Saturday, 18 May 2013

Mrs Bottrill is the first casualty of austerity- she won’t be the last.

Remember the name Stephanie Bottrill; in life she was obscure; in death she earned a bitter sort of fame. When she threw herself in front of a lorry on the M6 Mrs Bottril became the first casualty of the austerity policies pushed by the coalition government since 2010.

Her suicide was, it has emerged, motivated by the stress caused her by the removal of £80 per month in housing benefits under the ‘bedroom tax’. In a letter written to her son she wrote ‘don’t blame yourself for me ending my life; the only people to blame are the government.’

In an interview given to the Sunday People Mrs Bottrill’s son said his mother, who had lost 25% of her housing benefit under the withdrawal of the ‘spare room subsidy’, had been struggling to cope. Previously she had, he said, been in good spirits, commenting on the ‘bedroom tax’ he added ‘it was dreamt up in London by people in offices and big houses. They have no idea the effect it has on people like my mum.’

Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls told Sky News Mrs Bottrill’s suicide was a ‘tragedy’ and that the changes to housing benefit were ‘driving people to the edge of despair.’

David Jamieson, Labour Group Leader on Solihull Council, also speaking to Sky News, said he was ‘absolutely appalled this poor lady has taken her own life because she was worried how she would pay the bedroom tax.’ He added that in the light of what happened to Mrs Bottrill the government would ‘sit up and take notice and reconsider this policy.’

Although small beer in comparison to the horrors enacted in Syria on a daily basis the death of Mrs Bottrill marks a turning point for the Cameron government, the moment when it stopped being comically inept and became a menace. Stephen Bottrill is right to lay the blame for his mother’s death at the door of the coalition, however hard David Cameron, Iain Duncan Smith and George Osborne wash their hands it is a damned spot they will never be able to remove.

Before the 2010 election Iain Duncan Smith put forward the analysis that the welfare system was harming rather than helping the poorest people in society and needed to be reformed. In this he was quite correct, the welfare state is a creation of the 1940’s that has had bits bolted on over the subsequent decades at the whim ministers who pass like ships in the night. As a result it has become a confusing and perverse tangle that neither claimants nor administrators can understand.

What was needed, according to Mr Duncan Smith, was a programme of simplification allied to a change of culture so the system actively worked with claimants to help them back into work whilst giving real support to those people who genuinely can’t work. Again he was right; so how did things go so wrong?

The went wrong at the point when having entered office Iain Duncan Smith signed up to the myth of ‘austerity’ being the solution to every economic problem that has hoodwinked the rest of this hapless government. He has compounded this mistake by setting up a fatuous conflict between ‘strivers’ and ‘skivers.’

Let’s be clear Mrs Bottrill was not in any way a ‘skiver’ by all accounts she was an honest and hard working woman. Freeloaders, be they fraudulent benefits claimants or city traders who bend the rules don’t worry themselves to the point of suicide over going into debt; they max out their credit card and yours too without a thought.

Neither do they queue up at food banks every week as many Britons just like Mrs Bottrill do every day; they order up the sort of banquet that would make Henry VIII feel faint then saunter off leaving someone else to pick up the tab.

Most of the people who will be hit hard by the ‘bedroom tax’ and the rest of the austerity agenda aren’t ‘scroungers’ riding for free they’re hard working people struggling to make ends meet.

The tax that drove this innocent woman to her death has nothing to do with fairness; it is manifestly unjust, or even to do with balancing the books. It is an exercise in pure political cynicism, an attempt to blow long and hard on the dog whistle to appeal to disenchanted Tory voters in the shires whilst using the sillier end of the tabloid press to set the people hurt most by the cuts fighting amongst themselves.

Shamefully it seems to have worked, all week the media has focussed on the tedious squabble within the Conservative Party over Europe. Once upon a time Labour would fought the corner of women like Mrs Bottrill, not any more, the grassroots are demoralised and the leadership, after making the required noises moved on to the next photo-opportunity and the next sound bite.

Those people who think fairness is more than just a glib phrase used by politicians on the make should remember Stephanie Bottrill and how she died, particularly when it comes to casting their vote.

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