Wednesday, September 11, 2013

It's time for the Liberal Democrats in Government to call for the abolition of the "Bedroom Tax"

Point 1. If anybody says I should call it the "spare room subsidy", that argument was lost months back.

Point 2. An international housing expert representing not just any international organisation, but the UN, for goodness sake, has recommended that the Bedroom Tax should be abolished. And this is not just the Guardian doing its thing. Raquel Rolnik was interviewed on the Today programme and she said that the testimony she had received from hundreds of people and Councils had convinced her that this measure was a retrograde step in the "protection and promotion of human rights to housing". She didn't mince her words:
I was very shocked to hear how people really feel abused in their human rights by this decision and why – being so vulnerable – they should pay for the cost of the economic downturn, which was brought about by the financial crisis. People in testimonies were crying, saying 'I have nowhere to go', 'I will commit suicide'."
This is serious stuff. The correct response to any government at being found wanting by an international organisation is to be mortified. Then they should basically do what is recommended. I was furious in 2011 when Alex Salmond and Kenny MacAskill's reaction to being pulled up by the European Court of Human Rights was to get nasty both about the judges involved and the complainants. I must therefore expect any government that contains Liberal Democrats to react appropriately and do what the Special Investigator recommends. Sadly, the response from the DWP suggests otherwise.
It is surprising to see these conclusions being drawn from anecdotal evidence and conversations after a handful of meetings – instead of actual hard research and data. Britain has a very strong housing safety net and even after our necessary reforms we continue to pay over 80% of most claimants' rent if they are affected by the ending of the spare room subsidy.
Now, I know that Willie Rennie and Michael Moore have done good stuff in securing extra funds to help with the unintended consequences of the measure and they deserve credit for it. I also know that we do need to address under-occupancy. The obvious answer is to build a lot more houses of the right size. That doesn't happen overnight, but it isn't going to happen at all unless we properly put our minds to it.  What is clear, though, is that the Bedroom Tax is the wrong way to go about it. It hits too many vulnerable people.

What is not clear, though, is whether Ms Rolnik looked at the private sector. It's relevant because Housing Benefit funds the rents of people who rent privately. Labour imposed the private sector equivalent of the Bedroom Tax in 2008. I do accept that people in social housing tend to be in greater need and therefore more vulnerable, but too many are being forced into inadequate private sector accommodation simply because they can't get a council house.

The motion up for debate next Monday at Conference suggests a possible way  make Housing Benefit work for tenants in social housing. If Conference passes it, speakers in support should make clear that the Government needs to go back to the drawing board, suspend the Bedroom Tax immediately and come up with a new system along the lines suggested in the motion.

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