The woman who initiated a Market Cross protest against the introduction of the “cruel” bedroom tax is appealing for someone to come forward to organise a further protest later this month.
Clousta woman Jane Leask was pleased with a turnout of nearly 40 people last Saturday, at only 24 hours’ notice, for a demonstration to tie in with co-ordinated lunchtime gatherings throughout the UK.
The imposition of the bedroom tax, or removal of an “extra room subsidy” as the government terms it, will leave over 170 people in SIC and Hjaltland social housing up to £20 a week worse off.
Ms Leask has started a petition urging the government to amend its welfare reform act to “repeal the changes to housing benefits, commonly known as the ‘bedroom tax’” and asking it to “rethink its plans to cut housing benefit for thousands of citizens”.
The petition will be presented to Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael, who is deputy chief whip in the coalition government.
Further nationwide protests are planned on 20th April. Because she will be out of the island, Ms Leask is hoping somebody else will take on responsibility for organising another rally.
Speaking at Saturday’s protest, she said the changes would cause more than £115,000 in benefits to be lost in Shetland alone.
Ms Leask, who works at the Community Alcohol and Drugs Support Service, criticised deputy prime minister Nick Clegg for jetting off on a skiing holiday to “rub shoulders with the super rich, the only winners in Black April as the top rate of income tax is slashed from 50p to 45p”.
She said: “This cruel attack on the most vulnerable people in society will lead to an increase in homelessness and cost the taxpayer a fortune. It costs some housing associations £6,000 to evict and then another £20,000 to the council taxpayer in legal [and other] costs. This money will be taken from each and every one of us to make people homeless.”
Mr Carmichael has pointed out that funding has been provided to local authorities for “discretionary housing payments” to mitigate the impact.
But SIC housing chief Anita Jamieson said the council’s allocation of just over £22,000 this year would only cover a small fraction of the shortfall.
Such payments are time-limited and because of the limited cash available, only the highest priority cases will qualify.
Despite the isles’ comparatively tiny unemployment rate, nearly 1,000 council and Hjaltland tenants rely on housing benefit to pay at least some of their rent. The 170-plus households affected by the bedroom tax will lose between £8 and £20 a week.
Part of the government’s justification for the bedroom tax is its desire to ensure existing social housing is used more efficiently. The idea is for those with spare rooms to be moved in to smaller homes, allowing larger families access to a bigger property.
But Anita Jamieson said the policy was “not going to have that effect here at all” because social housing mainly consists of three-bedroom properties. Precious few smaller council houses are available.
She said: “Like a lot of other places, we’re primarily geared to family accommodation because that was mainly the demand for the bulk of our stock being built in response to the oil industry coming here.”
Citizens’ Advice Bureau (CAB) branch manager Sylvia Jamieson provided two examples of local individuals badly affected by the changes. The bureau has assisted both in applying for “discretionary housing payments” and, in the first case, a complete exemption.
One, a female client with severe mental health problems, requires an extra bedroom for a family member to stay in when she becomes unwell because she is prone to suicidal feelings. She is facing a 14 per cent “under-occupancy” penalty.
A Lerwick-based man with mental health problems is separated from his partner with whom he has children. His house has been specially adapted for one child who has disabilities.
Sylvia Jamieson said the man had a good relationship with his former partner, who is classed as the main carer.
Depending on his health, his children come to stay for between two and four nights a week. Yet he faces a 25 per cent “under-occupancy” penalty. “This is causing him considerable stress and contributing to his mental health problems,” she said.
Local trade unionist Brian Smith was one of those who took part in Saturday’s protest.
He said: “It’s ironic that this government of millionaires who have multiple bedrooms should become exercised about the fact that people living in council houses might have one or two extra. As might have been expected, this is a tax on the poor because they are poor and is at the heart of the Cameron government’s project.”
Anyone who is concerned about the impact of any of the changes to welfare, including the bedroom tax, can contact CAB for further information, advice and assistance by phoning (01595) 694696 or by emailing email@example.com.