letter. They're are struggling to do it all. This is Iain Duncan Smith's idea of a fairer society and forging a future, or whatever it is he's doing. Point worth noting: - more and more people are contacting us in the first instance with these issues. We're very happy to talk and will definitely keep doing so, but the whole thing is really underscoring the lack of support options out there for people.

Speaking of which: Since we last spoke to them, we've tried to make contact with Wellingborough Homes, Sean and Maggie's housing association, several times to ask board members whether they considered reclassifying homes to avoid the bedroom tax and whether they will consider  writing off arrears and/or not pursuing eviction on bedroom tax arrears. They talked to us several weeks ago for the first part of the article below, but haven't responded to our latest attempts to make contact. We'll keep trying until they do.

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Original post 21 April 2013:

This the first of several posts that we'll run and update about the experiences of people who are being told they must pay the bedroom tax. Very good protests and organisation aimed at stopping the tax continues, but with nothing like the media or political support of the March 16 protests. There were a number of bedroom tax protests around the country yesterday though and a lot more are planned. More than 1000 people turned out for a protest on Saturday in Leeds.

Which is hardly surprising, because the bedroom tax is happening right now. It's just a few weeks old and people are already getting calls and letters about paying the tax.

We're talking to a few of those people and we're going to follow their stories, to show how this tax unfolds in real life. What's the day-to-day experience for people on this? We're also ringing housing associations for details of their procedures for handling arrears and the action they plan to take if and when people struggle to pay this extra money. Will they ultimately look to evict if people find themselves permanently in arrears because of the bedroom tax? Looking down the road - what will happen if people just can't pay?

Let's start with Sean and Maggie (names changed), a couple in Northamptonshire. Sean and Maggie live in a small, two-bedroom housing association flat in a block. There have been there for 11 years. They've been a couple since 1997. They met in a residential, independent-living home.

Sean has Asperger's syndrome and Maggie has schizophrenia. They're on benefits, which means they're being attacked on all fronts. Atos calls Sean in to face-to-face assessments for employment support allowance that he finds very stressful and difficult to cope with (one of us attended his most recent assessment with him), they're liable for the bedroom tax, because they have a small second room in their home, they've been issued with a new council tax demand, because their council tax benefit will be cut from April, and they're worried about further cuts when the personal independence payment replaces disability living allowance.

It is not unusual for Sean to send emails which say: “I can't cope with any more. Why don't they give us a lethal injection to end our fucking misery?”

After his Atos assessment in December, Sean was placed into the ESA support group, which gave him some breathing space. But not much.

A few weeks ago, Sean got in touch to say that he and Maggie had "received the notice of the bedroom tax and they are giving us 30 days to appeal the spare room. I do very much plan to appeal. Our room is not “spare.” It is my study/hobby room and for storage. No one sleeps there. We also had a council tax notice demanding £77.88 when before it was covered with benefit. We need legal advice and a really strong fightback with appeals and legal challenge. They would have us on the street or in our grave at this rate. It is ruining our relationship and our very existence with this irrational inhuman attack on our lives.”

Then last Monday, Sean and Maggie made contact again. First thing that morning, they'd had a call from their housing association, Wellingborough Homes. They said the HA officer asked them why they hadn't paid the outstanding bedroom tax amount (for them, the tax is £11.21 a week) and asked when or if they'd be able to pay it. Apparently, the HA was trying to get people to pay up front to "prevent them from getting into arrears."

So we rang Wellingborough Homes. They had indeed made calls to people to remind them to pay the bedroom tax. They said that they'd identified about 700 people who were liable for the tax. They also said that people would have to pay it, as the HA simply did not have enough smaller flats for people to downsize to (they're apparently building more and increasing the borough's stock of flats to "address this issue” to an extent. We're getting some numbers to see how many homes will be built and how many are needed). That doesn't solve too many problems now, though. Right now, people are being told that they have to pay.

Wellingborough Homes, like other HAs, does take legal action to recover “outstanding rent" and that can mean eviction. WH said that whether it will mean evction will ultimately be a matter for the courts. WH said its aim was to try get people to work with advisors at their local free financial advice service before they got to that point. That means people would have to sit down with a money advisor and list and look at their outgoings and trying to work out where household savings might be made.

Time will tell how that pans out for people who still don't have the money if this tax is not overturned. We've asked to talk to WH board members next - WH told us that eviction for arrears is ultimately a matter for the courts. Suffice to say for now that this is a mess already. This appalling tax is just a fortnight old and people are already getting calls about parting with money that they don't have and/or opening their lives to money advisors to try and find ways that they might cut their already small budgets.

