From The MIrror byKeir Mudie
Leah Newton lost her job as a care home cook and has lived in her home in Hull for 12 years – but can only watch in horror as her life spirals out of control
Leah Newton had never been in rent arrears in her life – until the dreaded Bedroom Tax arrived.
A council tenant with a two-bedroom home, she tells the Sunday People how she struggled after losing her job as a cook in a care home.
But she was still managing to scrape by on benefits until, last April, the Bedroom Tax hit.
Now Leah, who has lived in her home in Hull for 12 years, can only watch in horror as her life spirals out of control with debt upon debt piling up.
Her plight – and that of hundreds of thousands of the poorest people in Britain – is exactly what the Sunday People warned about before the hated Bedroom Tax came in a year ago.
We were the first newspaper to highlight the disastrous effect that Tory welfare overlord Iain Duncan Smith’s shake-up would have.
Housing benefit for tenants with a spare room was cut by 14 per cent, while those with two or more spare rooms lost a quarter.
A year on, we have revisited the city and found the impact on honest citizens such as Leah has been devastating.
She said: “Sometimes I want to stand in the street and scream because nobody understands what this is doing to me.
“When it first started, the bills just kept coming in and there was no way of paying them.
“I felt terrified.
“I was worried about the Bedroom Tax when it first came in, but there’s no way I ever thought it would do this to me.”
Leah, 50, worked for most of her life as a cook in care homes and cafés but her last job disappeared when her contract ran out.
Despite dozens of applications, there was no work. And her situation got worse.
At Christmas she was told by a debt team her only way out was to declare herself bankrupt.
Leah, who wears a dressing gown on top of her normal clothes to stay warm in her icy house, said: “There was relief after I’d done it, but it didn’t take long for things to start building up again.
“It’s still just terrifying. There’s nowhere for me to move to and there’s no work.
“I apply for at least three jobs a week and I don’t hear anything back. Things are just building and building.
“I’m going to be 51. I feel desperate. I’m depressed and I can’t get moved. I’m stuck.”
Leah says that she is up to date on her rent but she has let her council tax payments slip and she has let her water bill go unpaid.
She has just £15 per week to buy food and says: “My dog Molly gets fed more than me. She keeps me going – I couldn’t lose her.
“I don’t see anything changing my circumstances, I’m just going to get more and more in debt and more and more depressed.”
Leah is not alone in a city where thousands of residents have been struck by the tax.
The Sunday People first visited Hull on the eve of the Bedroom Tax.
The city is the worst area in Yorkshire for unemployment – and among the worst in Britain.
Nearly nine per cent of the workforce is on Jobseekers’ Allowance and 32 apply for every vacancy.
Police figures show shoplifting across the city has shot up 24 per cent in the past 12 months.
Just months after the Bedroom Tax hit, one Hull police officer said: “We have been asking shoplifters when we arrest them why they have done it and many have said they have stolen to eat the food themselves because they need to.”
The local Citizen’s Advice Bureau has been swamped with people struggling with debt.
Ray Davies, a CAB debt case officer, said: “A year of the Bedroom Tax is nothing to celebrate.
“For many people it’s been a nightmare and for the poorest it has been the final straw.
“We see people with anxiety and depression. In some cases they are suicidal. They don’t know which debt to pay. Is it their rent?
“Their gas and electric bill? Or their council tax?
“They know if they don’t pay they can end up in prison, which is very frightening.
“The plight for those at the very, very bottom can only get worse because there is nothing that is going to improve their lot.”
Hull’s Discretionary Housing Payments is a pot set up to help people who are unable to downsize, or who need their rooms for medical reasons, or simply cannot pay.
The city was initially allocated £700,000 but demand is so great they had to ask the Government for more.
DHP spending in the city currently stands close to £1.2million. By Monday, according to council statisticians, it will all be gone.
Karl Turner, MP for Hull East, said: “The past 12 months have been heinous for many families.
“We’re seeing proud hard-working people who have never been in debt before forced to turn to foodbanks just to get by, and the reduced income squeezing families to breaking point.”
The city has had a 12 per cent rent arrears increase in one year.
Mr Turner said: “One of the worst things about this is that people have no choice.
“There are simply not enough smaller properties for people to move into. We have more than 5,000 people affected in Hull.
“The Government is pushing the sick and the disabled to downsize into properties that do not exist.”
