An account of Karen’s experience of fighting the Bedroom Tax.
Alone, surrounded by ancient trees, with mud under my feet, I trampled through woods attempting to find my way to HM Courts and Tribunal Service Newport, panicking that I wouldn’t make it on time.
On arrival, as dreams do, the scene skipped forward to inside the building where I found myself covered in mud, surrounded by long tables and ordinary chairs but few people. A futuristic announcement system called my name and I looked around in horror. I had lost my notes and preparation amongst the trees. A tear rolled down my cheek and fell on the parquet flooring and I watched silently as it seeped into the wood.
I looked up to meet the eyes of a woman, whom I recognised from a previous dream. She and an accomplice had plied me with potent acorn shots and planted an acorn inside my forehead. The woman was now the judge. She asked me forgotten questions to which I cannot remember my answers, but laughed with me and cried with me and finally nodded and sent me home having no idea of the outcome.
Days later, I awoke feeling nauseous. The day had arrived in reality. I readied myself for the drive, telling myself that in a few hours a journey I embarked upon over a year previous would soon be over whilst pinning a Death to the Bedroom Tax badge on the pocket of my jacket.
The travail to Newport as a passenger soon brought my dream back to life. I watched silently as the junction we were meant to be exiting on faded into the distance wondering if I would ever make it on time. Wrong turn number two resulted in heading the wrong way and I looked out onto a never ending road stretching before me towards infinity, panicking that I wouldn’t make it on time.
I text Marie who was to be my McKenzie friend to inform the clerk I was delayed.
On arrival at the Tribunal, an office building, I was greeted by her and a group of supporters. The clerk checked me in at reception after a quick scan for security purposes and I was asked if I needed any documents photocopied for the tribunal
and if I had a representative. That would be I.
I chose to represent myself as it is my opinion that no-one is more qualified to speak for me than I. Tribunals are set up with this in mind and people often appear on their own without a representative. Everyone is different and the choice is yours.
We were then shown to a waiting room. The waiting room was quiet, calm and sparse with just a water dispenser containing chilled water and a few plastic plants. I later became aware that we waited in a separate waiting room to Caerphilly Borough County Council (CCBC)’s presenting officers and the clerk came to collect me separately when the tribunal was ready for the hearing.
The room where the tribunal hearing was to take place was furnished with tables laid out in a square, and ordinary chairs. Two presenting officers from CCBC sat at the table to the left, opposite a typist who would be recording proceedings on the table to the right. A jug with water and plastic cups rested on an unoccupied table.
Judge R. was already sitting down when we entered the room. He greeted us as we came in and checked who was who before we sat down. After introductions he explained that if I had no legal training I should be aware that it wasn’t going to be anything like what happens on television. I replied that I didn’t own one.
Then he asked if we had seen the others (the Council representatives) come into the room just before us – He said, “They’ve only just come in … they weren’t here before you.” I think he was meaning to say that ‘impartiality is important here’.
Behind us a row of chairs against the wall were laid out for observers. My appeal tribunal was to be witnessed and observed by friends, supportive members of Cor Cochion (Cardiff Reds Choir).
The judge enquired if I agreed to them being present and stated that they would be asked to leave if I wasn’t comfortable. I remain happy with the thought that a few more people have witnessed, observed and experienced a Bedroom Tax appeal tribunal and was not in the least perturbed by their presence. I hope they will share their experience with others and also be able to tell a story of how once upon a time they witnessed a tenant taking and exercising her rights in her fight against an unfair policy and a corrupt system.
No opening statement was expected and I would describe the experience as having an informal meeting about the layout of my home and my circumstances.
Judge R. began by talking about how to bring my case to tribunal had cost upwards of £1000 and that I had nothing to gain compared to other people he had seen, due to the Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP) I had been awarded and my heart sank.
I listened, waiting for a chance to explain that I didn’t believe I should have been charged Bedroom Tax and that I thought it to be a mistake. That it was my opinion that the council, my landlord, had included a room measuring less than the 70sq ft deemed suitable for an adult in their calculations to determine I was ‘under-occupying’ and that any DHP should be paid back into the ‘pot’ by the DWP as my Housing Benefit (HB) should have continued to have been paid by the DWP.
The judge seemed satisfied with this and continued to ask questions to clarify my arguments and looked at the facts at the time and situation from all points of view, gathering a picture along the way. He checked whether anyone in the house was on any disability payments or had special needs or a carer. Nothing like this was in my submission, so he explained why he was asking these kinds of questions. He said that he had an inquisitorial role – and the process was less formal than a court would be. Marie says that she took this to mean that to do his job he needed to ask for the facts he needed to know himself, not listen to lawyers putting points to him. That’s why he was checking any possible reasons I might have been charged the bedroom tax wrongly – not just the reasons I had thought of myself. He did the same later for CCBC’s presenting officers, asking them if they had followed all guidance.
