PMQs review: Cameron falls into Labour's "bedroom tax" trap

By repeatedly insisting that the "bedroom tax" was not a tax, the Prime Minister gave the phrase new life.

One of Ed Miliband's boldest decisions since becoming Labour leader has been to target the coalition's welfare cuts and today's PMQs saw an all-out assault on the "bedroom tax". For those unfamiliar with the term, it refers to the government's plan to cut housing benefit for those deemed to have more living space than they need, such as a spare bedroom. Social housing tenants with one extra room will lose 14 per cent of their benefit, while those with two or more will lose 25 per cent.  

The government argues that this is another necessary measure to reduce the ballooning housing benefit bill (which is largely due to extortionate rents and substandard wages) but Miliband highlighted the case of a mother with two sons in the army who would lose out while they were away "serving their country". He went on to warn that two-thirds of those affected are disabled (many of whom require an extra room due to their disability) and that it would encourage social housing tenants, "the most vulnerable", to move to the more expensive private sector, wiping out any savings from the policy as the housing benefit bill rises. Miliband also smartly contrasted the Tories' "bedroom tax" with their opposition to a "mansion tax", brandishing a letter from the party to Conservative donors asking them to contribute to a fighting fund against a "homes tax". 

Cameron gave little ground in response, pointing out that there was a £50m fund to deal with "difficullt cases" and bluntly asking why it was fair for social housing tenants to receive money for an extra room when private tenants did not. For a self-described "compassionate Conservative", it was a rather compassionless reply. As Cameron's answers became increasingly ill-tempered, Miliband deftly weaved in a reference to last night's vote on equal marriage: "He shouldn't get so het up. After all, he's got almost half his parliamentary party behind him." Unsurprisingly, the line went down well with both sides of the House. 

The PM's best moment came when he remarked of Miliband: "we know all the things he's against, we are beginning to wonder what on earth he's for?" If Labour is opposed to the "bedroom tax", the "strivers' tax", the "granny tax", the "toddler tax", how would it reduce public spending? Would it introduce a "mansion tax"? Miliband gave the stock reply that "the clue's in the title - Prime Minister's Questions - he's supposed to try and answer them". But this riposte, while acceptable in 2010, is less impressive halfway through the parliament, with Labour MPs increasingly troubled by the perceived lack of policy detail from their leader.

After Miliband had used up his six questions, Labour MPs continued to challenge Cameron over the "bedroom tax" in a well coordinated assault. An increasingly exasperated Cameron repeated that the "bedroom tax" was not a tax but, in doing so, he unwittingly repeated Labour's attack line. Whether the PM likes it or not, when voters hear him refer to the "bedroom tax" that is what they will call it. Across the floor, Miliband and Ed Balls smiled contentedly in response. Their work for the day was done. 

David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street in London, on February 06, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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From war and slavery to prison – life inside an immigration detention centre

David spent five years locked in a house in Britain. Then he spent two years in immigration detention centres. 

Visitors at the immigration detention centre are met by Sid the Sloth, balancing an acorn just as he does in the family film Ice Age. The picture is one of the brightly coloured murals adorning the otherwise bare walls of the visitor's entrance. The lurid paintwork sits in stark juxtaposition to the barbed wire outside, and the metal detector and eight sets of doors which visitors must pass through.

It is a thin veneer which fails to mask a system containing institutionalised abuse from top to bottom. It isn't surprising, then, that one of the conditions of my visit was not to identify the centre - the volunteers I joined fear having visiting rights withdrawn by the company in charge.

Once inside I met Sivan, a 32-year-old Kurdish asylum seeker who came to Britain clinging to the underside of a lorry. He had been tortured by the Turkish authorities. For Sivan the children’s cartoons in the visitor’s entrance held a particularly cruel irony. Detainees at the centre are not allowed smartphones, and with no access to email Sivan’s wife, also a Kurdish asylum seeker, is unable to send her husband pictures of their first child. The couple have not seen each other in the two months since Sivan was detained. That day, in the visitor’s lounge, Sivan saw his son for the first time. Holding photographs of the little boy in his hands, Sivan’s face momentarily lit up as it split with joy and then sorrow.

Sivan does not know when he will be able to see his young family - or if they will ever be able to be together.

Across Britain more than 3,000 people, many fleeing war and torture, are locked up indefinitely in immigration centres. They arrive in Britain seeking refuge. But are shut away in privately-run prisons before being forcibly removed. Often with little or no English, detainees rely on volunteers to help them navigate Britain’s complex immigration system.

At the volunteer hub, which helps 80 of the 500 men in the centre each week, I met former detainees who all had one thing in common: the mental torture that indefinite detention inflicts. Like David, a quiet Ghanaian who has never really been free. He was kept as a slave on a plantation until traffickers brought him to Britain aged 13. Here he spent five years locked in a house, when not being forced to work 14-hour days in a warehouse. He finally escaped only to spend 11 years waiting for his asylum application to be processed - still ongoing despite clear medical evidence of his torture during imprisonment. He has spent two years in immigration detention centres. And as he waits he now has to register his presence with the authorities every Tuesday. He is terrified that when he does he won’t return to his four-year-old daughter, but instead be returned to captivity by the Home Office, without explanation.

Another former detainee Daniel, a tailor from Iran who fled five years ago, spent five months in detention when he first arrived in Britain. He describes being locked up with no time limit as "one of the worst times of my life", and still needs anti-depressants. “It really damaged my mind,” Daniel told me. “You don’t know when the process will be finished and you’re just waiting, waiting. You don’t know what’s going on.”

I heard from detainees who have had medical appointments they have waited months for cancelled because the centre wouldn’t pay for transport. Some kept three in a room with a toilet between the beds. Others woken in the middle of the night to see their friend dragged from their bed and assaulted by guards before being taken for deportation. Detainees employed to clean the centre for an exploitative £3 a day, just to afford necessities like toiletries. Or they stay trapped by fear in their rooms because they are afraid of the ex-prisoners, many who have committed serious crimes, locked up around them. I heard too of solitary confinement used routinely as a punishment for those considered not to be compliant. More than one detainee said immigration centres are worse than prisons. And they are right.

Britain is the only place in Europe which still locks people up with no time limit. Despite the government’s promise to reduce both the numbers - and the time spent there - progress is still far too slow. Last year 27,819 people entered detention. Some have been there more than five years.

Barely a week passes without a new report of violence or suicide or rape or abuse, inflicted on those who came to our country for help. The government should hang its head in shame. The Home Office must stop turning a blind eye to what it must know what is happening to those in its care. It’s clear that this is a broken and barbaric system. After seeing it for myself, I’m more convinced than ever that the use of indefinite detention has to end.

Names have been changed to protect the identities of those interviewed for this article.

Jon Bartley is the co-leader of the Green Party.