Edinburgh Sometimes you think you’ve heard it all, when really you haven’t heard the half of it yet, which was how I felt yesterday after spending the day working with almost 30 activists from Edinburgh and Glasgow who were trying to plan out how to organize a campaign to push back the recently implemented “bedroom tax” in the United Kingdom.
The first thing to understand is that in the usual way of understanding a “tax,” the “bedroom tax” is not a tax at all but a cut in the amount of benefits for recipients with a clawback of 14% for the first “extra” bedroom and 25% for the second “extra” bedroom for those living in social or public housing. The program was proposed over the last six months and implemented within the last six weeks and organizers and housing residents are trying to make it through the muddle since there are no clear regulations that seem to be guiding application of the “tax” at all. What is the definition of an “extra” bedroom? No one seems clear.
Some council authorities left with administering these new national cutbacks are including storage rooms and workspaces. If a family has 5 children, then where there are two to a room, no problem, but the odd child out in a room would lead to application of the bedroom tax because the child is in a room alone, unless the child is over 16 in which case that’s OK according to the government. Huh? What? Are you still with me. And, of course if you are over 65, no problems how many bedrooms you might have, because the government didn’t want the political opposition from the elderly. Exemptions in some cases also exist for recent veterans, families with recent deaths, and in some cases for the disabled. The parliament in Scotland has stopped evictions, but what happens to the debt and how long can they hold out against Westminster?
The price of all of this local discretion is that if local authorities are pushed to be more liberal, and the national government in Westminster is unyielding, then they are stuck with the bill. If the “tax” is misapplied, then the local council’s can get some of the money back of course, but they will have to be pushed into that position. Virtually everyone in the room where we were meeting at Edinburgh University saw this as a concerted national campaign to starve social housing of funds, divide residents, and force councils to accelerate privatization schemes for social housing for private landlords.
With this much discretion, organizers seized on the notion of developing a “minimum standards” campaign, mobilizing the anger and demands of the housing residents to bend the discretionary authority towards the clarity of entitlements rather than one off favors for specific people in various places. Local benefits offices in Scotland are still located in the communities themselves making them easily accessible for quick organizing and direct mobilization and actions to turn in the forms and demand exemptions from the “tax” based on already acknowledged exceptions people have seen and exemptions that have not been clarified.
Before we broke for the day local tenants organizers were sketching plans to target specific neighborhoods for doorknocking next week, UNITE, a large UK union, was volunteering resources and capacity, community educators were offering to lend a hand and put in time for the organizing. There was excitement. A campaign seemed to be moving from anger to action, and old ACORN membership buttons and banners were being passed out. Something big could happen here with organizing in Scotland leading the way and becoming the tail wagging the dog throughout the country.