Austerity is here to stay for the foreseeable future, British Conservative and Labour politicians have admitted. Meanwhile, the ongoing effects of public sector cuts, benefit sanctions, combined with the recession are continuing to reverse women's position in society. The most vulnerable women have been affected by the abolition of council tax benefit, which has seen thousands of the country's poorest in court, facing rising court costs and debts, bailiffs and ultimately prison.
For most of her life, Sheila Winder had lived in Sandwell, in the west Midlands. In 2008, she moved to neighbouring Dudley, to escape domestic violence. Her son repeatedly visited her new address, and was also abusive which gave Winder no option but to leave the address and present herself as homeless to Dudley Council. Dudley Council offered her a room in a women-only hostel, funded by Dudley, but located back in Sandwell. Shortly afterwards, she was offered a tenancy in the area by Sandwell Council.
This was where her financial problems began. Winder was one of 870,793 to be sanctioned by the Jobcentre in 2013, reducing her subsistence Jobseekers allowance from £71.70 per week, to £42. With no other income, capital or assets, she had to pay all day-to-day expenses with the remaining money. With a gas and electric bill totalling £30, and a £10 water bill every week, this left Winder with a paltry £2 for food and travel.
But matters worsened. Sandwell Council declared that because Winder had left the area briefly, she fell foul of a rule introduced in 2013, that stated in order to be eligible for council tax relief, applicants must have been resident in Sandwell for the previous two years. The fact that Winder, who’d lived in Sandwell for almost 48 years, had moved to the neighbouring borough to escape a violent relationship, meant she was now presented with a £660.02 council tax bill, working out at £12.69 a week. She did not pay - cursory arithmetic shows it was impossible to pay with only £2 remaining after utility bills every week. On the 16th July 2013, she received a summons for £732.02, including costs. The Magistrates’ Court issued a liability order on the 20th August, followed by a pre-bailiff’s notification on the 16th September. In April 2014, she was made homeless, and Sandwell Council cleared her arrears. Child Poverty Action Group argued that Winder and two other women should never have been exempt from council tax relief, and took the council to court in a test case.
Winder’s story isn’t uncommon. Since the abolition of council tax benefit in April 2013, councils have struggled to mitigate a 10% central funding cut whilst keeping services running. Central government instructed all councils to come up with a localised scheme to replace council tax benefit, whilst simultaneously cutting the budget to do so. 71% of council chose to implement minimum payments, meaning households that previously weren’t liable found a council tax bill landing on their doormat unexpectedly.
Since then, courts across the country have been thronged with the poorest in society, summonsed by councils for bills they cannot pay. At Tottenham Magistrates court late last year, I spoke to dozens of people who were both confused and angry at the fact they’d been charged. Several young people assumed it was a clerical error until the summons arrived. Lone mothers and full-time carers simply couldn’t pay - money was tight anyway, their fuel bills had risen, and many were also hit by the bedroom tax. What is particularly cruel about the imposition of council tax on the poorest, is the fact that non-payment carries the risk of a prison sentence and criminal record.
Few people do, however, end up going to prison because magistrates courts order an attachment of benefits order. The money owed is deducted automatically from the individual’s benefits before it even reaches their bank. For people on jobseekers’ allowance, or employment support allowance these payments are already set at subsistence levels - removing even a small amount upends meagre household budgets. One woman in Essex who’d been hit by both the bedroom tax, and then a council tax summons told me she ate only sandwiches now, to cut her fuel bills, and squeeze her food budget as far as it would go. Council tax also varies wildly across councils - residents paying the minimum in Enfield showed me they were required to pay around £6 a week. Unemployed people living in nearby Harrow were asked for £454 a year; the equivalent of six weeks' jobseekers’ allowance, or 12% of their annual income.
Visiting courts dealing with people summonsed for council tax, one thing stood out - most of the people arriving in the waiting room were women. A little digging showed this wasn’t a coincidence - the council tax changes have hit women hardest. Even accepting that women are often the poorest in the society, the carers and the unemployed, the fact that many councils such as Sandwell have added a residency test for reductions in council tax means this policy hits women hardest.
The judge presiding over the Sandwell case, brought on behalf of three women by Child Poverty Action Group, accepted that Sandwell’s policy indirectly discriminated against women and disabled people, and that the council had not conducted an equality impact assessment. Sandwell’s stated reasons for the policy are revealing: the council’s representatives explained they expected a huge influx of low income households displaced from London due to the housing crisis and the benefit cap. The residency test was designed to deter new residents, making it financially unviable for households in receipt of benefits to relocate to Sandwell. Sandwell, and other councils instituting residency tests will now have to examine their policy and consider the impact on women and the most vulnerable.
Sandwell’s fears, while misguided aren’t unfounded. Families, especially single parent families usually headed by women, have been forced out of London at an alarming rate. Many women, presenting as homeless to councils in the south east are given the option of a place up to 200 miles away from their established home, and if the place is rejected, they are deemed to have made themselves intentionally homeless and ineligible for housing support. Camden Council alone plan to move 761 poor families out of London, as far afield as Birmingham, Bradford and Leicester.
A group of young homeless mothers in east London have been battling Newham Council for a year, over plans to move them out of the borough, to the Midlands or Hastings. As the women point out, given the prohibitive cost of childcare in the UK, ripping them away from their families and support networks, who could offer to share caring responsibilities, consigns them to long term joblessness.
Even women who do accept places in other boroughs then meet the same problem as the women in CPAG’s test case. Domestic violence victims who often have to move to escape dangerous situations, displaced families and asylum seekers all fail the council tax residency tests. Women who would be unable to afford even the minimum council tax payments are instead charged the standard rate due to circumstances entirely beyond their control. Add to that the fact that the abolition of the social fund, which provided emergency payments to people in financial distress hits women and children hardest, and it’s undeniable that austerity is a gendered assault on some of the most vulnerable.
The most recent political narrative being peddled is that the economy is in recovery, that the effects of the recession are being weathered and living standards are climbing to pre-2008 levels. Aside from the shaky foundation of the recovery, and the fact that productivity is still alarmingly low, this completely disregards the nature and impact of cuts that occurred since 2010. The social and psychological impact of the cuts and austerity measures is long term, and unpredictable - the average household may see their earnings rise slightly, but the poorest, especially women can expect no such relief. The rate of sanctions, the impact of the benefit cap, the bedroom tax, and the abolition of council tax benefit might impact bank balances short term, but extinguish life chances long term. The Office for National Statistics reported that for the first time since 2008, the gender pay gap has widened to 19.7%, while the Women’s Budget Group found that single mothers have lost 15.6% of their disposable income due to government spending cuts.
The triple bind women find themselves in, with benefit cuts, job losses, and diminished services means that the recovery is completely relative. Middle income households, men in the workforce, and the top earners may feel the benefit quite soon. Women, especially poor women, disabled women, and women caring for children or family members, can see little hope for improvement in life quality or equality of opportunity. The effects of poverty are rarely temporary, and the prisms of inequality focussed on women through austerity measures will have a long term negative impact on wider society. The destructiveness of a policy that deters women in violent relationships from leaving the area may have been exposed - but the collective impact of austerity on women will be harder to reverse.