Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Labour feel so strongly about the bedroom tax - not

It was an unequivocally aggressive motion put by Labour in the House yesterday:

Rachel Reeves (Leeds West) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House regrets the pernicious effect on vulnerable and in many cases disabled people of deductions being made from housing benefit paid to working age tenants in the social housing sector deemed to have an excess number of bedrooms in their homes; calls on the Government to end these deductions with immediate effect; furthermore calls for any cost of ending them to be covered by reversing tax cuts which will benefit the wealthiest and promote avoidance, and addressing the tax loss from disguised employment in construction; and further calls on the Government to use the funding set aside for discretionary housing payments to deal with under-occupation by funding local authorities so that they are better able to help people with the cost of moving to suitable accommodation.

Yet we now know that, even after Ms Reeves and various other Labour figures criticised minister Iain Duncan Smith for his absence, over forty Labour MPs - including both those for Swansea seats - could not be bothered to turn up to vote.

Moreover, Ms Reeves had dodged a key question put to her in an intervention:

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): Obviously it was the Labour party in government that introduced the bedroom tax—in the private sector. On 19 January 2004, Labour Ministers said:

“We hope to implement a flat rate housing benefit system in the social sector, similar to that anticipated in the private rented sector”.—[Official Report, 19 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 1075W.]

The question for the shadow Secretary of State is, “When did you change your policy?”

It is something that Steve Webb picked up on in his reply on behalf of the government:

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): One of the strangest things in this argument about the private rented sector is that during the passage of the Welfare Reform Bill I never once heard the Government mention it—it is one of those later justifications. The problem is that people in the private rented sector were not suddenly told one day, “Your house is too big; you have to start paying for the extra rooms regardless of whether you can move.” That is a huge difference and the two things are not comparable. If we want to talk about equalising, perhaps we should equalise rents.

Steve Webb: I am interested that the hon. Lady mentions rents, because if we compare private and social tenants, she is saying that social tenants, who already benefit from subsidised rent, should not have to pay for an extra bedroom, whereas private tenants paying a market rent should pay for it. That does not seem fair to me.

In an intervention on the hon. Member for Leeds West, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) pointed out something that has not hitherto been flagged up—Labour’s intention to extend the principle of the local housing allowance to social tenants. Let me quote Hansard from January 2004 when the late Malcolm Wicks stated:

“We hope to implement a flat rate housing benefit system in the social sector, similar to that anticipated in the private rented sector…We aim to extend our reforms to the social rented sector as soon as rent restructuring and increased choice have created an improved market.”—[Official Report, 19 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 1075W.]

Interestingly, the Labour party planned to do that, yet when this Government do it, suddenly it is somebody else’s problem.

John Hemming: From what the Minister has said, the Labour party was quite happy to have a bedroom tax, not just in the private sector but also in the social rented sector as soon as rents had gone up.

Steve Webb: I congratulate my hon. Friend on drawing the House’s attention to the Labour party’s plans. Not only did the Labour party invent the principle of paying for an extra bedroom, it intended to extend it.

There is little doubt that making these cuts when there was little one-bedroom accommodation for those affected to move to has caused hardship, as was recognised by the last Liberal Democrat federal conference. However, one has to ask what Labour did to provide extra social housing when it was in power, especially since the trend towards single-person occupation was already marked early in the Blair-Brown administrations.

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