Since I hadn’t submitted photographs I was asked to paint a mental picture of my home. In hindsight I would have sent or relied on photos though the judge remarked that I had described my home beautifully. The Judge took detailed notes regarding the kitchen and bathroom and all other rooms in the house, including the gas fire and back boiler in the sitting room. He agreed that for overcrowding purposes the room in question was a half room, suitable for a child, but said that the overcrowding regulations included other rooms in a house, and state that a living room can be used for sleeping in – but not if it has a gas appliance.
Around this time he told Marie that it was fine to speak up if she had a point to make – that she didn’t have to pass me notes. Marie says that this helped her feel a lot more comfortable being there and that he was really interested in getting at the facts not enforcing a stuffy procedure.
He then went on to ask where everyone slept – at all the various stages of my children growing up, throughout the history of us living in the house, including what furniture there had been in the rooms at various times and what they had been used for when not for sleeping in.
The presenting officers from CCBC didn’t interrupt at all. All the time he spoke to me, they just listened. When he was finished and checked whether I had anything else to add, he turned to the officers and asked them a few questions – much fewer than he asked me.
He then summed up my case, which bits he was leaving out and which were relevant. He said ‘…so you’re arguing that the third room is too small to be a bedroom and couldn’t be let to a lodger… ’ We tried to add the ‘room use’ argument, but he kind of over-ruled that by saying that I had used it as a bedroom at times. Marie asked if it was relevant how CCBC had made their decision – he said not, that they had asked me how many bedrooms I had, as well as asking the ‘landlord’. He reminded us the ‘human rights’ arguments had been ruled out by a higher tribunal and he had to be bound by that.
Then he said he had to decide whether this room, in these circumstances, was to be classed as a bedroom for the purposes of the tax. After further questions asked of the presenting officers the judge said that he thought he had come to a decision. He spoke about the internet and that whilst both parties would have a right to publish and upload the judgement that it would be wise to redact names, Nino and case no. He also asked that I did not reveal his name. He doesn’t really like being on the internet – people quote him back to himself!
I found the judge to be objective in his approach, helpful and human. He spoke to me as an equal, with respect and fairness, using ordinary language.
I found the officers to be respectful, patient and perhaps nervous. I hope they too have an experience they can now call upon to feed back to other officers to help tenants affected by cuts to their income or benefits.
Sometimes a decision is made on the day. In my case the judge wanted to take more time and sent it at a later date. Whilst it was a relief to have finally had my voice heard, it was also a time of conflicting uncertainty and hope. Sometimes, whilst going over what was said, I had regrets and negative thoughts but mostly I was positive and excited to know the outcome and to have some closure.
The journey to get there was a struggle in itself. I went from taking to the internet in November of 2012 to research a new life, planning to abandon society for a simple life living off-grid in the woods, to deciding to fight against what I view as a cruel, unfair policy that judges and penalises someone for not having enough money to pay for some ‘spare’ space by reducing the amount the law says one needs to live on. I had discovered http://speye.wordpress.com and become aware of my rights as a tenant and how to exercise them thanks to freely available, accessible information shared by Joe Halewood and requested more information early in March 2013 and an appeal form.. I never received one.
After joining Bedroom Tax related groups on social media site Facebook, having no prior experience of politics or activism, I created a placard ‘Death to the Bedroom Tax’ and took to the streets of Cardiff where I met members of Cardiff Against the Bedroom Tax and later in April attended a workshop with the aim of gaining support to help others in my community whom I knew would be affected by this filthy policy and was an instigator in the setting up of Caerphilly County Against the Bedroom Tax and remain an active member today.
I also had a point to prove and a message to deliver to other tenants. Throughout the past year I have witnessed my landlord (which is also my local council) supply tenants with misinformation, namely that there is no right to appeal and that it (Bedroom Tax) has to be paid as it is the law.
I made a complaint about this to CCBC in 2013 and was sent an email mentioning ‘Legal and Professional Privilege’, called to clarify and was told I needed to ask permission to speak of it to anyone but a solicitor. The past is gone, mistakes were made and one hopes never again to hear those words.
I wanted to illustrate to other tenants that they DO indeed have the right to appeal even if they have been told otherwise.
I did not believe it fair to be wrongly charged with ‘under-occupancy’ and Bedroom Tax on a room deemed only suitable for a child under 10. I appealed on principal. The judge agreed with me. The DHP I was mistakenly awarded (for proving ‘financial hardship’) should now be paid back into the ‘pot’ by the DWP to be made available for other tenants who need it.
Thank you to Marie Walsh, my McKenzie friend who was there for me when I stumbled and to everyone who supported me along the way.
The fight is far from over and my journey has not ended; it has just begun.
In Solidarity, ‘til death, there is no going back,