Labour will soon pledge to scrap the bedroom tax, says Scottish welfare spokesman

Jackie Baillie says "you can expect an announcement relatively soon" as Lib Dem Shirley Williams brands the policy "a big mistake".

To date, while stating that it would not have introduced the bedroom tax and condemning its effect on the vulnerable, Labour has stopped short of pledging to repeal the measure if elected. But as I recently reported, it will almost certainly promise to do so before 2015.

The clearest signal yet that an announcement is likely in the near future came today from the party's Scottish welfare spokesman Jackie Baillie. Asked on the BBC's Good Morning Scotland programme whether "a Westminster Labour government abolish the bedroom tax?", she replied:

We are very clear. Labour rejected this approach when it was put to them in government, for social landlords. We have campaigned for its abolition.

Yes we will abolish it. My understanding is that you can expect an announcement relatively soon.

In his recent speech on social security, Liam Byrne described the policy, which reduces housing benefit by 14% for those deemed to have one "spare room" and by 25% for those with two or more, as "the worst possible combination of incompetence and cruelty". He noted that "96% of those hit have nowhere to move to" (which means higher arrears and homelessness) and that it was "costing the public an extra £102.5 million to implement", concluding: "It should be dropped, and dropped now." If Labour can demonstrate that the policy is likely to cost more than it saves, it will be hard for the coalition to object to its potential reversal.

At the Lib Dem conference on Monday afternoon, delegates will debate a motion (Making Housing Benefit Work for Tenants in Social Housing) calling for "an immediate evaluation of the impact of the policy, establishing the extent to which larger homes are freed up, money saved, costs of implementation, the impact on vulnerable tenants, and the impact on the private rented sector." The motion also calls for "a redrafting of clear housing needs guidelines in association with those representing vulnerable groups including the disabled, elderly and children."

Until new guidelines are in place, it argues that there should be no withdrawal of housing benefit from those on the waiting list for social housing which meets the current guidelines and that there should be an exemption for those who "temporarily have a smaller housing need due to a change in their circumstances, but whose need will predictably return to a higher level (e.g. whose children will pass the age limits for separate rooms within that period)".

While Nick Clegg and other Lib Dems ministers have defended the measure on the grounds that it encourages tenants to downsize, freeing up houses for those in overcrowded accomodation (the problem being the severe shortage of one bedroom properties), delegates are likely to back the motion, with a significant number calling for the immediate abolition of the policy. On the fringe, Shirley Williams has just been greeted with thunderous applause after describing it as "a big mistake".

Campaigners protest against the bedroom tax in Trafalgar Square before marching to Downing Street on 30 March 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left