Monday, 16 September 2013

Motion to Full Council of 18 September 2013 to mitigate the ‘bedroom tax’

The so-called ‘bedroom tax’ has been a social catastrophe for many of our communities’ most vulnerable people. I have therefore submitted to Council a motion which uses the Sustainable Communities Act of 2007 to make a proposal to government to mitigate the social damage of the under-occupation penalty.
This blog explains why this approach is worth a try and, hopefully, will persuade councillors to support this motion.

The Sustainable Communities Act (2007)
The Sustainable Communities Act (2007) was a Labour measure. The idea of the Act is that – if a community thinks a certain rule or regulation is damaging the local economy, harming local democracy, or undermining social inclusion – it can go to the local council and ask it to submit a proposal, under the Act, for the government to remove that barrier/problem.

As soon as I found out about it, it struck me that this Act was a perfect vehicle to mitigate one of the effects of the under-occupation penalty (the so-called ‘bedroom tax’).

The Social Catastrophe of the ‘bedroom tax’

The 'bedroom tax' - whatever you thought of the principle behind it - has turned out in its application to be a social catastrophe.  This has been well-documented in the newspapers.

There is one aspect of the ‘bedroom tax’, however, which I think is particularly cruel and unjust … which is where affected tenants get trapped because they are unable to downsize because there is no suitable accommodation available.

One vulnerable gentleman I met whilst I was campaigning this May sticks in my mind. He had moved to Newton Aycliffe many years ago. Because no one-bedroom accommodation was available at that time, the then Sedgefield Borough Council had put him into a three-bedroom council house. Now, however, on his £70 a week, paying the ‘bedroom tax’ on two spare rooms was utterly impossible for him. There was, however, still no one-bedroom accommodation for him anywhere in Aycliffe. So he was being fined under the under-occupation penalty, but was unable to leave for a smaller house … and simply stacking up arrears. It struck me as a kind of retro-active entrapment.
There was some talk of him perhaps being able to get a place in Ferryhill Station – a suggestion which enraged his neighbours, who had looked after him for a decade. The cost to this gentleman, even if he managed to escape the financial trap of the ‘bedroom tax’ was the loss of all his social support mechanisms, all his contacts, and all the security that he so desperately needed.

It was, in fact, an unarguable example of a rule or regulation damaging social inclusion in its application.

And it is this aspect of the ‘bedroom tax’ (therefore) which we should be able invoke the Sustainable Communities Act to mitigate.

The Basic Idea
My suggestion, therefore, is to ask Durham County Council, under the Sustainable Communities Act, to submit a proposal to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

That proposal will ask, for a period of two years, where suitable alternative accommodation is not available, that tenants liable to the under-occupation penalty should be exempted, until suitable alternative accommodation can be found for them. The justification will be that this will allow Registered Providers a breathing space to implement adjustments and strategies necessary to find/create alternative accommodation for them (which we all know they are trying very hard to do already).

I have taken advice from the County Council’s legal officers – who say that such a proposal would indeed be valid under the Sustainable Communities Act. So I have submitted a motion to that effect to the Full Council of 18th September.

Arguments for the proposal
I fear that, for many people, this will seem too mild a proposal – they would have preferred instead a full-blooded demand for the abolition of the ‘bedroom tax’.

I, too, have many problems with the ‘bedroom tax’.
I have campaigned against it, and attended demonstrations against it.
In a perfect world, I would do more than simply ‘mitigate’ it.

However - given the fact that there is a 'bedroom tax' and that for a number of years to come we are stuck with - it makes sense that, if there is a mechanism to mitigate it, we might as well take advantage of that mechanism to try to do so.

So I would ask you to give the idea a chance, and to think about it.
I hope you will agree that it is worthy of support.

Firstly, my motion does not try to make the moral argument against the ‘bedroom tax’ and demand its abolition – to be blunt, plenty of people (including the United Nations, no less) have done that and the government has just ignored them. My suggestion, by contrast, uses a government law against the under-occupation penalty. It asks the government, not to abolish the ‘bedroom tax’ law, but merely to use another law to mitigate its effect, in a specific circumstance … in the exact way the Sustainable Communities Act was in fact enacted to do!

Moreover, since all it is seeking is a two-year moratorium to allow RPs to adjust, it therefore presents as quite moderate and reasonable – instead of trying to overturn the whole 'bedroom tax' (to which the government would just say no) it is simply asking for a change to the exemption rules to mitigate the negative social impact on County Durham.

Indeed, I would suggest that it is almost unarguable! Surely there can be few people who can find any grounds on which to insist that someone who has nowhere to move should not be given time whilst we find them somewhere to move – one has to be very cruel to say: 'no, these people are trapped and we’ll make them pay and pay’! I am therefore hoping that I will be able to persuade, not just the Labour Group, but the whole Council, of the justice of my suggestion.
Thus I am hoping that Councillors will be able to give unanimous support to the motion.

