Bedroom tax drives John to food bank

The bedroom tax, if it has its way, is set to destroy John’s life. This is a man who really deserves a break. He brought up his two youngest children on his own since they were 12. He also has a head injury and has been on employment support allowance (ESA). He also receives Disability Living Allowance at the lowest rate. He’s not allowed to use a cooker because of his head injury, so his kind neighbour cooks the occasional meal for him. She also does his shopping.

John, 56, can’t afford a landline or a mobile, but his neighbour lets him make calls on her phone as necessary. She’s his key support in life, but the bedroom tax looks like it will force him to move away from her and to leave the home he’s lived in for 25 years. John’s kids have left home now, and he’s now faced with paying £44 a fortnight in bedroom tax, including arrears. He’s also being asked to pay £16 a fortnight in water rates. Out of his ESA he also has to pay council tax, gas, and electricity bills. ‘The bedroom tax has really clobbered me. The budget that’s been hit is the one for food. The money I was using for food now has to go on bedroom tax,’ says John. So he’s been forced to come to this London Trussell Trust food bank for help.

He’s applied for a discretionary housing payment (DHP). Each local council is given a pot of money to help those on housing benefit who are having trouble paying their rent. John says councils are not flagging up the existence of DHPs.

But something wonderful just may be on the horizon…. Could the bedroom tax be dead? According to @SPeyeJoe who blogs at Welfarewrites, the bedroom tax is, like the dead parrot, ‘over, defunct, brown bread, deceased, late…..’. In his excellent blog, he says that a recent ‘hugely significant’ appeal win in South Wales appears to be the ‘first known judgment to use the Bolton definition of “bedroom” to mean a room needs to be used or furnished as a bedroom to be a bedroom’. Welfarewrites says that what also follows from this is that ‘your local council needs to know that a room in your property is used as or furnished as a bedroom and they can only do this by coming out to inspect’. He also points out that ‘no council has the time or the resources to go out and inspect every one of the properties that are bedroom tax affected’.

He concludes that ‘every single bedroom tax household can and should appeal their bedroom tax decision made for the 2013/14 financial year as there is no way that their council could have known that rooms in their properties were used as or furnished as a bedroom’.

I’ll be passing this information back to John. Thank you for your hard work, Welfarewrites.

Mark left the food bank today with…boots

Mark and his new(ish) boots
Mark and his new(ish) boots
Mark, who visited the food bank last week, called into this London Trussell Trust food bank today – and walked out with new boots!

Apparently, word got round to one of the volunteers at another food bank in the borough that his only pair of shoes were falling apart. So she kindly brought in a pair of size nines from home. She also gave him two great jackets.

The 29-year-old, who has a dry way with him, told me: “I’m only saying this because there’s no men here. I’m giddy with excitement.” I could tell he was fairly pleased, though. Happy weekend, all.

Mark and the Jobseeker’s Allowance/Payday Loan Diet

House prices aren’t the only thing taking off in London. There’s been a big spike recently in the numbers using this Trussell Trust food bank. Last week  13 clients came in with their vouchers during the three-hour weekly slot that  we’re open. That’s a significant increase on before Christmas. I’ll be trying to collate numbers this week to see if that  January increase is reflected at the other food banks in the borough.

One of the clients who came in just before the weekend was Mark, an endearing  man of 29, who had used another food bank at the start of the week. That supply would have seen him through for a minimum of three days. This time he didn’t have a voucher (the worker from the job centre who usually allocates them wasn’t available), but he decided to call in with us anyway. He brought us a box of biscuits he’d received from the food bank to say thanks for the earlier help. We weren’t able to give him a nutritionally balanced package of food without a voucher, but we gave him some bits and pieces that were still in date, and a loaf of bread that had been brought in that morning.

Mark has been receiving  jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) for some time. His last job was agency work as a barman and waiter. The company got bought out, and Mark ended up being paid two weeks after he did a shift. He told me: “I could be called up on the day, and I had to pay out £40 a week for my travel card, as the work took me all over London. I just couldn’t afford it.”

He tells me that he normally sets aside a small amount (£18-40) a fortnight for food. He carefully juggled all this and it was tricky. But recently things got harder, as he started paying off a hire purchase agreement to BrightHouse for a PC. He uses the PC (which he describes as his lifeline)  to prepare and send off job applications. Being poor is expensive. A typical BrightHouse HP agreement involves an APR of 70 per cent. He’s also paying off another loan from The Money Shop, where short-term loans of up £1,000 typically have an APR of 2961.4 per cent. He says his problems were also made worse (probably before Christmas) by bills coming out of his account earlier than he expected.

To make matters worse he got ill in October, when he hurt his right shoulder and arm, and the right side of his neck. This really affected his original  food budget (which assumed one to two meals a day), as the painkillers he’s taking require him to eat more regularly. It got to the point where he has needed to pay out £4.40 a week more than is paid in – and that’s before buying food. The injury is in danger of turning into a chronic health problem. Mark is also paying a Sky subscription. Some will point a finger here and say he shouldn’t be doing this if he can’t afford food. But try standing his shoes (size nines – needing superglue as the soles have come off) for a while…

Mark has a kind heart. On the day he was in he put his name down to become a volunteer at the food bank. He also helps his neighbour (in her 80s) to carry her heavy shopping. That won’t be doing his arm much good. What does he think will happen next, and what would he like from life in the future? I tell him I see him as very good with people and extremely thoughtful.  “In the short term I’m going to keep struggling to feed myself. A nice steady job would help and somewhere of my own to live (he has slept on a friend’s sofa for more than six years).” I suggest he goes back to see his GP and asks for better medication, some physiotherapy and help with applying  for employment and support allowance (ESA). The higher rate of ESA would make a difference until his health improves.

He looks gaunt, and says that he’s lost substantial amounts of weight over the last few years – about three stones, he thinks. Being on JSA is not good for your health. The Council of Europe in Strasbourg has recently said that welfare payments in the UK , including JSA (£67 a week) are manifestly inadequate. Our Government doesn’t agree.