Almost 4,000 people in the city are receiving DHP – and experts say this shows the Government’s policy is failing.”
Mr Turner added: “It beggars belief that the Government has imposed this policy yet is having to plug the gap with a discretionary fund that robs Peter to pay Paul.
“It is just shambolic that central government is having to pay for its own failing policy by funding shortfalls in rent payments.”
Not far from Mr Turner’s East Hull office is the home of Tony and Elaine Pawson.
Elaine was a cleaner and dinner lady and Tony an electrician. Together the hard-working pair raised three children.
But when Elaine became too ill to work aged just 36, Tony had to leave his job to care for her.
Eventually, they got a two-bedroom bungalow from the local authority. Now specially adapted, it has been their home for eight years.
Elaine is often awake in severe pain. And complications arising from the medicine she takes for spinal arthritis mean the couple sleep in separate bedrooms.
But despite medical evidence they have been told they must pay the Bedroom Tax.
After a protracted battle they were finally given DHP in January.
Now, with just three months left before their payments expire, there is no guarantee they will be helped again.
Elaine, 50, said: “We are on a knife-edge. My heart goes every time the phone rings because I’m still frightened we will be evicted for what we owe.
“Someone from the council rang me recently and suggested that we move from our adapted bungalow to a one-bedroom flat.
“It made me laugh because they said they’d pay to adapt the new place but we need two bedrooms.”
Elaine and Tony, 49, who gets carers’ allowance to help his wife, have around £40 a week for food when they have paid their bills.
Elaine said: “As soon as something goes wrong, like my mobility scooter, we are in trouble.
“Last year we got in a mess because my fridge and washer both broke down. We ended up having to go to the foodbank and it was awful.
“I felt we were begging.”
The Bishop of Hull, the Right Rev Richard Frith, understands the need for welfare reform but fears the tax is harming the city.
He said: “I wonder if Iain Duncan Smith has met any of the people affected or encountered the misery this is causing. The Government knew there weren’t enough alternative houses.
“And even when people have been able to move, the rent is higher than where they were before – away from their neighbours and communities.
“The Government is saving peanuts. This tax must be repealed.”
Ed Miliband has vowed to scrap the controversial bedroom tax in a statement in the Mirror:
“Today I have a simple message for David Cameron – if you don’t scrap the Bedroom Tax then I WILL.
It was the Sunday People which first highlighted the enormous damage this tax was doing to hundreds of thousands of people across the country.
Now the case has been proved beyond reasonable doubt.
Families, trapped with nowhere else to go, are having to pay out an extra £720 a year.
They find themselves getting deeper and deeper in debt because they can’t afford to pay.
The disabled and carers are among those worst affected.
Tens of thousands of people are being wrongly charged the Bedroom Tax because of errors made by bungling ministers.
The housing benefit bill is going UP not down because those forced out of their homes have to get more help to pay rent to private landlords instead of to local councils or housing associations.
Just two days ago a Conservative minister was backtracking on previous claims that this tax, which has caused so much misery to thousands of families, would even save money.
Esther McVey said the policy “was never all about saving money”.
On the very same day a survey showed more than one-in-four tenants affected were in rent arrears for the first time and that many were facing eviction.
David Cameron is so out-of-touch he still boasts this tax was a success.
This from a man who has given a tax cut to millionaires.
The truth is that the policy is unfair and it is now unravelling. The Bedroom Tax must go. The Sunday People can be proud of the lead it took in exposing the reality of this hated tax.
Support me in the next election and a Labour government will get rid of it.”
The bedroom tax (as well as the other welfare reforms) brought in by the current government are nothing more than an oppressive and unneeded measure to push people further into economic slavery to serve the mega rich.
It is not only the unemployed who are affected. Low and middle earners have also seen a dramatic cut in their standard of living as reforms bite along with price rises and the unregulated profiteering of energy suppliers.
At the same time, the rich in society are earning more than ever before through direct and indirect tax breaks and other initiatives the government have implemented as part of their agenda.
The fact is that the country needs a government that are able to introduce equitable policies which benefit the population as a whole – not just a few.
The country has had enough of these so-called leaders looking after their own interests and it is time to make a dramatic change.
Whether Miliband is able to do that or not is for the voters to decide. But one thing is for sure, if the next government does not take very positive steps to redress the damage done by the coalition there will be an incredible backlash from overworked and exploited citizens.