To Garston, now, where South Liverpool Combat The Bedroom Tax has organised a tenants’ meeting in the small hall of the Methodist church hall on Banks Street. There is a big turnout of local tenants, as there generally has been at these meetings – probably about 50 people on a freezing night for this first Garston meeting which was advertised mostly with leaflets and posters.
Once everyone’s in, there’s standing room only at the back. Two organisers, Jane Calveley and Adrian Gibbons, sit up front to answer questions and to explain how people in Dingle and Bootle are organising against the tax in their areas. The idea is for people for people to take leaflets away and get their groups going themselves, free of top-down structures and/or nefarious external political opportunists. Preserving that part of the scene could be a challenge in itself now that Labour is thrashing around trying to find the centre of it. I do sometimes wonder if there’ll be much left by the end of that.
Most of the people at this meeting are older – probably in their 40s, 50s and 60s. There are long-term tenants: people say they’ve been 30 years in a house, or 20 years, or “I’ve lived in the same house all my life” – statements like that. This post is a basic report of the sorts of questions that people asked and the topics the meeting canvassed. Some of the questions will appear incomplete: the bedroom tax is an inexact perversion and people had obviously heard things, or bits of information and were trying to find out the full story with their questions. I talked to a number of people at this meeting and at Monday’s one at St Bride’s as well and will write a more detailed piece soon.
Suffice to say for now that the bedroom tax is one of the most inhuman, backward-looking policies I’ve yet heard proposed and anyone who thinks it has merit in any form ought to be imprisoned permanently. They’re taunting people with homelessness, for god’s sake. That’s all this is. It is news to nobody that this “policy” will largely be undeliverable – you’ll see from this report that people are already being told smaller homes are not available and tenants, who are often already struggling financially, just won’t have the money to pay for “spare” rooms. That became very obvious as the evening rolled on. The tax does nothing to address homelessness, or housing shortages. It is there purely to inspire loathing of tenants and terror in tenants themselves. Which is why people are braving the rain and the cold to turn out to these meetings – meetings that have been growing across Liverpool in the last month or so, I might add. More attention should be paid to them.
I’m withholding names for now.
The meeting begins with an older man at the back asking the question that people have asked at all the meetings and protests I’ve attended to date: “Why aren’t the (Liverpool city) councillors here now?” he says. “Where’s the councillors now?” There is plenty of murmuring when he puts that one out. There’s a message is coming through loud and clear here and Labour councillors want to wake up to it. Babblings from recently-annointed anti-bedroom tax warrior Liam Byrne don’t appear to be doing much to reassure people who are actually going through all this. They want to know where people are now.
Calveley knows where the councillors where, as do a number of us who have spent the afternoon at a protest outside Liverpool Town Hall. “They’re passing the council budget cuts in the town hall,” she says. “That’s where we’ve been before we come here.”
“There’s not one of them here,” the elderly man says angrily.
“There’s a big meeting now where they’re passing all the cuts,” Calveley says grimly. Around the room, people shake their heads at that news. Nobody is impressed. It is telling, to say the very least, that councillors would still rather be seen at a meeting where they’re cutting services than at a meeting where they could be saving them.
We move on.
“The councils and the housing associations should work with tenants groups, trade unions and all the bedroom tax campaigns that are springing up all over the country to build more homes,” Calveley says. “I’m actually talking council housing. Now, I’m going to open it up to the meeting.”
“I applied for a one bedroom house and I was told there is no one bedroom houses, or flats, in the whole of Liverpool,” says an older woman who is sitting just behind me. “So, if I want to get to a smaller property, I’d have to go out of Liverpool. But all my family live in Liverpool – so where would that leave me? I don’t drive – so where would that leave people like me?
Another woman asks if it is true that there is a cap on housing benefit for pensioners who are on pension credit if they “went private to a one bedroom flat….so you’ve had to spend your pension money to make that up…is that right?”
A man who says he is 56, unemployed and living in the three-bedroom flat that he’s lived in all his life asks straight out: “What happens if you can’t afford it [the tax]?”