Secondly, an advantage of going through the Sustainable Communities Act is that, under the Act, the government cannot simply dismiss the idea out of hand – it has to give a reason for its decision. Moreover, if the government rejects the proposal (on whatever grounds) and Durham County Council does not agree with the grounds of rejection, we can ask a body called the ‘Selector’ to consider challenging the government’s decision. Since the Selector is the Local Government Association, moreover, I would hope that the Selector would support our case, which would therefore be resubmitted with all the authority of the LGA behind it.

Thirdly, if the County Council submits my suggestion under the 
Sustainable Communities Act  it will trap the government on the horns of a dilemma. If the government actually cares about releasing the housing (which it claims is the justification of their ‘bedroom tax’) it will be able to agree to my proposal, since its under-occupation measures are not actually releasing the housing whilst tenants are thus trapped in their houses. If the government denies the application, however, it will be seen to be intentionally implementing a measure which harms vulnerable people.

Finally, my proposal would move the onus of finding alternative accommodation from the tenants - many of whom are vulnerable people - onto the RPs … which would further reduce the psychological pressure the 'bedroom tax' places upon them. If we get the two-year moratorium, it will practically all-but-end the issue of the bedroom tax for many people in County Durham until we have a new government which - Labour or not – might be prepared to reconsider the whole issue. This would bring monetary and psychological relief to thousands of people across the County. The worst that can happen is that we are seen to be seeking reasonable legal relief for vulnerable people, whilst the government is demonstrated not to care. 

None of the above means that I accept the 'bedroom tax' or agree the 'bedroom tax'.  If there were a motion asking to abolish it I would vote for it.
All my motion asks is - given that there is here an opportunity to oppose a specific fault of the bedroom tax - that we might try it.  

Before we can submit a proposal…
The rules of the Sustainable Communities Act require that we undertake a consultation; we cannot just submit the suggestion. The consultation would involve local RPs, tenants and other interested parties. It may well be that that consultation will lead to changes in the suggestion – for example, the two-year moratorium might be considered too long or too short.
Thus the proposal is that the Council asks its officers to consult with interested parties and thereafter prepare a report to bring back to the Council, when councillors will have a chance to look at it again and, hopefully, submit it.

I am not aware of anyone else trying this approach. But it is very persuasive and – if it succeeds – it will relieve thousands of people in County Durham of a housing nightmare. Surely it is worth a try.

The text of my motion is, therefore:

Recent figures have proved that the under-occupation penalty (the so-called ‘bedroom tax’) is having severe consequences for many social housing tenants. Hardship is particularly unjust where affected tenants are unable to downsize because there is no suitable accommodation available.

The Sustainable Communities Act 2007 allows Councils (provided that interested parties have been consulted) to submit proposals to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government where the proposal would increase social inclusion.

Council therefore resolves to consult with interested parties and thereafter prepare a report to Council seeking authority to make a submission to the Secretary of State proposing that, for a period of two years, where suitable alternative accommodation is not available, tenants liable to the under-occupation penalty should be exempted, until suitable alternative accommodation can be found for them, in order to allow registered providers time to implement adjustments and strategies necessary to find/create alternative accommodation.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Bumbaclarts and Mr Pickles's Fantasies

How one simple word showed me that our government's social policies 
are inadequate and simplistic.

The Depth of the Problem
Someone I know through facebook, who works as a play therapist, recently commented that a child had called one of the teachers a ‘bumbaclart’.

You can look it up for yourself, but do not do so if you are easily shocked. Suffice it to say that I found the word so revolting that I cannot bring myself here even to hint at its meaning.

My estimation of the play therapist went through the roof. I had known they worked in a particularly difficult area, but the revelation that Primary School children there knew of such things made me realise what an amazing person they must be, to work day-after-day in such an environment, seeking to turn around children’s lives.

It used to be that deprivation was a matter of money. Today, deprivation is a toxic mix of poverty, alcohol and substance abuse, domestic violence, and a sickening-to-the-pit-of-your-stomach sub-culture which has normalised what we used to call pornography.

The Inadequacy of the Solution
That one word made me realise that middle-class do-gooders like me actually know very little in our leafy suburbs of the depths of depravity with which some of our teachers grapple daily. And it made me suspect that Mr Gove, trapped in his Westminster bubble, is precious-poorly equipped to define the education system which is charged to rescue such children.

The other day, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles celebrated the government’s Troubled Families scheme whereby councils are paid £4,000 if they help the parents find work, get the children back into school and reduce the family’s impact on the local community. He claimed that, so far, 14,000 dysfunctional families had been ‘turned around’.

One has to wonder at the naivety of a minister who thinks that a ‘no-nonsense and common sense approach’ can so quickly and so easily ‘turn around’ the lives of small children familiar with bumbaclarts.