Updated: Sunday, 12th July 2020 @ 9:02am

Salford campaigner on bedroom tax hell: 'I lost a stone in weight as I chose between food and being warm'

Salford campaigner on bedroom tax hell: 'I lost a stone in weight as I chose between food and being warm'

Exclusive by Ben Butler

‘After my mother died the bedroom tax hit and I lost a stone in weight; it was a choice between putting the heating on at night or eating.’

Maria Brabiner’s world turned upside down in June 2005 when suddenly her elderly mum Winny suffered a stroke.

Within months Maria had quit her job at Salford Council and became her mum’s full-time carer in August of that year.

In five difficult years, Winny suffered three strokes and had to endure regular stays in hospital before dying in August 2010.

Devastated Maria was at mum Winny’s side as she passed away aged 91.

Since then, Maria has paid the ultimate price for the spare room her mum left at their council house of 35 years in Lower Broughton, in the form of the Bedroom Tax.

The Carers Allowance Maria received of £57 a week was removed when her mum died.

Then the 48-year old was officially classed as unemployed between February 2011 and July 2013.

During this time, Maria did not receive any housing benefit or Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA) until April 2012, due to the fact she had a lot of savings and didn’t pay full National Insurance contributions under her Carers Allowance.

It was in April 2013 when Bedroom Tax hit Maria, who was living on a bare £71 a week JSA.

Maria, who describes herself as an ordinary lady from Salford says the announcement the Bedroom Tax, which requires housing benefit claimants to downsize and move house, was to be introduced ‘scared her to death’.

“I had the stark choice between either putting the heating on at night or eating.

“Sometimes it was neither as I knew I had to pay the tax.

“My cat also came first”, she said.

On £71 a week, Maria had to pay bills for gas, electricity, council tax, phone, TV, the internet and for food and water, as well as the Bedroom Tax and rent for her council house.

The Bedroom Tax added up to £6.33 a week as Salford Council paid a Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP) of £5 towards the tax, while Maria had to pay £2 a week council tax and £80 a rent month.

“Some people will probably look at it and think are phone, TV and internet bills essential?

“I would say they are as they helped me find a job and get my message out there”, she said.

During the three months Maria was hit by the Bedroom Tax, she lost an astonishing one stone in weight.

Maria tells how her typical day eating consisted of one egg and slice of toast for breakfast, a round of bread with a slice of corned beef for lunch and two fish fingers and chips for tea.

Describing how she managed to survive, Maria, who used to live in a cramped and overcrowded house with no electricity with her mum and brother, said: “I treated it as a war situation.

“The government declared war on its own people so I was going to fight back.

“I said I would tell them to where to go if they tried to move me out of my house.

“One Tory councilor told me to get a lodger; I just reacted in utter disbelief at such a proposal.

“My mum and her generation survived the war by drastically rationing their food and I was going to do the same”, she said.

And it is fair to say Maria certainly does have a lot of fight and defies the unhelpful stereotypes surrounding people affected by the bedroom tax.

From the tender age of 15, Maria did work experience at a factory in Lower Broughton, before becoming an office junior at 16, where she went on to have her own office by the age of 22.

In 2001, the company folded and Maria found herself a job in the Social Services at Salford Council in 2001, where she helped vulnerable people.

It was not until 2005 when Maria gave up her job to care for mum Winny in what she describes as an ‘emotional rollercoaster’.

After seven upsetting years of doing everything for her mum from washing to cleaning, Maria turned to the council for help finding a job in November 2012.

It was at this moment that Maria found out the Bedroom Tax was to sneak through parliament as part of the Welfare Reform Act 2012, an attempt to make the benefits and tax credits system fairer.

Describing her shock at this revelation, Maria, said: “Never in my lifetime did I think such a nasty, vicious and evil piece of legislation would come in through parliament.

“It is worse than the poll tax”, she said.

In desperation, passionate Maria was not prepared to sit back and instead spoke out and was soon invited to an interview with the Salford Star to talk about houses being demolished and the bedroom tax.

After the interview with the Salford Star, Maria soon became a national voice for the Bedroom Tax.

During this year Maria has appeared on Channel 4, the One Show where Labour peer Melvyn Bragg defended her, and ITV Central and Channel 5 news, all before the tax had even been introduced.

It was an appearance on Daybreak that Maria remembers most fondly where she challenged Iain Duncan Smith’s assertion that he could live on £53 a week.

“The bedroom tax condemned me and thousands of others to live on less than that.

“I just had to keep sending emails out to get the message out there of the impacts of the bedroom tax”, she said.

Maria was soon appearing in nationwide protests against the Bedroom Tax in which she was invited to speak out in front of crowds of 800 people in cities such as Birmingham and London.

The speech in Birmingham in June was particularly sobering for Maria as she held up a Daily Mirror article of a woman who took her own life due to the Bedroom Tax.

In May 2013, Maria took part in a People’s Assembly march where she told Labour leader Ed Milliband to wake up the effects of the Bedroom Tax and has also taken part in rallies for the TUC and the first anti-Bedroom Tax rally in Salford in March.

Maria also attended the ‘Benefits for Justice’ meeting in London in May. 

“I had people who thanked me for speaking out,” she said.

“There were people in wheelchairs and the blind at these rallies and they said I was a hero but they’re the real heroes.

“I remember one sobering moment where I advised an elderly lady in Stockport to go to a food bank as she looked ill and her husband was disabled”, she said.

Maria’s activism soon paid off when she was advised at a Trafford Against Bedroom Tax meeting to form her own group.

She soon did and is now the leader of Broughton Against Bedroom Tax, one of a coalition of anti-bedroom tax groups throughout Greater Manchester.

Maria has also been the Vice-president of the No Bedroom Tax group since this summer, where she raises awareness against the Bedroom Tax.

“I simply speak for people who can’t speak,” she told MM

“It is my opinion that the bedroom tax deliberately targets the most vulnerable, the sick and the disabled.

“These governments seem to get some sadistic pleasure out of making the lives of these people a misery”

“The Bedroom Tax needs to be abolished to stop people dying” she said.

Labour councils around Greater Manchester, including Salford Mayor Iain Stewart, have all backed Maria’s cause, while Labour leader Ed Milliband pledged to abolish it in the party’s autumn conference.

Mark Krantz, Campaign Coordinator of NoBedroomTax, said: “Maria was the first to speak out against the Bedroom Tax. Her determination, courage and leadership in the Anti-Bedroom Tax movement has been an inspiration to us all.”

Maria has also revealed she has recently lost her job at a company called Opportunity Network, who she had worked for since July this year, to help children in private and higher education.

She worries about the bedroom tax and how she is going to get by without the work, but insists she will fight like her mum did when bombs dropped on her house in the war.

“The job was my lifeline to eat properly at home and not be hit by the Bedroom Tax.”

“I put on a stone of weight during those four months working.

“At times it has been hard to keep going over the past fortnight as I feel I am another government statistic – just another less person to worry about.

“But I am a glass half full person and have to keep going and fighting for me and cat”, she said.

Maria said she plans to enjoy the festive period having endured it by herself in previous years.

“I will go and see my cousin and enjoy some Christmas dinner,” she said.

“I am a survivor and Northerner and will get through this.”

There is no doubting Maria, a woman who has worked all her life, who cared for her seriously ill mum, and who has fought for the lives of thousands of vulnerable people hit by the Bedroom Tax. 

Not bad for an ordinary lady from Salford who has become the national figurehead for the anti-Bedroom Tax Movement.  

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