You can see from this heavy-handed proceedings letter (sent by a different HA to a tenant in another part of the country) the sort of court costs that people start facing even when they're in arrears for a very modest amount of money. It seems unlikely that people can afford those costs when they're already in rent arrears.

Sean and Maggie told us that they'll try and pay the tax, but they're not going to find it too easy, as you'll understand when you read their story below.

An afternoon discussing their history at Sean and Maggie's house:

Sean: I had [behavioural] problems from about the age of six. My symptoms were social issues - not playing well with others. I was very protective of my things. If someone snatched something away from me, I would react violently. We emigrated to America when I was a child.

I grew up in a small New England town which was very conservative. If you weren't like they were, you were seen as very much an outsider. I already had a strong English accent and I got picked on for that. I had a terrible stutter (what you call a stammer over here) and it took years of speech therapy to help correct that, but under stress it returns. They said I was lazy and stupid, because you know - with the Asperger's, I have dyslexia and dyspraxia and several other issues which just makes reading, writing and maths difficult as the letters move and dance around on the page and make it hard to focus.

I could not get the letters small case “d” and “b” right and I still have difficulties to even spell my name. "Ae" I got mixed as well. It was terrible for my education and life and they just said I was just stupid and lazy. My dad said the same - that I was stupid and lazy. When I was about 42, I was finally diagnosed with Asperger's. It was the condition that affects everything - your social life, your relationships, I've never had that many friends. I try to get along with people, but they have a hard time to understand me.

Maggie: It is incredibly isolating. I'd never tell the other people who live in these flats around here (about my schizophrenia), because I don't know how they are going to react. They would probably run a mile.

Sean: When I went to meet you from the train station, that was the first time I'd been out for a month.

Maggie: People abuse us.

Sean: We've had trouble with kids coming around here throwing rocks at the windows. It was endless calls to the police to end it.... as far as cuts, around five years ago, it was the Labour government that cut the groups for local mental health users, both support and social. It was nothing to write home about, just bingo, bottle drives and a fish and chip supper once a month, but it was something. That's now just a distant memory.

Maggie: I was born in Northampton and I've been in Wellingborough since 1980. I was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1997. It's hard to tell the difference between what's real or in my head with paranoid schizophrenia. Seeing things that aren't really there. Hearing voices in your head and things like that. Suspicious of what people are thinking. Not knowing what's real and what's not. I first had my breakdown when I was 21. I'm now on daily medication. I was sectioned in 1997.

I go out shopping, but I don't really like it. It is hard, going out. If you have schizophrenia, you see the world differently. You are very suspicious of people. So, it's hard when I go out, but I force myself, because I think if I don't go out, I'll feel isolated and I won't be able to cope with anything and deal with everyday life.

Sean: This country is dead. It's taken over by greedy, selfish and inhuman [people]. They removed us both from the local community mental health service, because they didn't have enough doctors, so they cut half the patient list. Mental health services have been decimated.

Maggie: We're actually supposed to have a nurse and a social worker. They don't even have enough doctors, let alone social workers.

Sean: There's a waiting list there and we'd have to go through it all over again. We are getting no support. I never get physical, but it is verbal, calling each other...

Maggie: You're more verbal than physical.

Sean: We'd like to be able to have a psychiatrist. But they said if things go wrong, just call the police. I'm not going to call the police on Maggie, because they called the police on her the first time round when she was sectioned.

Maggie: They treated me like a criminal (when I had my first breakdown). They put me in a cell and I freaked out quite a lot. They were sitting down with me and trying to calm me down and things like that. Then they took me to a hospital in Kettering. They were giving me all these injections, to sedate me. There was a doctor in there and he was asking me all this stuff and the sort of thoughts I had. It's hard to remember that far back. I was saying things about the government and he was trying to get me to say if it was real, or if it wasn't and I couldn't tell. I was really delusional and paranoid. The medication helps. That's about all they do. It just sort of bloats you. They just give you the medication and send you on your way. If you go a while without a crisis they assume you are okay.

On the bedroom tax Late last year, Sean and Maggie had a call from their housing association to ask if they'd be able to pay it.

Sean: We said “we'll have to. We don't have a choice. We don't want to move out of here...” I'm not moving out of here. The [spare] bedroom is about as a long as this hallway It's a walk in closet.

Maggie: It's like the one I was in before this one.

Sean: That was shit. You couldn't open the door with the bed it in and you couldn't make the bed without sliding and pulling the bed towards the door. It was like being a fucking hamster or something.... They will have to come in with the police and drag me out, or they remove me in a body bag. They're ruining the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, many much worse off than we are.

Just think back how this mess started -it was the greedy, incompetent banks that made this mess. They still get massive wages and bonuses and we get the shite end of the stick.

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