Last Thursday saw the first bedroom tax court cases in Barnet. We learned about it by a chance the night before, and sent out a call out to support those threatened with eviction. Our members who attended the court came out with a sense of urgency and a clear need for a campaign to tackle this horribly unjust new tax. Similar campaigns in other boroughs resulted in councils deciding not to evict social housing tenants for rent arrears stemming from the bedroom tax.
The following is Julian Silverman’s report:
Following the email request last Thursday morning I went to the court where bedroom tax cases were being heard. I went at 11.00am as specified. Actually there were cases in another court as well, starting from 10.00 am. This is big!I was not able to make contact with anybody from BAPS. You have to register with the clerk in the right waiting room before the right court room, so you creep up and whisper your name. He asks you which hearing you are going to and what your connection to the case in hand is. I say I am a member of the public and I want to witness the operation of justice. He declares that it is at the judge’s discretion to decide whether people are allowed in court or not. This is a pretty scandalous ‘interpretation’ of the rules, in my opinion, but I just said “well ask him”.He did, and I was allowed in to watch from the back the operation of the law: the oh so sleek, swift, silent surgical slaughter of the weak by the mechanical operations of high finance and the state: a bizarre noiseless, mirthless puppet show.
Everybody played their part correctly, from the bumbling but totally uncharming Barnet Homes agents and their lawyers, holding on for the duration, not entirely at ease in their adopted postures of professionalism intended to mask their impatience, disrespect, triumph, or occasional disappointment but releasing it in the odd barely noticeable ‘knee-jerk’ flick of the wrist or involuntary snarl. The judge apologised to them on those occasions when they had to ripple the stagnant air and get up and walk round the tables to give him documents he required. Everything went as it had to go.
They won their cases pretty quickly (having mostly agreed terms with the victims prior to the hearing). When they left they said “thank you, sir” and in one case wished the judge “a nice day. “I’ll try” he mumbled. In almost every case they were asking for a suspended possession order: i.e. the threat of eviction delayed so long as the rent is paid week by week + arrears in weekly instalments of £3.60 [the minimum allowed] + £226.75 costs. The arrears varied from some £hundreds to over £2000. The rents were all around £120 - £140 a week. Some had housing benefit some had not. Many cases were presented as “one-sided” [i.e. no one was representing the defendant].
Where the defendants were present they also played their part. They were all suitably humble and awed. They did not protest. Not even the Daily Mail could have invented a ‘scrounger’ out of any of them. For most of the time “bedroom tax’ was not raised an an issue - or as the cause of the arrears mounting up, although this must have been the reason in most cases. [After all, even arrears of £2000 represents no longer than the time since benefits were cut and bedroom tax introduced]. Then the question could be avoided no longer: a Barnet Homes rep [the one who later dared to wish the judge a nice day] spoke of a ‘spare room charge’. The judge asked what that was, and somebody had to translate.
All had paid in relatively large payments recently. In one case the defendant had seemed to have been in credit because of an overpayment by the council. [She had made efforts to inform the council, but the council had taken no action]. Suddenly they demanded it back. In other cases sons and daughters were moving in and out, growing up, moving back after university etc…. One victim had had to wait a year till the council confirmed that she was entitled to benefit after all. In another case another had tried to challenge a decision to deny her benefit. It had taken month after month. Since legal aid was cut so drastically this was hard and slow. She won in the end, but the council will not date back entitlement more than three months. [I was caught by this rule too]. Some were ready to take smaller places and had tried for months for a swap, but their street was regarded as undesirable. [No doubt this is the sort of factor behind the council's new offers policy of one take-it-or-leave-it choice]. Others needed the ‘extra’ room and would have been entitled to job seekers’ allowance which would help pay the bedroom tax for it, but had been working irregular hours - she was not earning enough to pay for the child-care she needed….and so on and so on.
In all cases the judge was cool, suave and reasonable. Within the limits of the law he showed some understanding and flexibility. But he also made plain the law. Payments had to start right away, mostly this Monday, and one missed payment would entitle the council to apply for repossession and eviction. All left relieved and troubled. This is just the start of the grand offensive against the poor. We in BAPS have not started to be active on these issues yet. It would have been inappropriate for me to do anything but sit and watch at this stage, although I would have liked to make contact with the people concerned - particularly the woman who go in touch with us.
This would be a good occasion to begin our campaign. It will be much needed. There will be more and more actual attempted repossessions as pay and benefits fall behind prices and rents. We must join forces with those we can reach and as a minimum demand of councillors and any prospective councillors whom we could possibly support that they pledge now
- NO EVICTIONS for non-payment of bedroom tax:
- reclassification of rooms to bypass the act
- take back the council tax now for the first time being demanded of working age claimants. Return to the option offered by the government: make the savings elsewhere
- discuss with tenants, the homeless, home-owners and all concerned a series of policies to deal with the homes catastrophe: policies for housing all those in need of housing in Barnet.