In many ways this is the most difficult article I've attempted to write on the Another Angry Voice blog. The subject is so ghastly that I have little inclination to dwell upon it, but it stands as such a damning indictment of government policy towards the most vulnerable in society that it must be addressed.
I am talking of course about the case of Grandmother and Myasthenia Gravis sufferer Stephanie Bottrill, who was driven by the stress of "Bedroom Tax" to commit suicide by stepping in front of a lorry on the M6 at 6:15 am one morning in May 2013. She left a note to her family saying "Don’t blame yourself for me ending my life. The only people to blame are the Government".
It's hard to pick fault with her assertion, especially given the revelation in January 2014 that the "Bedroom Tax" legislation was so clumsily drafted and administered that she wasn't even liable to pay it, yet the money was taken from her anyway, leaving her in desperate poverty and suffering terrible stress.
The people in similar situations who have survived their "Bedroom Tax" impoverishment without having killed themselves under the stress of it should surely be entitled to compensation. But judging by goings on last year, this isn't entirely certain. In March 2013 the Labour leadership were fully complicit in allowing Iain Duncan Smith to rush through an absurd piece of retroactive legislation, which had the duel purpose of keeping the £130 million he stole from the unemployed via his unlawful benefits sanctions regime and sticking two fingers up at the courts that had declared his botched Workfare legislation unlawful.*
Who is to say that Labour won't once again let Iain Duncan Smith retroactively rewrite his botched legislation, this time in order to keep his unlawfully collected "Bedroom Tax" fines?
The "Bedroom Tax" is an abominable piece of legislation. It is so atrocious that it is literally impossible to succinctly explain everything that is wrong with it in one article** but for the sake of the argument I'll cover a few established issues.
"Bedroom Tax" discriminates against disabled people. Some two thirds of families hit by bedroom tax have at least one severely disabled member.
There are simply not enough smaller houses available. One study found that smaller accommodation was not available for 96% of people affected by "Bedroom Tax". Even if they want to move out of their larger homes to somewhere smaller, there are just nowhere near enough available properties for them ever to dream of finding their way to the top of the local council priority list.
The oft repeated Tory narrative that the "Bedroom Tax" will "save" £480 million is a clear indicator that their stated objective of moving people out of larger properties is utterly misleading. The more people the Tories manage to shift out of their homes, the lower the rates of "Bedroom Tax" they could collect. This means that if the policy successfully drives people out of their homes, the projected savings figure is a fantasy, but if the projected savings figure is real, then extracting wealth from the poor is obviously the real objective, not chasing them out of their homes.
One of the perverse side effects of "Bedroom Tax" is that it chases people out of social housing altogether, but because rents in the private sector are much higher, the taxpayer ends up paying out more Housing Benefit rent subsidies than they did before! The people that are driven out of their social housing end up losing their security of tenure and their adequate housing standards, yet the taxpayer ends up paying more for it. From an economic perspective this is an atrocious outcome because the extra money that the state is shelling out isn't going to anything useful at all (such as infrastructure investment, education other services and the like) it feeds into the inflation of another property price bubble, and allows unproductive members of the rentier class to live a life of idleness, collecting the government subsidised rents on their speculative buy-to-let property investments.Returning to the tragic case of Stephanie Bottrill: Anyone with a modicum of belief in social justice should feel that extracting £80 a month from this woman's pitiful subsistence income was an absolute obscenity in light of the fact that just a few weeks prior to her suicide RBS - which is 82% owned by the taxpayer - handed out £607 million in bankers' bonuses despite losing another £5.2 billion over the course of 2012-13. Not only did the Tories lavish taxpayers' cash on RBS bankers in the form of bonuses, they also cut the top rate of income tax the month before Stephanie Bottrill's death, meaning tens of thousands a month in income boosts for RBS bankers, many of whom were the architects of the economic crisis that the Tories have shamelessly used to justify the numerous diabolical austerity measures they have imposed upon "the lower orders".
"Bedroom Tax" drives people to seek smaller accommodation in the virtually unregulated free for all of the private rental market, they lose their security of tenure and their adequate housing standards, yet the state pays more in housing benefit rent subsidies for the smaller property than it did paying the social housing rate on the larger property. Therefore, the more successful the policy, the more it costs the taxpayer!
I don't use the term "the lower orders" flippantly when I describe the Tory attitude towards the poor and ordinary. That this is their true attitude is evidenced by the Workfare policy that the Labour party hierarchy allowed Iain Duncan Smith to salvage with his "I'm above the law" retroactive legislation. A policy which allows the state to herd people like cattle to work for free in highly profitable corporations under threat of absolute impoverishment.
