On Wednesday 7th Sept, the UN Special Rapporteur for Housing, Raquel Rolnik, condemned the Bedroom Tax policy in the strongest terms. After hearing terrible stories of poverty and suffering from affected tenants, she strongly believes the UK may have violated rights to housing. The day before, Hands Off Our Homes sent an email to all councillors, who were due to debate a motion proposed by Lib Dem Councillor Bentley on the 7th Sept. The motion suggested that the council adopt a policy of ‘no evictions’ for those in arrears due to the bedroom tax. Our email pointed out the following:
1) The motion outlined ‘no evictions’ but only if the tenant proves that they have applied for rehousing, and “not refused reasonable offers to downsize”. This patently ignores the reality of the complex needs of many affected by the bedroom tax.
2) Many tenants we have spoken to have mental and/or physical health needs, and/or family needs. Far from being exceptions, these cases are typical of affected tenants nationwide. Moving is for the majority, deeply impractical, sometimes impossible.
3) Leeds Council continues to promote Discretionary Housing Payments (DHPs) as a solution for vulnerable affected tenants – but DHPs are a) temporary b) time-consuming c) not guaranteed. They are simply not a viable option for most of these people.
The debate was shambolic. Two amendments to the motion had been proposed and were withdrawn during the debate. Then Councillor Peter Gruen (Deputy Leader of Council and Executive Member for Neighbourhoods, Planning and Support Services!) put in a new amendment which effectively made the motion meaningless. Instead it congratulated the Council for “preparing” staff and tenants to deal with the welfare changes and further that congratulations be handed out for the creation of a single rent arrears policy with individual cases dealt with on their merits ensuring that all tenants are “supported” if they come into arrears. This is effectively saying ‘Leeds City Council is dealing with tenants so well, there is no need for a ‘no evictions’ policy.’ The stories we’ve heard from tenants tell a different tale!
After lots of arguing and confusion about amendments, Cllr Gruen got to speak, proposed his amendment and it was carried. Councillors had the opportunity to make a bold commitment to genuinely support tenants affected by this policy and they blew it. Perhaps if the UN Special Rapporteur had been in the chamber, there might have been a different result.
Cllr Gruen has emailed HOOH with the argument that ‘At heart there is a basic issue of fairness when considering whether we should not evict any tenant subject to under-occupancy changes [bedroom tax], compared to other tenants who may fall into rent arrears. In Leeds we have ensured that we have a rent arrears policy that considers each case on their merits, including what actions the tenant has taken to work with us. For all tenants, we should be trying to ensure that we are able to resolve issues relating to rent arrears without the need for an evictions process. Only when this fails will we move to take legal action against any tenant who is in rent arrears.’
On the Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP), he says the council are looking to use it in a ‘flexible’ way, but acknowledges no amount of flexibility will make up for the fact that it simply doesn’t make up the shortfall in rent, the level of funding for DHP will drop, and most people affected still have NOWHERE ELSE TO MOVE.
We have yet to see the amended ‘fair’ arrears policy, and only time will tell if eviction procedures really are used as a last resort. Essentially, all the Council have committed to is writing to Iain Duncan Smith (Secretary of State for Work and Pensions) to tell him Leeds tenants are suffering as a result of this policy, and it ‘commits itself to the abolition of the bedroom tax and agrees to undertake a campaign with the present Government and any future Government for its abolition to come about.’ Campaigning isn’t just about making statements and writing letters, Leeds City Council. It’s taking action too. A ‘no evictions policy’ is really only a viable option in Leeds if it is unconditional, for every tenant affected by this policy. But it’s also only actually going to work if social landlords (which the council is not) put such a policy in place as well, as this blog points out . As it is, Leeds City Council can’t even come up to a gesture towards stopping the bedroom tax hurting Leeds citizens. At least we know where we stand.