Stephanie Bottrill was a 53 year-old grandmother who had lived in her terraced house in Solihull for 18 years, bringing up her children as a struggling single parent, nurturing the cherished back garden which was her pride and joy. Here she’d buried the pet cats she had loved; here was the area of calm she called her “special place”, where she could feel at peace. Then the Bedroom Tax bill arrived, and Stephanie knew she would have to pay £20 extra a week or find somewhere smaller. So, she sadly packed her bags ready to move, but nowhere suitable could be found. Resigned to her lack of options, Stephanie Bottrill sat down and wrote notes to all her family, dropped her house keys through a neighbour’s letterbox and walked down to Junction 4 of the A6 motorway where she stepped into the path of a northbound lorry and was killed instantly. She had become the first confirmed victim of Iain Duncan-Smith’s ill-advised and hated Bedroom Tax policy.
The notes that Stephanie had left behind were notes of love for her family, beseeching them not to blame themselves for her decision to end her life. She just wasn’t strong enough to carry on, she explained, and nobody was to blame but the Government. Her family have reacted with despair and disbelief that anybody could be driven to such lengths. But really, this tragic event was to be expected. A government that formulates a policy that leaves its most vulnerable citizens with nowhere to turn, no options to lead their lives in peace and security, must expect an outcome such as this. Realistically, as appalling and dreadfully sad as Stephanie Bottrill’s fate may be, she will almost certainly not be the last person to give up on life, to snuff out their own life. In the face of this Government’s callous and uncaring determination to visit all our economic ills on the heads of the poorest and least able to pay, it is horrifyingly likely that the death toll will rise, unless those in power can be persuaded to wake up, and smell the coffee.
It is difficult to imagine a more ill-conceived and irresponsible policy than this notorious and discredited Bedroom Tax. It is a policy that places those least able to cope directly into a Catch-22 situation. Unable to find the extra money levied each week – £20 is a frighteningly large amount out of a meagre weekly income. Unable to move either, because of the lack of suitable smaller properties. What is one to do? Discretionary payments can be applied for, but the budgets for these are laughably small; in practice only those with the very severest of disabilities in the most deprived of circumstances will have any chance of qualifying, and then only for a limited time. Maybe a move to the private sector rental market, but there is no security there, rental contracts are for months, not years. You are simply existing from month to month, or if you’re lucky, from year to year; you’re not living in your own home. Do the politicians who draft these measures, and who live in mansions and never worry where the next meal is coming from, have any real idea of how this might feel? The heat or eat dilemma? The pain of having to move out of a place where your children grew up, somewhere you’ve invested years of your life to make a house a home? Do they have the remotest clue?
It’s equally difficult to speculate as to what the reaction will be of Cabinet Ministers hearing news like this. Will they feel the pangs of conscience? Will they allow doubt to enter their educated and sophisticated heads as to whether these policies are really right? There is absolutely no sign of any such response. The issues confronting the poor, the dilemma of those faced with paying up or shipping out when neither is a feasible option – and there are thousands of people in precisely that situation – are a closed book to people who are in power and yet completely out of touch with the nitty-gritty of everyday life for the most vulnerable in society. That much we can say with confidence; the evidence for it is irrefutable. But an even more worrying question is: do they even care? Does anyone in this Government actually give a damn?
Stephanie Bottrill seems to have concluded, in the face of all the information available to her, that – in undeniable fact – nobody in Government does care. Nobody was prepared to lift a finger to help her in her no-win, zero-options situation. Most of us – fortunately for our peace of mind – cannot imagine the despair, the desperate loneliness and lack of hope that goes hand-in-hand with a conclusion like that. We can only accept that Stephanie’s state of mind, as she made her solitary walk to a death she felt was her only way out, was of a resolve born of her absolute conviction that the Government had abandoned her, careless of her fate, indifferent as to whether she lived or died. She made the awful decision to act on that conviction, alone and with her own indomitable brand of courage. Stephanie chose to abandon the world she felt had given up on her.
Can any of us say with any confidence that she was wrong?