“The government was to blame.”
It’s one simple, chilling sentence in the suicide note left by Stephanie Bottrill from Solihull early on the bank holiday weekend before the 53-year-old was hit by a lorry on the M6 near her home.
Because of the government’s changes to housing benefit, she had been told that she would have to find an extra £80 per month in rent.
On the face of it this was a classic example of the under-occupancy on which the government is determined to clamp down.
Her children had moved away from the three-bedroom house. She now lived alone so the taxpayer had, in effect, been subsidising her spare rooms.
But the house had been her home for 18 years. She had become increasingly worn down by illness and money worries and the reduction of her housing benefit appears to have been the last straw.
Her tragedy has inflamed still further the argument raging over the government’s welfare changes in general and in particular, over what Labour call “the bedroom tax” and the government call “the spare room subsidy”.
The Department for Work and Pensions say they do not comment on individual cases but in broad terms they are trying to introduce fairness into the system.
Their concept of fairness includes discretionary payments to local councils to help them cushion the effects of the changes for those individuals who find themselves at the sharp end of these measures.
In the West Midlands alone these payments total over £11m.
And when ministers use that word “fairness” (increasingly the major F-word in the debate about benefits as we head towards the next general election) what they also mean is fairness to the general taxpayer.
They point out that the cost to the Exchequer of housing benefit has doubled over the past 10 years. It now stands at £23bn, some £10bn less than the entire defence budget.
Recent opinion polls suggest the government’s benefit changes are broadly supported by two-thirds of the electorate and the more Labour oppose them the more David Cameron is emboldened to ridicule the Opposition.
“It’s supposed to be the Labour Party. But now it’s the Welfare Party,” he declared in a heated exchange with Ed Miliband during a recent session of Prime Minister’s Questions.
But so often the real impact of politics comes not on the floor of the House of Commons but out in what we like to call “the real world”.
Tragedies such as the one that befell Stephanie Bottrill have the potential to cut clean to the heart of a debate that has the potential to intensify still further.