Tuesday, 30 July 2013

A man at the door

location map -- click to enlarge
Yesterday we saw a legal judgement that seems to allow for discrimination against disabled people. The challenge to a Government policy lodged by Leigh Day on behalf of some of those made most vulnerable by societal attitudes towards their disability was not upheld by our courts. I would encourage all of you to review the annex of the legal judgement and ask if you are not just a little ashamed of our justice system today. The media reporting of the case failed to report comments made by the Judge that the current situation was unsatisfactory and needed remedying. Of course I am talking about the Bedroom Tax.

In Cornard in Suffolk during the County Council election campaign I knocked on a door and a man, lets call him John, called out for me to wait a moment and he would get there. On opening the door John appeared anxious and apologised for keeping me waiting. He explained to me that his wife had just had an epileptic fit - his words. He seemed keen to talk and told me how her epilepsy was acute and he had given up work to care for her. Their only son was in his first year at University, and he felt guilty because he could not be as pleased about this as he should have been. He spoke about how his 3 bedroom house, of a modest size, was now deemed to have too many bedrooms for them by the Council. He said he could not afford the extra costs and they were being forced to downsize.
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He told me he would often sleep in a separate room to his wife because of her ill health and that the 'spare room' didn't feel like a luxury. He missed being able to work he said and in saying that he told me he felt guilty because his wife needed him. During the conversation his wife came to the door. She looked quite ill to me - a non medical lay person. She appeared very confused and the tenderness and care between them was evident. He led her gently away and then returned to the door. He talked about how they had lived in their house for many years, about the support of the neighbours and the sense of community that existed there and how he worried about the impact on his wife of moving from such familiar surroundings.

I offered to take some more details and to see if I could get someone to help with advice. He stood tall and thanked me and said if he needed help he would seek it and do the right thing by his family. He said it was the first time a politician had taken the time to talk with him and thanked me for my time - when really I should have been thanking him for giving me the facts on the human impact of the bedroom tax.

Perhaps he should not worry. Aragon Housing Association reports on the first 100 days of the implementation of the Bedroom Tax and identifies that out of 460 houses with spare bedrooms they were able to move only 40 to smaller properties. For those affected however tenants build up rent arrears regardless. Can you imagine building up rent arrears and the impact of debt on people like John and his wife, living a very modest lifestyle? Arrears they know they are unlikely to be able to pay back?

I know the legal judgement will be appealed by Leigh Day and I know a Labour Government will repeal the policy. Is that enough for now for people like John and the many more in his position? I don't think so.

At a local level we must continue to raise awareness of the lives of local people affected by cruel knee jerk populist policies. We can do this through real conversations  with individuals and community groups and commit to doing something about it. This can include ensuring those with the power, data and knowledge about the impact of the policies at local level share this information freely. That local and national political leaders are held to account based on it.

We must build a much broader understanding of why the system of social security , not charity introduced under Clement Attlee, is vital for a civilised society to function effectively and fairly. A system that gives men like John some dignity and the support and security to enable him to stand on his own two feet.

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