Early in September Lawrence Keane walked into a Fife housing office and slit his wrists, telling the horrified staff and users it was because of despair over the Bedroom Tax.
Thankfully Lawrence survived. He told the press: “I got a letter from the council last week and I have stayed inside for 10 days worrying about it. It told me I owed a lot of money and that my rent was going up £28 a fortnight because I had an empty room in my flat... I was getting more and more angry and stressed about it. I woke, got a vegetable knife and went to the community centre.”
The Bedroom Tax is now five months old. Hundreds of thousands of social housing tenants are now running rent arrears because they are deemed to have a spare room and can’t pay. Arrears for many tenants will now be over £300.
Many social landlords use the figure of £300 as a trigger for starting to obtain a possession order via the courts. Many councils and housing associations will now be making crucial decisions to go to court.
Yet campaigners against the bedroom tax are winning victories. Lorraine Fraser, from Uddington, North Lanarkshire, was set to become the first Bedroom Tax evictee in Scotland. After local campaigners fought against the eviction, 100 people crowded into a meeting and forced Labour council leader Jim McCabe to stop Lorraine’s eviction and to allow no Bedroom Tax debt evictions at least until the end of the financial year (April 2014).
Other key elements in the campaign include the building of a network of tenants, activists, and trade unionists ready to turn out to support those threatened with evictions.
Campaigns should also support tenants in using all appeals and legal channels available to slow and disrupt evictions.
Some campaigns in Scotland, Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester are trying to do all this, and are inevitably stretched. However new layers of people and tenants seem willing to pay a leading role.
Engaging tenants with no prior political involvement and building networks on estates with no recent tradition of activism is hard work, but it is both vitally necessary and a good test for socialists.
The pressure on Labour in the Scottish Parliament has been intense. Labour’s shadow housing spokesperson, Jackie Ballie, has announced she will be introducing a bill to ban evictions for Bedroom Tax arrears and to pay councils and housing associations the shortfall.
This may be opposed by the SNP government.
Baillie may be pushing this policy despite reluctance from the more right-wing Scottish Labour Party leader, Johann Lamont.
South of the border, Labour leaders talk more warmly about repealing the bedroom tax if in government. Even Blairite shadow welfare secretary Liam Byrne has said “ministers should drop the hated tax now”. We need to force Labour to commit to the repeal.
The government has been forced to more then double the central government’s pot for Discretionary Housing Payments to £65 million. It’s a minor concession, but proves the government can be forced to cede ground.
We must still expect councils and housing associations to try to evict tenants this autumn. Small housing associations are struggling financially. They will probably start evictions with single people living alone, as they are an easier group to hit.
We need to do the ground work to resist evictions. This will involve action inside and outside of courtrooms and direct action, throwing bailiffs off estates.