The government has been accused of failing in its duty of care towards disabled people, after an inquest heard how a disabled woman wrote a suicide note blaming the “bedroom tax” for her decision to kill herself.
Stephanie Bottrill, from Solihull, died early on 4 May last year, hours after she had told her GP about the stress and anxiety the government’s housing policies were causing her.
In evidence to the inquest, her GP said Bottrill had expressed unhappiness at being pushed by the housing department of Solihull council to decide in just half an hour whether she would move to a smaller property.
Last year, her death led to national headlines after her adult son showed reporters a suicide note she had written the night before she died, in which she blamed the bedroom tax – known by the government as the spare room subsidy removal – and wrote that “the only people to blame [for her death] are the government”.
Bottrill had been living alone in a three-bedroom house – after her two grown-up children had moved out – but Solihull council had told her that because of the bedroom tax she was now “under-occupying” the property and would face a cut in her housing benefit if she did not move to a smaller home.
The inquest also heard that she had a long-term health condition and a history of anxiety and depression, and had previously taken an overdose.
The coroner recorded a verdict of suicide and said it had been clear that she had felt under considerable stress and anxiety.
But Maureen, a neighbour and friend of Bottrill’s on Solihull’s Kingshurst estate, told Disability News Service that she blamed the bedroom tax “100 per cent” for her death.
She said: “She was frightened of it. She didn’t want to leave here. She was adamant that she wanted to stay in Kingshurst.
“Everybody round here knew her and she used to make us laugh. All the shopkeepers knew her. She was lovely, a nice person.
“I think she was here about 19 years. To move away was the absolute last thing that she wanted to do. She was really upset about leaving the area. It would have been absolutely cruel to move her.
“She said she couldn’t afford to stay and she had got to move to a smaller property. She said she was struggling with money.”
Maureen said that one of the two properties Bottrill was offered was in Shirley, a 45-minute bus ride away.
“I personally think the council went about it all wrong, but I can’t prove that. You’re not dealing with a piece of paper and a machine, you’re dealing with a person.
“I had a go at one of the local councillors and said we don’t ever want this to happen again.”
Ian Jones, one of the founders of the WOWcampaign, expressed sympathy for Bottrill’s family, and said: “Irrespective of whether the bedroom tax was a causal or contributory factor in this tragedy, it is clear it was a factor and that this, and many other deaths where government policy has been a factor, were entirely foreseeable.
“This government failed to exercise any duty of care towards sick and disabled people when framing their welfare reforms and their continuing refusal to undertake a cumulative impact assessment of these reforms strongly suggests that they were planned as a deliberate crime against humanity.”
Solihull council insisted that it had not forced Bottrill to make a decision in half an hour on whether to move to a new home.
A spokeswoman for the Conservative-run council said: “She had a long history of problems and issues. There is no way we would ever make somebody make a decision as important as that in 30 minutes. We would never do that.
“She wasn’t told she would have to do anything. Her situation was that she was in a house that the government policy said was too big so she would have to pay a spare room subsidy – what they called a bedroom tax.”
She said the council had discussed the options with her, and one of them was to stay where she was.
The spokeswoman said Bottrill had been told she would qualify for a discretionary housing payment, and that “based on the information we know” this payment would have covered the extra rent she would have needed to pay to stay in her house.
But she claimed that Bottrill had “said she wanted to move” and that she had “bid” on 11 properties, and had been successful with two of those bids, so would have been able to choose between those two.
She said: “Tragically before we had the chance to do anything else it happened.
“It is not a matter for us to speculate on what drove somebody to suicide. A lot of her personal background came out. Long-standing problems. We wouldn’t speculate on the cause of somebody’s suicide. It would be morally wrong. These things are very complicated.
“We feel it is an absolute tragedy. It is very sad, and condolences to the family.”
Rob Punton, Birmingham representative for Disabled People Against Cuts, said it was “appalling” that the council had “tried to denigrate her”.
He said: “She had been forced to do this. They are trying to denigrate her character to take the responsibility away from them and the issues, by making it sound as if she was the problem and it wasn’t their responsibility.
“To blacken a person’s name who cannot answer back just is an appalling way for any local or national government to act towards its citizens.”
Punton, who lived near Bottrill and works for Solihull council as an “expert by experience”, ensuring the council addresses issues of importance to disabled people, said the bedroom tax was “not the only reason but it obviously contributed in a major way” to her decision to end her own life.
He added: “We all think the bedroom tax should be abolished and go the same way as the poll tax. If they can do it in Scotland, why can’t they do it here?”
14 August 2014