Initial results of Leeds Bedroom Tax survey show how much hurt is being caused

We are currently researching the impact of the Bedroom Tax in Leeds so as we can campaign on it better, have a clearer idea what is going on and to summit to the UN as illustration of the undermining the UK’s obligation to respect Human Rights.

We have written a summary of the results so far that have come from 40 phone and face-to-face conversations. We  believe these results are pretty stark, showing how desperate the situation is for many, as well as evidence of failure by Leeds City Council to inform tenants of their rights and cases of bullying by Leeds City Council representatives.

You can download the report here, or scroll down to see pasted in.

We are still researching and need your help to get more done. If you are (or were) affected by the Bedroom Tax and are a resident of Leeds please fill in this survey to help us build our research, the more replies the better, please do it now. If you know anyone affected please pass on the link. If you would like it in paper form please get in touch.

 

Initial Results: How the Bedroom Tax is affecting tenants in Leeds

We are currently researching the effects of the Bedroom Tax in Leeds in order to provide an evidence base of the many injustices it is causing across the city. These are the results of the first round of research, we are expanding this research through survey collection. We have published these initial results because we believe what they show demands public viewing. However we also believe our results will be stronger after more data is collected

The following is a summary of conversations with 43 tenants, of whom 40 are currently social housing tenants affected by the bedroom tax, one was previously affected but has since moved into the private sector, one is in social housing and overcrowded, and one is in the private sector and waiting for social housing.

Thirty-seven of these cases were gathered through in-depth telephone conversations with people on the Hands Off Our Homes (HOOH) contact list between August 20th and September 20th 2013, whilst the other six are based on information already known to us (e.g. people met on the doorstep). There is no pre- or post-interview selection of telephone conversations; everyone who answered the phone has been included except those who said they had never been affected.

The summary results so far have been divided up into five themes, below.

1.   Illness and disability

About two-thirds of affected tenants (26/40) have one or more significant illnesses or disabilities; about half (13) of these have mental health problems (including severe anxiety and depression, PTSD and psychosis and several have both physical and mental health issues. Of those suffering from chronic medical conditions, 8 have illnesses which are triggered or exacerbated by stress, including heart/circulatory disease (history of stroke or heart attack), asthma, epilepsy, ME and fibromyalgia.

Several of these tenants said that they needed the extra room(s) for family members who provided overnight care on a regular or as-needed basis. Almost all of these 26 tenants stated that a move – even if a suitable property had been available – would have been difficult or out of the question as they could not cope with it physically and/or mentally. In addition, they were being adversely affected by the steps taken by housing officers to secure/ensure payment of bedroom tax rent (see below).

In addition, 5 of this sample were supporting a non-household member with a disability, and either needed a room for the person or their children to stay, or needed to remain living close to the person and therefore were unable to move. The number of people with care needs affected by the bedroom tax is thus much higher than simply the number of directly affected tenants with disabilities.

2.   Wellbeing of children and parents/caregivers

Several tenants cited anxieties about the effects on a child’s schooling, social network or emotional wellbeing if they were forced to change schools due to a move – especially where the child had special needs or had experienced stressful family situations such as parental separation or where there is serious illness in the family. Many people we have spoken to have said that their daughters employment is dependent on children being able to stay overnight with a grandparent while they work night shifts.

In several cases, forcing the tenant to downsize would have had a significant detrimental effect on the wellbeing of a child/children other than their own (typically, grandchildren) or affected the ability of a child to maintain a relationship with a parent. In some cases, the grandparent was providing a safe place where a child could stay to avoid being exposed to domestic violence or neglect due to a parent’s mental health problems; this could prevent a child being taken into care and provide the necessary stability to prevent educational and emotional problems on the part of the child. In other cases, a father was homeless or inappropriately housed, so was dependent for access visits on seeing the child at the home of a grandparent. We expect this situation to become increasingly common as   more and more young adults (many of them non-custodial fathers) become homeless or are forced to share inadequate accommodation as a result of changes in Local Housing Allowance entitlement.

Situations like these have obvious cost implications for other services as well as having direct implications for child-welfare; yet Discretionary Housing Payment support for those requiring an extra room for childcare responsibilities rarely recognises the vital role of grandparents and other caregivers. We note that even if DHPs are awarded, these vulnerable children are still at risk as a consequence of the short-term nature of DHP support and the fact that it is set to be reduced for the next financial year; and that this adds enormously to the anxiety endured by tenants already coping with complex, stressful and often exhausting family responsibilities.

In the council’s own SWOT (Strengths Weaknesses Opportunities, Threats) Analysis of the Impact of welfare reform they admit and are concerned that by implementing the policy, there is a “possibility that young children will be forced out of the care system and onto the homeless list.”

In this sample, there were also five non-custodial parents who had experienced difficulty in     establishing that they had regular access to their children, or who would be unable to obtain a court order granting them access if they were forced to downsize.

3.   Tenants’ experience of bullying and harassment from Leeds City Council representatives

Teants’ reports of bullying and harassment mainly centre around two issues: firstly, the behaviour of housing officers prior to the introduction of the bedroom tax; and secondly, the methods adopted to prevent or recover arrears since the bedroom tax came into force.

