Louise Baldock: The Bedroom Tax is the defining issue of the last 20 years
For me the Bedroom Tax is the defining issue of the last 20 years. It is the most important - and damaging - change that our people have been asked to stomach in two decades.
I am humbled to have received the support from every member of the Labour Group in Liverpool to take forward a campaign against this pernicious change to Housing Benefit legislation.
They have put their own money into funding a Labour Grassroots campaign that we are delivering not just in Liverpool but across the country.
But they should be ascribed an appropriate number of rooms based on, in my mind, a flawed criteria, the application of which should see them suffer financial penalties should they dare to have more space at home than allowed, by the simple expediency of reducing the housing benefit that they receive to cover their rent, leaving them to find the shortfall from their meagre income.
But don't accept my description of the bedroom tax, let's hear from some of the people who have contacted us through the website to explain how this will affect them.
Let's start with "Jackie" from Liverpool, that is not her real name but she was too frightened to let me publicise it in case she was made to suffer by the authorities for speaking out.
This is her story.
I'm writing this from our "spare" room.
Our household consists of myself, my husband and my son who is 18 and has brittle bones.
My husband is an army veteran with a war pension and a physical disability rating of 40%, due to injuries caused during service.
He also has one of the worst cases of combat post traumatic stress disorder that has ever been seen in the North West. This acute case of PTSD has, for the last two years, made it impossible for us to share a room in order to maintain my safety.
Nightmares and flashbacks mean that my husband will punch and kick through his nightmares at night and should he be startled from sleep, his automatic trained reaction is to grab me by the throat.
Imagine a policy that demands that a wife sleep with her husband even though the medics are clear that he will endanger her life if she does. Is that extra bedroom, calculated by an unsympathetic Government really spare, or should we be prepared to pay a little bit extra to help Jackie and her husband to have a safe night's sleep?
Ours is now a nationwide campaign so many of the personal story contributors to our website don't live in Liverpool. Let me tell you what Mary in Heywood, Manchester wrote to me about how the changes would affect her.
I have lived in my house with my mum for 48 years, all of my life in fact. I worked for 25 years but in 2006 I gave my job up to care for my mum who was terminally ill, she passed away in 2010. Recently I have been taking care of my cousin, who was also terminally ill, and has also just passed away so I am now looking for work again.
I am in a 3 bedroom house and on my own; this is going to crucify me both financially and emotionally. As I only receive £71 a week I don't know how I will manage. I am out looking for work every day, but the thought of losing my childhood home, after losing my mum would be too much to bear.
I need to tell you that last year Mary was awarded "Carer of the Year" by Age UK at Rochdale Town Hall
Is it the right thing to do, to drive Mary out of her life long family home, where she has cared for two ill and dying relatives so well that she has received a national award? I don't believe it is and I don't believe that anyone with a heart will believe that either.
I think one of the stories that has affected me the most though is the situation of Craig Hemmerman in Hull. He wrote to me to say this;
As a single parent to my daughter, I live in a three bed house. I have my son on weekends and school holidays (he lives with his mum) but as I don't have him permanently I am subject to the bedroom tax.
I am struggling to make ends meet and more often than not they don't meet. The option I have been given is to move into a two bed house... my son is presumably expected to sleep on the sofa!! He would no longer have a room of his own and nowhere to keep his toys or clothes, he is 7.
The only outcome I can foresee is that he would no longer wish to come on weekends.
I cried when I read that. How can we possibly support a policy that tells parents that we no longer wish them to have care of their children at weekends?
Three Key Points come to my mind in this policy debate
Number one is that successive Governments have carefully calculated a precise and tight amount that people on Job Seekers Allowance, or Employment Support Allowance, or whatever should receive. Typically around £70 per week, it is designed to give a frugal but just about do-able budget to someone out of work.
There is absolutely no room for manoeuvre. So I am utterly bemused as to how people in receipt of such tightly calculated income could suddenly be expected to spend between £12 and £25 per week say, of that meagre amount, on supplementing their own rent.
Should they stop eating or heating to make up the short fall?
My second area of concern is around family cohesion:
We all believe that parents who no longer live together should share the responsibility of caring for their children. None of us can be happy with a policy that says to non-resident parents that they are no longer expected to care for their own children in their own homes and offer them the love and support they are crying out for.
And my third area of concern is around community cohesion:
If we insist on forcing people to move from estates they have lived in for decades, where they know all their neighbours, have great support networks and look out for each other, then we will see communities break apart. We will see children ripped from their schools, people torn from the streets where they can rely on the warmth of their neighbours, forced to live in isolation in areas where they will be utterly anonymous.
This policy is mean, ill-judged, pernicious and divisive.
And it wont even save any money.
We will have to pay out more in un-collected rent, in managing rent arrears, in eviction costs, in legal challenges and particularly in paying for private rents where tenants will be forced to go - they will get the bedrooms they want but at a bigger cost to the Housing Benefit bill.
It is a mean-spirited policy, ill-thought through and destined to fail even before it has been introduced.
It is true that Ian Duncan Smith agreed yesterday to exempt Foster Carers and personnel in the Armed Forces from this policy, but at the same time he has also reduced the amount of discretionary relief that each council has been given to help ease the worst of cases, accordingly, so there should be no celebrating of that concession.
And while I am delighted for those individuals, I don't think this is the answer. For one thing we won't be in any better a place financially to help our residents who need the support of that fund, and for another I am not happy with picking off one set of applicants and pitting them against another group. We should not see our people competing for the slim pickings but should be championing all of their cases.
And yes I am also aware that the national Labour Party has not been absolutely forthcoming on how it would tackle this if it came to power after the next election, but I am not going to shy away from giving them my advice. More than 11000 innocent families in Liverpool will suffer from this horrible policy, they need the Labour Party to state loudly and clearly that they will abolish it, and I see it as my duty, and the duty of every councillor in the chamber tonight, to make that message loud and clear.
If we cannot set aside our differences and fight for the poor, the sick and the vulnerable then what are we in politics for?
Louise Baldock is a Labour councillor in Liverpool and will be delivering the substance of this blog post as a speech at the city council tonight on behalf of Labour Against the Bedroom Tax.