That's right: The Tories hold you in such contempt that if you lose your job for whatever reason, the Tories can strip you of your legally established employment rights and force you to work for no wage, in economically illiterate schemes designed to allow their corporate mates to profit by treating your labour as a free commodity.***
The DWP policy of subjecting the disabled to the Atos administered WCA regime provides another grotesque illustration of the Tory mentality towards "the lower orders". There have now been two court declarations that this WCA regime discriminates against those with mental health conditions, yet Iain Duncan Smith has simply carried on regardless with his policy of making the mentally ill undergo discriminatory assessment regimes.**** Iain Duncan Smith and the DWP are willingly continuing their campaign of terror and discrimination against the disabled because in their view, the victims of their regime are simply unimportant.
The Stephanie Bottrill case provides another searing illustration of the Tory us-and-them antipathy toward "the lower orders". I'm sure many of us can recall the well worn Tory narrative against the proposed Mansion Tax. Oh how they waxed on about the poor hypothetical mansion dwelling old lady, and how this cruel tax would force her out of her home. Yet this exact scenario has been played out tens of thousands of times over in the lives of real people, under this "Bedroom Tax" scheme devised by the very same Tories.
They clearly care much more deeply about the wealthy mansion dwelling old dear (even though she is hypothetical), than they do about the very real victims of their own "Bedroom Tax" regime. The Tories clearly have far more empathy for the hypothetical rich, than they do for the living and breathing poor and ordinary.
That "Bedroom Tax" is a poorly devised and maliciously motivated scheme developed by a government with a shocking antipathy towards "the lower orders", but it is worse even than that. Just like everything else in Iain Duncan Smith's chaotically administered DWP, the implementation was beyond incompetent. Not only was it belligerently imposed against widespread public and professional opposition, it was imposed on tens of thousands of people that should have been made exempt from paying it under the very rules the the Tories had just devised and passed into law. Stephanie Bottrill was one of the people that should have been exempt and now she is dead.
She was killed by a combination of Tory antipathy towards "the lower orders" and Iain Duncan Smith's exceptionally incompetent mismanagement of the DWP. Not only was "Bedroom Tax" bad policy, it was incompetently delivered.
I don't know enough about the life of Stephanie Bottrill to cast any significant judgement upon her as a person, but I feel confident in saying that she is clearly a martyr to Tory belligerence. Not only have the Tory party allowed a man that has been promoted way beyond his abilities to continue making one catastrophic blunder after another, they have continued to obligingly vote reams of his botched legislation through parliament without even bothering to read it, think about its implications or check that it is being applied in even a remotely competent manner.
In conclusion I would like to express my condolences to the friends and family of Stephanie Bottrill. To have lost a family member as a consequence of malicious government policy must have been hellish. To discover later that the "Bedroom Tax" fines that drove her to suicide weren't even applicable in her case must be even worse. I would also like to spare a thought for the poor HGV driver that Stephanie Bottrill stepped out in front of. This person will probably suffer the trauma of that event for the rest of their life, a trauma that would never have happened were the Tories not such a malicious bunch. Neither would it have happened were they a serious political party that would never dream of letting a callous and incompetent intellectual pygmy like Iain Duncan Smith anywhere near a position of power and responsibility.
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* Although this sounds preposterously far-fetched, it is absolutely true. Here's the article I wrote at the time - which includes a list of the few honourable Labour MPs that defied the party leadership demands that they collude with Iain Duncan Smith by abstaining on all of the votes as it was rushed through parliament in a single day.
**although I have tried to outline some of its innumerable flaws. In four separate articles have still only scratched the surface of what an atrocious piece of legislation it is. Here are my four previous articles on the subject:
*** The Tory cabinet minister Mark Hoban has explicitly stated his belief that the state has a "right" to extract and distribute the labour of the citizen under threat of absolute destitution (here's my analysis of those comments). To put a libertarian hat on for a moment, I don't believe the state should have the right to coerce the individual to surrender their labour rights under threat of poverty, starvation and/or homelessness.
- Bedroom Tax and Tory hypocrisy
- Why I oppose "Bedroom Tax"
- The flawed "Bedroom Tax" justification narrative
- "Bedroom Tax": taxing the poor to subsidise the rich
**** Here's my article exploring many of the implications of Iain Duncan Smith's discriminatory regime against the mentally ill.