“That’s why people have to fight it,” a woman says, “because people can’t afford it. They can’t afford it, literally.”
“Can you get your house taken from you?” the man asks. Everyone reacts to this: there’s shuffling and murmuring as soon as he says it.
“They can’t just kick you out,” says a woman who has come from the Dingle group to share information at this meeting. “They have to go through a process.”
The first man – the one who’d asked where councillors were – asks if there is a reason why housing associations shouldn’t pick up the bill. “You pay rent,” he says furiously. “It’s not even your flat, or your house. It’s their house – so why not let them pay [the shortfall between rent and the tax]?”
“They’re not going to pay,” an elderly woman at the back of the room says.
“Well, why not?” the man asks. “You’ve got to stand up for this stuff.”
“They won’t pay it,” says the woman from the Dingle group. “I asked them. I said – you can refuse to implement it. What they’re saying is that they know that you are poverty-stricken, but they still want their money.”
The woman who said she’d been she’d have to leave Liverpool to find a small flat asks how much money Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson earns. Various figures are suggested. I find these myself and the figures people talk about are close to those. All get a hostile reaction.
Another man at the back of the room says that he’d been to see Citizens’ Advice about the tax a couple of weeks ago. “The lad behind the counter was telling me like – it’s not just you. There are thousands like you.”
A woman asks a question about legal aid. She’s concerned that people’s chances of fighting the tax and eviction through the courts might be affected by cuts to legal aid funding. “You know how legal aid is being cut – so what happens to people wishing to fight it in the courts? Like this lady said before – she is prepared to move, but they can’t give her [a one-bedroom house in Liverpool]. Surely that makes it their problem, not hers? If this went to court, what representation would this lady get? With legal aid?”
“The people of Liverpool fought against the poll tax,”says the older man at the back. “If we can do that, we can do this. It’s only the Tories who would think of this, though. Next it will be – you’ve got too many windows.”
Bedroom size is discussed in detail, as it has been around the country. A number of people ask how big a room must be for classification as a bedroom. The figure everyone discusses is 70 square feet – “so one thing everybody can do really practically is measure your bedrooms,” people say.
“So, if it’s a boxroom – they can’t charge bedroom tax on a boxroom?”
“You need to measure it.”
“One of the things that we’ve been talking about in Dingle is getting letters made up to send back to people to say – you can say this isn’t a spare bedroom. It isn’t big enough,” the woman from the Dingle group says. (This is, just by the way, one of the aspects of the whole wreck that I find most upsetting: the thought of all these people – a lot of them older, as I say – being put in a position where they must grovel round on all fours with tape-measures for the pleasure of rich Tories. There’s something about that image which doesn’t sit well with me at all).
There is a lot of concern raised about getting into debt, or more debt: “Can they do like they do on the council tax – when they send you letters and you’re paying them money and it’s going up and up and up (as court costs and fines are added)?” one woman asks. “If you have that and the tax on top? Does it build up if you’re waiting for appeal?”
An older woman asks if people are allowed to take in lodgers now – there is confusion about the rules for subletting. “Also, if you were to go into private housing, what is the most benefit that they will pay you?”
A man asks if benefits will be docked if bedroom tax payments can’t be met: “you know with the council tax, they can take the money from your benefits. Could this happen with the housing one?”
It is appalling stuff and it goes on and on. There’s not enough time for everyone’s questions.
It becomes very clear that people here are in an impossible situation with the tax. After the meeting, I speak at length with the 56-year-old man who is out of work and on the brink of a battle to stay in the house he grew up in. He says that the house has three rooms, but one has never been used as a bedroom, because it is too small. He and his mother only ever used it for storage.
“The way I look at it – because of the fact that you claim housing benefit, you get a slap in the face for it. I sign on every two weeks. It’s not easy to find work. I get about £130 a fortnight and I think the bedroom tax will cost about £40 a fortnight – that has to come out of jobseekers. I said to them – this is going to be hard like. I find it hard at the moment to pay for the food. I haven’t got that 40 quid.”
How many bedrooms have MPs’ flipped houses got on average?