In the run-up to the introduction of the bedroom tax, most tenants were visited by a housing officer in accordance with the Council’s policy of “preparing” tenants, discussing with them how they intended to pay, and identifying vulnerable tenants who may need support. Our discussions with tenants suggest that in many cases these visits caused great distress and fear, and that tenants felt bullied and threatened. We also found that people were rarely given information about Discretionary help, and were often given misleading information. Based on our sample:

  • a number of tenants were pressurised into signing direct debit forms, which by removing any flexibility in their budgeting puts them at risk of turning to loan sharks during periods of higher essential expenditure (eg school clothes), or of going without heating etc.
  • Tenants report the use of phrases such as “if you don’t pay you’ll be out on the streets”, causing severe alarm and distress especially to tenants with anxiety issues, stress-related health problems or learning disabilities. People generally reported being given the impression that eviction is an easy process and would be a certain and inevitable outcome if they fell into arrears.
  • Tenants were subjected to intrusive scrutiny of their homes and lifestyles: housing officers telling tenants to cut back on television, tobacco, phone, heat, hot water, food to pay the bedroom tax and even sell items of personal and sentimental value.
  • People in priority groups for DHP (i.e. people with child access arrangements, or whose homes were adapted for disabilities) were not told about this benefit, or were told there “is nothing we can do”.
  • Tenants felt insulted by clearly impractical advice such as “find a job”, or “take in a lodger”; however, some were pressured into “downsizing” into accommodation which was not suitable for them, or moving into the private sector. One woman had moved into a private-rented house at exactly double her previous rent – paid from LHA, with a contribution from her JSA as the rent was higher than the LHA cap.

4.   Impacts of rent collection/arrears recovery policies

The most striking thing from talking to people about the effects on them of the bedroom tax is the incredible amount of fear and distress caused by, often fortnightly or weekly letters, phone calls, texts and visits people are being subjected to by their rent officers, supposedly to prevent them allowing arrears to build up. The practice of sending out automatically-generated letters when a payment is just a few days overdue, and of telephoning tenants on the day a payment is due, is experienced as bullying, threatening and intrusive, and is having a dramatically adverse effect on very vulnerable tenants – so severe, in fact, as to be putting tenants’ health at risk and even creating a risk of suicide.

Some people are paying the extra rent in full but if their benefits go in even a couple of days after the rent is due the new recovery programme introduced specifically to deal with people affected by the bedroom tax, means that they are being harassed immediately by calls and letters, even where they are two days late to pay less than £10.

In addition, letters to tenants owing even a few pounds routinely contain a statement to the effect that the tenant’s home is at risk if they fall behind with payments. Our conversations with tenants show that this statement is frequently taken – as is no doubt the intention – to mean that eviction proceedings could start immediately. A further consequence of this is that many people, by prioritising rent, are getting into debt elsewhere, or putting their health at risk by going without essentials such as food and fuel.

Some examples of the impact this had from our case studies include:

  • A man with a history of heart attacks is prioritising his rent because he fears that the stress of being in debt, dealing with threatening letters and perhaps being taken to court could trigger another heart attack.
  • Another tenant with a heart condition has cut down on food and is unable to afford heating, which in cold weather will increase his risk of heart attack.
  • One of the tenants with epilepsy, told us his fits were triggered by stress and had become more frequent since the Bedroom Tax began. He receives regular URGENT reminders despite the fact that he pays every fortnight on the day her receives his benefit, because this falls a few days after the rent becomes due.
  • A tenant with a brain injury described vividly the impact of the routine use by rent officers of language more suited to a crisis; if his £8 rent was three days overdue he receives a text telling him to “phone this number urgently”, making him worry that his flat must have caught fire or flooded while he was out. He has never missed a rent payment, and his impairment is significantly worsened by stress, yet his housing office tells him there is nothing they can do to stop these automatic messages.

In addition to the “routine” harassment of letters and phone calls, some tenants have been subjected to frankly obnoxious and abusive behaviour from staff at their housing offices. This may also include the casual use of misleading statements to persuade tenants to pay arrears. Most tenants in this position are naturally too afraid to have their stories publicised in detail, even anonymously.

5.   Discretionary Housing Payment and Other Cock-ups

Of the 26 tenants in our sample with one or more disabilities:

  • 5 had never heard of DHP at the time of our recent telephone conversation
  • 6 had been informed by their housing provider and supported to make a claim – but only after after weeks or months of being told they had no option but to pay or move.
  • 8 had been told about DHP by someone other than their housing provider or benefit officer – in most cases, by a friend or a campaigner.
  • At least 3 had been wrongly refused DHP because they were receiving DLA and this was deemed to be “extra” income. Some had later successfully challenged this.
  • Two tenants with severe and chronic anxiety issues were awarded DHP in July – backdated to April, and for a six-month period only. These tenants are now in a position where they have to apply again after only three months, and this is hanging over them and exacerbating their anxiety.

In addition, 7 people in the sample were non-custodial parents with access arrangements who had either not been told about DHP, been told they were not eligible, or had their application initially refused. Some had later successfully challenged this.

In the five cases where grandparents played a significant role in the care of a child, one had not heard of DHP, one was about to apply on a variety of grounds including health, (5 months in), one had been refused, one had succeeded on the grounds of her own mental health, and one had initially been refused but was later awarded DHP after her local councillor intervened.

 

 

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